Petrov Day 2021: Mutually Assured Destruction?

Pictured Left: Enter launch codes to destroy the EA Forum
Pictured Right: Enter launch codes to destroy LessWrong

Petrov Day

Today we celebrate not destroying the world. We do so today because 38 years ago, Stanislav Petrov made a decision that averted tremendous calamity. It’s possible that an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and USSR would not have actually destroyed the world, but there are few things with an equal chance of doing so.

As a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Army, Petrov manned the system built to detect whether the US government had fired nuclear weapons on Russia. On September 26th, 1983, the system reported five incoming missiles. Petrov’s job was to report this as an attack to his superiors, who would launch a retaliative nuclear response. But instead, contrary to the evidence the systems were giving him, he called it in as a false alarm, for he did not wish to instigate nuclear armageddon.

For more information see 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident

Petrov is not alone in having made decisions that averted destruction–presidents, generals, commanders of nuclear submarines, and similar also made brave and fortunate calls–but Petrov’s story is salient, so today we celebrate him and all those who chose equally well.

As the world progresses, likely many more people will face decisions like Petrov’s. Let’s celebrate in advance that they’ll make good decisions! And if we expect to face decisions ourselves, let us resolve to decide wisely!

Mutually Assured Destruction (??)

The Petrov Day tradition is to celebrate Petrov’s decisions and also to practice not destroying things, even when it’s tempting.

In both 2019 and 2020, LessWrong placed a large red button on the frontpage and distributed “launch codes” to a few hundred “trustworthy” people. A launch would bring down the frontpage for the duration of Petrov Day, denying hundreds to thousands of people access to LessWrong. In 2019, all was fine. In 2020...let’s just say some bad decisions were made.

Yet having a button on your own page that brings down your own site doesn’t make much sense! Why would you have nukes pointed at yourself? It’s also not very analogous to the cold war nuclear scenario between major world powers.

For those reasons, in 2021, LessWrong is teaming up with the Effective Altruism Forum to play a little game of mutual destruction. Two buttons, two sets of codes, and two sets of hopefully trustworthy users.

If LessWrong has trusted launch code recipients poorly, the EA Forum will go down, and vice versa. One of the sites going down means hundreds to thousands of people being denied to important resources: the destruction of significant real value. What’s more it will damage trust between the two sites (“I guess your most trusted users couldn’t be trusted to not take down our site”) and also for each site itself (“I guess the admins couldn’t find a hundred people who could be trusted”.)

For exact rules of the game, see the final section below.

Last year it emerged that there was ambiguity about how serious the Petrov Day exercise was. I’ll be clear as I can via text: there is real value on the line here and this is a real trust-building exercise that is not undertaken lightly by either LessWrong or the EA Forum. Both sites have chosen recipients who we believe we can trust to not destroy each others’ communal resources.

How Do I Celebrate?

If you were one of the two hundred people to receive launch codes for LessWrong or the EA Forum, celebrate by doing nothing!

Other ways of celebrating:

  • You can discuss Petrov Day and threats to humanity with your friends.

  • You can hold a quiet, dignified ceremony with candles and the beautiful booklets created by Jim Babcock.

  • And you can also play on hard mode: “During said ceremony, unveil a large red button. If anybody presses the button, the ceremony is over. Go home. Do not speak.”

    • This has been a common practice at Petrov Day celebrations in Oxford, Berkeley, New York, and in other rationalist communities. It is often done with pairs of celebrations, each whose red button (when pressed) brings an end to the partner celebration.

Rules of the Exercise

The following email was sent last night to 100 users from LessWrong and 100 from the EA Forum:

Dear {{Username}}

I am inviting you to participate in an exercise to determine whether LessWrong can find 100 site members that it can trust under genuine stakes.

I would describe the relationship between LessWrong and the EA Forum as vastly better than the historical relationship between the US and the former Soviet Union. Our two sites cater to slightly different audiences with slightly different content, but ultimately both have shared values: an interest in understanding the world and improving it.

This year on Petrov Day, to prove the goodwill and trust between us, each site is sending out “Nuclear Launch Codes” to 100 members. You have been selected.

If your launch codes are entered into the launch console on LessWrong, they will cause the EA Forum homepage to go down for the duration of Petrov Day. For the rest of the day, thousands of people will have a hard time using the site, some posts and comments will go unwritten, and I’ll have failed in my mission to find 100 people I could trust not to take down our friendly compatriots.

If a code is entered into the launch console, both the owner of the code and the LessWrong account used to submit it will be publicly identified.

LessWrong and the EA Forum both have second-strike capability that will last one hour. In the event that missiles are launched at the LessWrong homepage, we ask that you very carefully consider whether or not it is correct to retaliate (but slips happen after all).

I hope you’ll help us all keep the EA Forum safe, and that they’ll do the same for us.

Your personalized launch code: {{Code}}

Thank you,

PS: The Petrov Day launch console will become visible on September 26th at 8:00 AM Pacific Daylight Time and will remain visible (assuming the site has not been attacked) for 24 hours. The full Petrov Day announcement is here.

To all, I wish you a safe and stable Petrov Day.

Here is the mirror of this post on the EA Forum. You may wish to view it for the discussion there.