Nuclear war, climate change, lab-created viruses and out-of-control machines need to be understood, but there are risks to lumping threats together
CALL them the modern horsemen of the apocalypse: nuclear war, climate change, doomsday viruses and out-of-control machines. These are the subjects of the proposed Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), which this week attracted much media attention. “We’re talking about threats to our very existence stemming from human activity,” says Martin Rees, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge who wants to found the centre with philosopher Huw Price and Skype inventor Jaan Tallinn.
These new horsemen map quite readily onto the portrayals of war, famine, pestilence and death. Perhaps that’s because they’re only the latest manifestation of age-old anxieties about the fate of the human race. So is the CSER just the respectable face of doom-mongering?
Events that would entirely eradicate humanity are hard to envisage (New Scientist, 3 March, p 36), but the 20th century saw the advent of technology that could seriously threaten human life as we know it – nuclear weaponry – and the 21st might well see the emergence of more. So the end of the world is now more conceivable than ever – although there’s no particular reason to expect it imminently (garbled Mayan prophecies notwithstanding). And Rees is right to say that we don’t pay enough attention to the huge, rare risks that might bring it about. Setting them out and sizing them up is worthwhile.
But do we need a centre to bring together specialists in such disparate fields? It’s not clear what is to be gained by lumping together, say, nuclear war – whose risks are relatively well understood and contained – and rapacious AI, whose key mitigant may be software design rather than weapons inspections. Why not include genuinely existential natural risks, such as Earth-crossing asteroids? And then there’s the potential for robust climate change analysis to become associated with as yet speculative “Terminator studies”.
We won’t know unless we try it. And the effort might bring fresh perspective to a world full of people who still fret that the LHC will spawn a world-destroying black hole – while they stubbornly ignore the clear and present dangers of climate change.
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