Incident 27: Nuclear False Alarm

Description: An alert of five incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles was properly identified as a false-positive by the Soviet Union operator Stanislov Petrov.


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Alleged: Soviet Union developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed All Life on Earth.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
Report Count
Incident Date
Sean McGregor

CSET Taxonomy Classifications

Taxonomy Details

Full Description

On the night September 26, 1983, a false report of five American intercontinental ballisic missiles was registered at a Soviet military base. Stanislov Petrov was working the night shift at Serpukhov-15 when a warning of the first missile came through, carrying the highest level of confidence in its reporting. Knowing the technology was new and rushed into use, Petrov phoned his superiors but did not call for a counterstrike. The alerts continued to come in until the system reported five incoming ICBM's from the United States that would strike in approximately 12 minutes. Several factors dissuaded Petrov from calling for a counterstrike: the newness of the technology, the unrealistically high confidence level, the low amount of missiles reported (a real first attack would have been many more), and the fact radar had not picked up any incoming objects. The satellite Oko system had incorrectly identified the light reflecting off high-altitude clouds above North Dakota to be the glare of launched missiles. After 23 minutes of waiting, Petrov felt comfortable confirmed this had been a false positive. The story was first reported publicly in 1998.

Short Description

An alert of five incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles was properly identified as a false-positive by the Soviet Union operator Stanislov Petrov.



Harm Distribution Basis


AI System Description

Oko satellite imaging meant to collect image input and determine the likelihood of those images containing evidence of missile launch

System Developer

Soviet Union

Sector of Deployment

Public administration and defence

Relevant AI functions


AI Techniques

Oko satellites, image recognition

AI Applications

Early warning system


Soviet Union

Named Entities

Soviet Union, Oko, United States

Technology Purveyor

Soviet Union, United States

Beginning Date


Ending Date


Near Miss

Near miss



Lives Lost


Infrastructure Sectors


Data Inputs

Geospatial Satellite Imagery

GMF Taxonomy Classifications

Taxonomy Details

Known AI Goal

Threat Detection

Potential AI Technology

Satellite Imaging

Known AI Technical Failure

Data or Labelling Noise, Limited Dataset, Black Swan Event

Potential AI Technical Failure

Generalization Failure

The Man Who Saved the World

The Man Who Saved the World


A "variant" is an incident that shares the same causative factors, produces similar harms, and involves the same intelligent systems as a known AI incident. Rather than index variants as entirely separate incidents, we list variations of incidents under the first similar incident submitted to the database. Unlike other submission types to the incident database, variants are not required to have reporting in evidence external to the Incident Database. Learn more from the research paper.

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