Petrov Day

Today, 31 years ago, the human species nearly came to an end. Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov  was the officer on duty in bunker Serpukhov-15 near Moscow, monitoring the Soviet Union early warning satellite network. If notification was received that it had detected approaching missiles the official strategy was launch on warning: an immediate counter-attack against the United States. International relations were on a hair trigger: just days before Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been shot down by Soviet fighter jets, killing everybody onboard (including a US congressman). Kreml was claiming the jet had been on a spy mission, or even deliberately trying to provoke war.

Shortly after midnight the computers reported a single intercontinental missile heading towards Russia.

Petrov had the choice of notifying his superiors, in which case a nuclear war would likely ensue. But he also knew the system was possibly unreliable and that a single missile was an unlikely first salvo. He kept cool, reported it as a false alarm and waited. As the minutes went by, the Soviet launch options also dwindled. The missile disappeared. Then four new appeared. He dismissed them too – rightly, as it eventually turned out that the real cause was reflected sunlight on high altitude clouds.

It is easy to romanticize the situation and turn Petrov into a individualist hero, saving humanity by going against orders and not being recognized until decades later. The importance of the situation is easily graspable and has a main character facing a tense choice: there is drama there. One can also tell the story as an engineer understanding the limitations of his infrastructure and taking a prudent decision: he was just doing an important job right.  Can somebody who takes no action even be a hero? Or mention the numerous other close calls that were averted without some named actor.

The exact details do not matter as much as what the incident symbolises. Sometimes individual human actions can matter for the entire species. It might be rare, but when it happens the moral responsibility is enormous, perhaps more than what we can expect any human to bear. We should be deeply grateful to people who show integrity and skill in such situations: they may need and certainly deserve our support afterwards. In fact, we ought to publicly and collectively pre-commit to this so that any new Petrov would feel more confident that he or she will be embraced afterwards (if there is an after).

There is also another important realisation: we are collectively building or endorsing institutions that may be as risky as the 1983 Soviet Union nuclear system. It might not make much of a villain – a faceless set of devices, routines, strategy and people following orders – but the fact that collective decisions and actions had produced a system that could launch nuclear holocaust due to a trick of light should disturb us. Avoiding such Molochs is essential for the survival of humanity, and a very hard problem.

Thanks to Petrov we have a chance to work on it.

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2 Responses to Petrov Day

  • Hedonic Treader says:

    Now, if only humanity uses its survival for good rather than evil. We have yet to find out what horrors will exist in the Big Future because the world was not destroyed in 1983.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      Yes, if one is very pessimistic about the future it might seem a good thing for humanity to be wiped out. Another possibility is to think the tails of the outcome distribution are so extreme that there is no statistical expectation: things could turn super-good, but they could also become so awful that it would have been better to be wiped out. If one weighs the bad as more important, then even in this limit it might be good to not get the extreme future.

      However, if one thinks we can do something about the future, then avoiding getting killed is a good thing. Maybe one can make a future so great that it is worth the past.


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