ASTK18262U Thinking the Unthinkable: From Black Swans to Existential Risks

Volume 2019/2020

Security Risk Management

Political Science students: Limited intake

SRM students have priority



This course is an introduction to the emerging interdisciplinary field that explores catastrophic and existential risks; those events that have very large, in some cases planetary, consequences but of which we have very limited understanding regarding their likelihood or even regarding their existence. They range from a malicious or accidentally harmful use of nanotechnology to terror attacks involving nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, from risks associated with a superintelligent AI to catastrophic climate change. They include both “black swans”, a term popularized by N.N. Taleb, low probability – high impact events that nevertheless remains short of ending human civilization to existential/catastrophic risks that could spell the end of human civilization or even humankind.


Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford), Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge), and Future of Life, among others, pioneered the research and thinking about the unthinkable more systematically in the last decade.  Building on their work, through lectures, guest lectures, and in-class exercises we will explore these catastrophic and existential risks, how to study “the unknown unknowns”, how humanity can plan/prepare for them, and the ethical/normative dimensions of existential risks.


There will be an in-class workshop/simulation exercise that will be developed in cooperation with Global Catastrophic Risk Institute as a part of the course. 

Learning Outcome


  • Understand the most important issues regarding and methods of studying existential risks.
  • Acquire knowledge of recent developments in the field of catastrophic and existential risk.
  • Reflect on the usefulness and future-development of different methods of studying existential risks



  • Describe the main catastrophic and existential risks that humanity faces today.
  • Evaluate different methods of identifying and studying existential risks.
  • Analyze different catastrophic and existential risks humanity faces today.
  • Assess prevention and mitigation measures aimed at existential risk events.



  • By using the knowledge and skills acquired during the course, the students will be able to analyze, assess, and formulate prevention and mitigation measures that increases the humanity’s probability of survival in the face of catastrophic and existential risks.

A combination of articles and book chapters including chapters from the following books will be assigned:


N.N. Taleb. The Black Swan. 2007


Nick Bostrom (ed). Global Catastrophic Risk. 2008


Phil Torres. Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. 2017


A full list of readings will be provided in the beginning of the semester.

Lectures, guest lectures, class discussions, and in-class exercises including workshops and simulations.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Total
  • 28


Oral feedback during class and office hours.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Free assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assesment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner