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New report: “The Asilomar Conference: A Case Study in Risk Mitigation”

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Today we release a new report by Katja Grace, “The Asilomar Conference: A Case Study in Risk Mitigation” (PDF, 67pp).

The 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA is sometimes cited as an example of successful action by scientists who preemptively identified an emerging technology’s potential dangers and intervened to mitigate the risk. We conducted this investigation to check whether that basic story is true, and what lessons those events might carry for AI and other unprecedented technological risks.

To prepare this report, Grace consulted several primary and secondary sources, and also conducted four interviews that are cited in the report. The interviews are published here:

The basic conclusions of this report, which have not been separately vetted, are:

  1. The specific dangers that motivated the Asilomar conference were relatively immediate, rather than long-term. These dangers turned out to be effectively nonexistent. Experts disagree as to whether scientists should have known better with the information they had at the time.
  2. The conference appears to have caused improvements in general lab safety practices.
  3. The conference plausibly averted regulation and helped scientists to be on better terms with the public. Whether these effects are positive for society depends on (e.g.) whether it is better for this category of scientific activities to go unregulated, a question not addressed by this report.