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TiB 205: Nuclear war is underrated. Cyber war is overrated. Silicon Valley and Science.

Matt’s Thoughts in Between
Matt’s Thoughts in Between
This week: The risk of nuclear war is underrated; the impact of cyber warfare is overrated; the ethnography of institutional innovation in science; and more…

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Avoiding nuclear war
Understandably, there’s a lot of interest in nuclear war right now. If you’re interested in how some of the escalation scenarios might play out, this thread is a good starting point. A crucial question, of course, is how to model Putin as a strategic actor. This thread says he should be modelled as utterly reckless (and indeed has been for years). This one argues that he’s rational and won’t use nuclear weapons. Here’s a good thread on whether Putin can launch nuclear weapons alone. And Foreign Affairs has a fascinating new piece on the entanglement of the Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s nuclear weapons establishment, which “add[s] a religious, apocalyptic twist” to an already troubling picture.
Whatever your evaluation of this situation, it seems likely that we (that is, the ordinary public in the West) have been underestimating the risk of nuclear conflict. Our World in Data has a good recent piece that looks at some of the “close calls” since WW2 and some of the specific risks. It’s worth reading in conjunction with this post from 2019, which argues that “there’s about a 1.1% chance of nuclear war each year, and that the chances of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, in particular, are around 0.38% per year”.
Even if you think that’s on the high side (but how much too high?), it definitely feels as though we’re underinvesting talent and energy in the problem of making nuclear war less likely. Tyler Cowen has a post on the topic this week, with some interesting reader suggestions, and the FTX Future Fund, a new philanthropic foundation I mentioned last week, looks to be interested in funding projects in several related areas. It’s also worth reading the 80,000 Hours careers guide on nuclear security. A grim topic, but as the saying goes, the best time to think about it was decades ago, the second best time is now.
The curious incident of the missing cyber war
One interesting question about Ukraine is why we’ve seen so little impact of cyber warfare (though not zero). A simple answer is that it’s explained by whatever factors explain Russia’s general failure to achieve its objectives (so far), but that seems too easy. Two recent articles (plus this thread - thanks Rowland for the links) suggest a different reason: the mental model that most lay people, including many politicians, have of cyber warfare is just wrong. The first piece, by Ciaran Martin, the former head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, argues that cyber is not about “catastrophic weapons of destruction [but] a still serious but quite different threat of chronic disruption and destabilization”.
Martin argues that the analogues often drawn with conventional military options obscure rather than illuminate. He points to four factors that limit the impact of cyber activity in Ukraine, which he labels:
  • Ease (you can’t just order an attack on a cyber target as you would a physical one; you first need to infiltrate it); 
  • Effectiveness (it’s possible for cyber attacks to have huge real-world impact - see, e.g., Stuxnet - but only the very most potent ones have anything like the consequences of a fairly average “kinetic” operation); 
  • Escalation (in a time of war, it would be clear who had carried out, say, a devastating attack on critical infrastructure and would prompt retaliation); and 
  • Ethics (at least on the Western side, it’s not obvious how an attack could be devastating without unacceptably affecting ordinary Russians)
I’m not sure I quite buy the second two arguments, as they seem to rule out only a narrower set of actions, but the first two are compelling to me.
The second piece, by Lennart Maschmeyer back in January, argues that the practice of cyber-warfare is nothing like the theory. We should think of it, he says, as something more akin to subversion than to warfare. He introduces what he calls the cyber trilemma: you can maximise only one of speedintensity and control. If you want to go fast, you’re limited to systems you can already access and attack with existing tools. If you’re willing to go slower, you face a trade off between intensity (the scale of the impact) and control (its precision). None of that means that the West shouldn’t invest in offensive or defensive cyber capabilities, but it does suggest - as we’re seeing in daily and devastating imagery from Ukraine - that these are no substitute for conventional military firepower.
The quest to make science more like startups
We’ve talked a lot about institutional innovation in science (see, e.g., TiB 134165 and 153). Nadia Eghbal has a new essay on this topic (thanks Sarah for the link) from what I’d describe as an ethnographic perspective. She asks how and why did the culture of tech, and particularly of Silicon Valley, inform how the founders and funders of new institutions thought about the problems they wanted to solve and the solutions they proposed? And how might the distinct culture of crypto shape new efforts in the space? It’s one of the best things I’ve read on this theme and made me think a lot; I highly recommend it.
One way of framing Eghbal’s thesis is that starting in around 2011 there emerged a group of people who have been successful in startups and are motivated to make science more like startups in certain important dimensions*. Specifically, they have sought more focus on attracting and supporting top science talent; more emphasis on “bringing research to market”; and more change outside the existing system. The essay is a great walkthrough the evolution of these theses, from attempts to fund hard science startups; through experiments like Fast Grants; to recent new instutitions like Astera, Arc and New Science.
We’ve talked before about the ways in which the consumption and philanthropic preferences of the crypto-rich seem quite distinct from those of people who generated wealth in conventional tech and finance (see TiB 156 and 203). My argument has been that crypto-native wealth prefers to deploys capital within crypto ecosystems. Eghbal describes how this is happening in science funding too:
The crypto approach, on the other hand, is to create a native funding system for public goods, so that participants can generate wealth through the development of public goods themselves
Again, I recommend the whole thing, both as a guide to the specifics of what’s happening in science-related institutional innovation, and as a reminder of the value and limitations of analogy (here, science :: startups) in driving new ideas.
*To be clear, I think this is a good thing, at least as one approach to science funding, and my read is that Eghbal does too
Quick links
  1. Ukraine round up: Stunning video of Russia’s 40 mile convoy from the air. What one FSB agent thinks about the war. A Russian perspective on the medium-term impact of sanctions.
  2. Your wish is my command? Impressive example of the progress of AI-generated imagery.
  3. Love is all around us. How does economic development change romance literature? Interesting study.
  4. Who would stay and fight? Striking polling data on what Americans would do in event on an invasion.
  5. Pandemics can last a long time. HIV is still responsible for >25% of deaths in South Africa. Sobering chart.
The bit at the end
Thanks for reading Thoughts in Between. Please do share it if you like it. And follow me on Twitter.
As ever, please feel free to reply if you have comments, questions or suggestions.
Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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