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H/F Tackling Existential Risks with Complex Systems Approaches

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General information

Reference : UPS3611-DAVCHA-008
Workplace : PARIS 13
Date of publication : Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Scientific Responsible name : David Chavalarias
Type of Contract : PhD Student contract / Thesis offer
Contract Period : 36 months
Start date of the thesis : 1 October 2020
Proportion of work : Full time
Remuneration : 2 135,00 € gross monthly

Description of the thesis topic

Statement of the Problem

Discarding pessimistic millenarianism, one notices that the secular belief that humanity will go extinct is pretty new. This general idea appeared with Malthusianism and Charles Darwin's Evolution Theory, but its first tangible occurence rather occurred in early 20th century, when the agricultural yields reached an alarming level, just before the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process. Fifty years later, tensions between USA and USSR arrived at a critical level. The Doomsday Clock was set at two minutes to midnight. This hour has not been topped until 2020, when it has been moved forward to hundred seconds to

If the old Cold War tensions seems to have somewhat softened, 21st century has seen many other threats appear or grow: terrorism, pandemics, climate change, energy crisis, financial and economic crises. As the gestion of nuclear weaponry issue has still not been handled satisfyingly, some researchers already state theirs concerns regarding the advent of an Artificial General Intelligence [1]. Others worry about the development of affordable DNA 3D-printers, as the Ebola virus genome can be found freely online. The risks that humanity will face during this century are numerous, and we could very well live in a "unique time of perils" [6, 7]. The value of the stakes is stressed by philosopher Nick Bostrom, who defines an existential risk as "one that threatens to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or to reduce its quality of life (compared to what would otherwise have been possible) permanently and drastically" [2]. The importance of their study thus comes less from their high likeliness than from their potential dramatic impact [4].

If we are now able to measure some of these risks (NASA has for instance set up a program for tracking huge asteroids), this ability is mainly restricted to natural risks. They are the least dangerous a priori, since they were unable to make humanity go extinct for the last 200'000 years. The most alarming risks today are the anthropogenic ones. However, they are also the hardest to study, as they require a good understanding of human societies, technological developments, and of the coupling between the economy and the environment. These topics are all about complex systems [5].

This thesis project is based on the hypothesis that in order to tackle the complex problem of existential risks, complex system-oriented approaches are necessary. It is this type of approach that this thesis will aim to develop in an inter-disciplinary way: historical analysis to identify the qualitative properties common to various civilizations on the edge of collapse [3, 8], moral philosophy to study the value of future lives and epistemology (e.g. Fermi paradox, anthropic principles). These qualitative approaches will be coupled with quantitative approaches (game theory, agent simulations, network analysis) in order to characterize the degree of stability of our societies, in particular by questioning their response to unforeseen exogenous events [9]. This modelling will have to take into account both the levels of correlation between different societies and between different risks.

As always when looking at complex systems, we will rely on an inter-disciplinary perspective. An historical overview will help us underline some common qualitative properties of various civilizations on the edge of collapse [3, 8]. Due to the particular nature of this topic, ethics (e.g. to examine the value of future lives) and epistemology (e.g. anthropic principles, Fermi paradox) are mandatory. Using networks and game theories, we will in-
vestigate the level of fragility of our societies, by examining their response to exogenous random events [9]. This model shall integrate correlations, both between various societies and between various risks.

In order to propose tangible policies for mitigating these risks, we will study the emergence and influence of social institutions. We hope that most of our results will be naturally extendable to global catastrophes which, without causing human extinction, are sufficiently bad and widespread to have a terrible short-term impact. We will give a particular look to long timescale risks, as "This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper."

Indicative Bibliography
[1] Nick Bostrom. Superintelligence. Dunod, 2017.
[2] Nick Bostrom and Milan M Cirkovic. Global catastrophic risks. Oxford University
Press, 2011.
[3] Jared Diamond. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin, 2005.
[4] Jean-Pierre Dupuy. Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l'impossible est certain. Le
Seuil, 2009.
[5] Claudius Gros. Complex and adaptive dynamical systems. Springer, 2010.
[6] Derek Parfit. On what matters, volume 1 & 2. Oxford University Press, 2011.
[7] Carl Sagan. Pale blue dot: A vision of the human future in space. Random House
Digital, Inc., 1997.
[8] Joseph Tainter. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge university press, 1988.
[9] Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable, volume 2.
Random house, 2007.
[10] Chavalarias, D., From inert matter to the global society - Life as multi-level networks of processes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2020.

Work Context

The thesis will be conducted under the supervision of David Chavalarias (DR CNRS, HDR) at the Institut des Systèmes Complexes de Paris Île-de-France (ISC-PIF,, CNRS, Paris 13eme) and the Centre d'Analyse et de Mathématiques Sociales (CAMS, EHSS, with a location at the ISC-PIF. The student should have skills in systems modeling (mathematics and computer science) as well as training, or at least an appetite for social sciences and philosophy.

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