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Catastrophic risks to humanity studied by researchers in summer fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge

Young researchers and students from around the world have spent the summer in Cambridge developing the skills they will need for careers to tackle potentially catastrophic risks to humanity and life on Earth.

Set up by Trinity College student Nandini Shiralkar, the two-month fellowship programme was completed by individuals from the UK, US, France, Netherlands, Dubai, Israel, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Trinity College student Nandini Shiralkar with The Existential Risk Alliance (ERA) Cambridge fellows. Picture: Trinity College
Trinity College student Nandini Shiralkar with The Existential Risk Alliance (ERA) Cambridge fellows. Picture: Trinity College

They learned about existential risk, or x-risks, such as those posed by extreme climate change, transformative AI, future pandemics and nuclear weapons.

“When people think about global risks, they don’t think about the tail end of such risks, where the entirety of humanity stands on the brink,” says Nandini. “Even if there’s a small chance of that happening, it’s so significant that there should be people working on it.”

The Existential Risk Alliance (ERA) Cambridge Fellowship was designed to equip young researchers and entrepreneurs with the skills, knowledge and networks they will need to develop careers in the field.

The 31 ERA fellows worked in Cambridge on their individual research projects, participated in a bespoke events series, discussed ideas with their peers and engaged with experts developing ways to mitigate extreme threats to humanity.

Nandini secured funding for the paid programme from the American foundation Open Philanthropy and based the programme on the CERI Summer Research Fellowship, which she founded during the pandemic.

More than 600 people applied to join the fellowship and those chosen ranged from undergraduates and aspiring PhD students to early career researchers, with experience in areas such in policy making, business and the non-profit sectors, as well as academia.

In their submissions, applicants outlined their research projects and, if accepted, worked with a research manager before the fellowship began to refine their idea and identify a suitable mentor, typically a more senior researcher in the field.

X-risk topics the fellows researched included climate-tipping points, novel AI architectures and the global landscape of catastrophic biological risk.

Some will go on to publish their research although that is not the main aim of the programme, which Nandiini says is intended as “a hub for building a community among peers who share a common mission”..

She added: “What I hope they get out of their eight weeks in Cambridge is that they become more impactful researchers. I want to help them cultivate skills such as reasoning transparency, effective goal setting, articulating well-reasoned arguments, and prioritising based on impact.

“Impact is central to everything we do at ERA. Research shouldn’t just exist in an academic journal somewhere; it should lead to something changing in the world for the better. To that end, each fellow is assigned a research manager and mentor to offer advice, help resolve any issues and ensure their research progresses.”

Moritz von Knebel was one of seven ERA research managers and said:”‘ERA has provided a blueprint of what a successful talent pipeline and mutually beneficial researcher-mentor relationships can look like.”

Mortiz added: “I have been impressed by Nandini’s hard work and dedication to the fellowship, and by her strategic leadership. At the same time, she has been very warm and approachable. She has brought an open and appreciative culture to ERA and embodied a type of leadership I find myself (involuntarily) modelling at times.”

One of the fellows, Jack O’Doherty, who is researching US nuclear weapons strategy for his PhD at the University of Leicester, described the fellowship as “a tremendous opportunity”, adding: ‘By cultivating an inclusive and diverse research space, and through choreographing an insightful series of seminars and events, the fellowship offers a unique avenue for memorable networking and consequential research output,”

Aris Richardson, a psychology graduate of University of California, Berkeley, said the fellowship had “significantly fast tracked my path into AI governance”.

Aris added: “It has given me the time and legitimacy to speak to experts and produce formal research outputs. These interviews and outputs have clarified my thinking about semiconductor supply chains and international regulation on software.”

ERA fellow Ram Eirik Glomseth, an undergraduate studying international relations and French at the University of Sussex, said: “I have been surprised by how senior researchers in my field have been more than willing to advise me and discuss my project and put me in touch with other experts to fill relevant gaps in my research.

“This has been extremely helpful to help me maximise the potential impact of my research project and has further integrated me into the community of researchers in my field.”

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