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Berkeley Risk and Security Lab

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The Berkeley Risk and Security Lab (BRSL) is a new research institute at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, focused on the study of existential threats from frontier military technologies. Founders Pledge has provided $1.86 million in seed funding to launch the Lab.

As we embark on this new initiative on the flagship campus of the University of California, we are delighted to engage with Founders Pledge to shape a program at the nexus of emerging technologies and frontier security challenges with existential consequences. — Prof. Andrew Reddie, BRSL.

Rapid advances in science and technology have the potential to positively shape the future, or to spawn catastrophic risks to humanity. At Founders Pledge, we are especially interested in understanding, forecasting, and mitigating risks related to great power conflict, artificial intelligence (AI), biosecurity, and in the governance of these and other emerging technology risks.

If managed inappropriately, the applications of frontier technologies in military contexts — both dual-use technologies and technologies designed for military use — could lead to a loss of human control and emergent effects with potentially devastating results. As one scholar explains, the multinational pursuit of technological superiority “is like loading increasing numbers of bullets into increasing numbers of revolvers held to the head of humanity.”

BRSL is a new research institute at UC Berkeley that will study these risks. The Lab’s researchers will seek to answer key questions about the future of international security, including, but not limited to:

  • What effect will emerging technologies have on the future of war and peace?
  • How might the impact of these technologies be complicated by a new era of strategic competition between superpowers?
  • What steps can governments take to mitigate the risks posed by autonomous technologies used in a military context?

"Today, we are facing an increasingly challenging set of national and international security challenges — made more complicated by the emergence of technologies that are clearly dual use but that might have catastrophic consequences for the nation and the world writ large. Working with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and academics, BRSL and the broader university campus are focused on addressing these challenges as they arise. It is for this reason that we are excited to create a Lab on campus to address these issues."
-Sec. Janet Napolitano.

We recommend BRSL as a high-impact organization because of their research focus on risks from frontier military technologies, their track record of collaborating with key stakeholders on policy-relevant questions surrounding large-scale risks, their organizational strength, and their ability to shape academic and policy debates in positive ways:

  • Research focus — BRSL’s research agenda seeks to study emergent risks from frontier military technologies, a topic that we believe remains both neglected and highly important.
  • Track record — Although BRSL is a new organization, scholars affiliated with the Lab have experience working with relevant stakeholders on key questions for the future of humanity, including:
  • Organizational strength — BRSL will enjoy a unique position in the University, housed within the Center for Security in Politics and with a dual affiliation between the Goldman School of Public Policy and the School of Information. The Lab will be led by Berkeley’s Professor Andrew Reddie along with the following Faculty Directors, whose experience in policy debates we believe will positively shape the Lab’s chances of success:
    • Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, former President of the University of California System and member of President Biden’s Intelligence Advisory Board;
    • Michael Nacht, national security expert and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs;
    • Chris Hoofnagle, Faculty Director, Berkeley Center for Law & Technology and author of Law and Policy for the Quantum Age.
  • Policy influence — After speaking with experts and evaluating BRSL researchers’ prior work and influence and their affiliated faculty, we believe that work coming out of BRSL is unusually well-placed to help shape policy debates in positive ways.
  • Ability to place promising scholars in high-impact careers — BRSL is in part a field-building intervention, and we expect its ability to place alumni in positions in the U.S. government, the National Laboratories, and leading technology companies to foster a new generation of experts on these risks and maximize their impact.

"While new and emerging technologies offer important benefits, they also pose novel risks for international peace and security. Managing and mitigating these risks requires innovative and forward-looking policy responses. The Berkeley Risk and Security Lab is a timely and pertinent initiative in this direction, leveraging UC Berkeley’s multidisciplinary academic excellence to develop new analytical tools and methods of scholarly inquiry to answer some of the most pressing questions of the 21st century regarding the future of war and peace."
-Robin Geiss, Director, United National Institute of Disarmament Research.

BRSL is one of the few non-governmental organizations focusing explicitly on emergent risks from advanced military technologies, and will work specifically on several of the interventions we highlight in our report on military AI applications, including AI-NC3 integration, other risks to strategic stability, and the potential for confidence-building measures as an AI governance mechanism.

Moreover, as the Lab will be housed within Secretary Napolitano’s Center for Security in Politics, we believe that the organization will have a strong institutional home with high-level support at the University and within the University of California System. BRSL affiliates were very transparent and responsive in interactions with Founders Pledge. To evaluate this opportunity, we also spoke with experts from the defense and national security communities about the proposal.

Finally, we believe that the Lab will not shy away from criticizing government programs where appropriate, as demonstrated, for example, by Reddie’s work on the hypersonic missile “arms race,” which criticizes policymakers for exaggerating and misunderstanding trends in hypersonic weapons capabilities. We believe this is a significant advantage that the Lab enjoys over peer institutions that rely on government funding, like federally-funded research and development centers.

Although we do not currently recommend further funding beyond the $1.86 million Founders Pledge has committed, we believe that BRSL could absorb significantly more funding in future years.

Christian Ruhl, Applied Researcher at Founders Pledge, will be serving on the External Advisory Board of BRSL to help ensure the organization stays true to its mission.


About the author

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Christian Ruhl

Senior Researcher & Global Catastrophic Risks Fund Manager

Christian Ruhl is an Applied Researcher based in Philadelphia. Before joining Founders Pledge in November 2021, Christian was the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania's global affairs think tank, where he managed the research theme on “The Future of the Global Order: Power, Technology, and Governance.” Before that, Christian studied on a Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship at the University of Cambridge for two master’s degrees, one in History and Philosophy of Science and one in International Relations and Politics, with dissertations on early modern submarines and Cold War nuclear strategy. Christian received his BA from Williams College in 2017.