GCR News Summary May 2016

Shinzō_Abe_and_Barack_Obama_shaking_hands_at_the_Hiroshima_Peace_Memorial_ParkPresident Obama and Prime Minister Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial image courtesy of Pete Souza/The White House

President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, just a little more than one month after Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest ranking US official to visit the city where the US detonated a nuclear weapon at the end of World War II. Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, but did not apologize for the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Japanese President Shinzo Abe said that because Japan was the only country to be hit by a nuclear weapon, it had a “a responsibility to make sure that terrible experience is never repeated anywhere”. Obama told an audience that included survivors of the bombing that “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

Nine states from nuclear-weapon-free-zones submitted a proposal to the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament (OEWG) in Geneva for multilateral negotiations on a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons. Similar proposals were made by the 127 endorsers of the ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), among others. The OEWG is set to meet for a third time in August to agree on recommendations to the UN General Assembly. None of the states that currently have nuclear weapons took part in the meeting.

Gregory Kulacki warned in a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report that the US and China are “a few poor decisions away from starting a war that could escalate rapidly and end in a nuclear exchange”. Kulacki wrote that there is a risk of war between the two countries because 1) they are both preparing for eventual conflict; 2) they do not trust one another; 3) they do not communicate well enough about strategic issues; and 4) they both see the risk of war differently. According to The Guardian, China may soon send nuclear-armed submarines into the Pacific to give it a second-strike capability against the US that is not vulnerable to attack and could evade US missile defenses. “As long as both sides remain committed to pursuing technical solutions to their unique strategic problems, they are condemned to continue competing indefinitely,” Kulacki wrote in the report. “But stalemate is not a stable outcome; rather, it is a perpetual high-wire act.”

At its first Party Congress in 36 years, North Korea announced that developing its nuclear arsenal is its highest priority. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he would “permanently” defend the state’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but also said that North Korea was a “responsible nuclear weapons state” and would not used them unless it is threatened by other nuclear powers. 38 North said that commercial satellite images of the Sinpo South Shipyard suggest that North Korea is working on the production of ballistic missile submarines, although it is unlikely that it could have a ballistic missile submarine operational before 2020.

A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on legacy systems in the federal government noted that the Department of Defense runs the Strategic Automated Command and Control system on an IBM Series/1 computer from the 1970s. This system coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers. The system uses 8-inch floppy disks that store just 80kb of data (a modern flash drive can hold millions of times more data). Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now essentially obsolete.

April was the seventh month in a row to break global temperature records. It beat the previous record for April by the largest margin ever. NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt said that if historical patterns continue, 2016 is more than 99% likely to be the hottest year ever. The global spike in temperatures is due in part to an unusually strong El Niño weather system, which exacerbates the long-term trend of rising temperatures. Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science said that the margins by which temperature records are being broken put the possibility of keeping global warming under 1.5°C (2.7°F) in doubt. “The 1.5°C target, it’s wishful thinking,” Pitman said. “I don’t know if you’d get 1.5°C if you stopped emissions today. There’s inertia in the system. It’s putting intense pressure on 2°C.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) experts at a public workshop sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab largely agreed that AI is still a long way from the human brain’s flexibility and ability to learn. Panelists said that the increasing ubiquity of AI systems in everything from smartphones to weapons systems nevertheless presents new challenges, but that superintelligent AI was too far off to pose an imminent threat to the human race. OSTP Deputy Chief Technology Officer Ed Felten said that “The A.I. community keeps climbing one mountain after another, and as it gets to the top of each mountain, it sees ahead still more mountains.”

In an Arxiv paper, Federico Pistono and Roman Yampolskiy described how it would be possible to design a malevolent AI (MAI) (Yampolskiy is an Associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute). Pistono and Yampolskiy argue that it is important for AI safety researchers to understand how an MAI could be created deliberately so that they can prevent that from happening, in much the same way that it helps cyber security experts to have ethical hackers identify infrastructure vulnerabilities. Pistono and Yampolskiy said that one way to create an MAI would simply be to invert some of safety measures found in the AI literature, by, for example, designing an AI to engineer its own infrastructure or to hack other computers to increase its own processing power. They also argued that it would be easier to build MAI on closed-source proprietary software and hardware, even though open-source AI development might enable for more people to try to design MAI. “It is well known among cryptography and computer security experts,” Pistono and Yampolskiy wrote, “that closed-source software and algorithms are less secure than their Free and Open Source (FOS) counterpart, they are more prone to vulnerabilities, exploits, deliberate or accidental malevolent use.”

In an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), a group of doctors, scientists, and bioethicists called for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games to be moved because of the Zika outbreak. The group noted that Rio de Janeiro has the second-highest number of probable cases of any state in Brazil. Although there are reasons to think the number of new infections will fall with mosquito activity during Rio’s winter months of July to September, Rio appears to be undergoing a surge in mosquito-borne diseases. WHO issued a statement saying that based on its current assessment “cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus”. But in the Harvard Public Health Review, Amir Attaran noted that “All it takes is one infected traveler: indeed phylogenetic and molecular clock analyses establish that Brazil’s cataclysmic outbreak stems from a single viral introduction event likely between May and December 2013. A few viral introductions of that kind, in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster.”

A report commissioned by the government of the UK found that antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bacteria could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 and cost the world $100 trillion in lost production between now and then. The report called for 1) a global campaign to educate people about the problem of AMR; 2) increased incentives to develop new antimicrobial drugs; 3) a reduction in the use of antibiotics in humans and animals; and 4) a reduction in the use of antibiotics in agriculture. A World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) report found that 110 of 130 countries surveyed did not have comprehensive legislation on the import, manufacture, distribution and use of veterinary antimicrobial agents. The OIE report argued that the use of antimicrobials could also be lowered by developing vaccines that would reduce the need for antimicrobials in animals.

Bacteria carrying the MCR-1 gene that makes them resistant to antibiotic of last-resort colistin were found in the US for the first time, in a urine sample taken from a woman at a Pennsylvania clinic and in a sample taken from a pig intestine. “You need lots of different pieces to get a result that is resistant to everything,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Beth Bell said.  “This is the last piece of that puzzle, unfortunately, in the United States. We have that genetic element that would allow for bacteria that are resistant to every antibiotic.”

This news summary was put together in collaboration with Anthropocene. Thanks to Tony Barrett, Seth Baum, Kaitlin Butler, Matthijs Maas, and Grant Wilson for help compiling the news.

For last month’s news summary, please see GCR News Summary April 2016.

You can help us compile future news posts by putting any GCR news you see in the comment thread of this blog post, or send it via email to Grant Wilson (grant [at] gcrinstitute.org).

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