ABC CANBERRA BREAKFAST WITH ADAM SHIRLEY
FRIDAY, 22 SEPTEMBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Catastrophic risk
ADAM SHIRLEY (HOST): Well, there’s perhaps a one in six chance of a species-ending event, according to MP for Fenner and Assistant Minister in the Federal Government, Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, good morning to you.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, CHARITIES, COMPETITION, AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning, Adam.
SHIRLEY: I must admit, reading about your contention and the way you've kind of gathered this information together, I did get a few don't look up vibes. I'm a bit worried.
LEIGH: Well, the movies really are where we think about these catastrophic risks, aren't they? Whether it's The Matrix, Terminator, Waterworld, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner or all the pandemic movies. All of them have talked about these disaster scenarios. But curiously, in politics, we don't tend to pay much attention to seismic events. We focus on risks of bad things rather than catastrophic things. I don't want to argue that this is the likely state of the world, but Toby Ord, the Oxford philosopher, says there's a one in six chance of a species-ending event over the next century. And that strikes me as a figure that's way too high, which we ought to put more energy into reducing. So, I'm speaking at the Effective Altruism Conference in Melbourne this evening and talking about some of the catastrophic risks, the Four Horsemen, as I'd call them and what we might do to reduce them.
SHIRLEY: On a serious note, a lot of the coverage about the coming summer we might well face and the clear impact of climate change on it. So, I wonder the importance, the value even on people's psyche of raising this possibility at the event you're speaking of tonight.
LEIGH: I think it's important to talk about Adam, because this isn't just our generation we're talking about, we're talking about all the future generations to come. In some sense, humanity is just getting started. It’s 300,000 years since modern humans first walked the planet, and the sun doesn't go out for another billion years. So, there is the potential for some 30 million generations of future humans to come, which is compared to just 10,000 generations we've had around so far. When we're talking about catastrophic risk, we're talking about not just us, but about all the future generations of humans to come. So, if we can do more to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, of nuclear warfare, of pandemics and of artificial intelligence gone wrong, we'll not only serve our generations well, but all those future generations too.
SHIRLEY: How accurate do you reckon that stat of one in six chance of a species ending event? I mean, depending on how we behave and how we go about things.
LEIGH: Look, these figures are all fairly speculative, but we've certainly seen a range of near misses in terms of nuclear war. We know that in the area of bioterrorism, it could be possible through gain-of-function research, to find a bug which is as contagious as measles, but much deadlier. And then if you look at artificial intelligence risk, probably the biggest of all, the median AI researcher says there's a 5% chance it could spell the end of humanity. I don't know another technology that we've had people working on where they thought there was a 5% chance of it ending humanity. That's the very experts who are developing AI that are saying that. So, we need to do more in terms of putting guardrails around that, so we get all the great benefits of artificial intelligence without the species ending dangers.
SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh is the Federal member for Fenner and he's with us on ABC Radio Canberra, with, on the face of it, what seems like some rather sobering, even concerning future telling. On the other side of that, at eight minutes to nine, Dr. Leigh, how do we take this information and try and be positive or constructive about it?
LEIGH: Well, here's the optimistic case that I made in a book a couple of years ago called What's the Worst That Could Happen? Humanity, because we're just getting started, will go on and do amazing things. Look at what we've achieved in just 10,000 generations and imagine what we could then do in millions of generations. The good we could do for one another, the generous societies we could set up, the amazing art we could produce, the way in which we bring lives of meaning and value into existence. All of that is possible so long as we don't end the species. So, this is, in some sense, our legacy to the next generation is taking that one in six catastrophic risk and dialling it down to zero. So humanity is able to not only survive, but thrive.
SHIRLEY: And I suppose you mentioned pandemics, you mentioned those sorts of threats as well. Obviously, in the current day and age, there is now this Federal Government inquiry into the COVID-19 response. Kathy, for one amongst a few who is calling, wanted to know about your response to the new inquiry announced and whether, I guess, the terms of reference, the way it's going to review what was done and how it was done, is going to be sufficient for us to be better in future.
LEIGH: Look, I think it'll be right, Adam. It really was a judgement call the Prime Minister and the Health Minister made about the scale of the inquiry. COVID was a seismic shock to Australia and there were things that were done wrong. So, just two years ago, we were running near last in the OECD for our vaccine rollout. There's also been some 20 COVID inquiries conducted and so we're not starting afresh in this. People like Peter Shergold have led thoughtful inquiries looking at aspects of COVID. So, this is a one year inquiry with three eminent Australians running it that will look to draw the lessons of what the Commonwealth did. Obviously, there'll be evidence around the States and Territories. They'll have opportunities to make submissions. The primary focus, though, is a Commonwealth inquiry looking at the Commonwealth response.
SHIRLEY: We'll see what constructive information can come from it. Dr. Leigh. We'll leave it there for now. Thank you for your time.
LEIGH: Real pleasure, Adam. Thank you.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is speaking at the Effective Altruism’s EAGx Conference tonight. It's big picture stuff might be concerning at first blush, but Dr. Leigh argues it also is a call to act and to act better. Adam Shirley with you on ABC Radio Canberra.