Apocalypse Soon?

KEITH WYNROE explains why an apocalyptic disaster is not as unlikely as we might think

apocalypse catastrophe existential risk explosion Hollywood

What if evil supercomputers aren’t just the stuff of sci-fi? Should we actually be worrying about Armageddon?  News coverage is pretty notorious for sensationalising and fear-mongering. Whether it’s another list of 15 household items that might possibly cause cancer or hysterical speculation in the wake of natural disasters, it seems like there isn’t a story the media hasn’t exaggerated, hyped up and bled dry. So surely if we were really being faced with the end of the world we’d be sick of hearing of it by now?

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What if this actually happened?

Yet according to a Cambridge-based research project The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), we, as well as the mainstream media, are ignoring issues which have the potential to prove catastrophic. The Centre was founded by the unlikely dream team of Astronomer Royal and ex-president of the Royal Society Lord Martin Rees, philosopher Huw Price and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, and is committed to investigating the risks posed by the growing power of our technology and our dependence on it.

According to many scientists, the technological advances of recent years provides a tonne of possible “extinction-level risks” to add to the familiar hot topics of global warming and nuclear winter. From Hollywood-worthy backfirings of AI, robotics and nanotechnology, to the more conspicuous worries of biotechnology, drug-resistant pandemics and cyber-attacks, there are enough threats to our survival to warrant a serious look into the possible downsides of our advances.

These kinds of concerns fit in with a general trend towards a less reckless and short-sighted society. The recession has reminded us for now that economies need to be more carefully managed and monitored. The World Meteorological Organisation and the Hyogo Framework for Action are both pushing for more sustainable and resilient responses to natural disasters. Even global warming is seeing increased attention according to Al Gore, who has dubbed disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan “wake-up calls” for many sceptics.

But, the worries of CSER might seem a bit too much for most people to take seriously. Sci-fi has got us warping these scenarios into fantasies full of CGI and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even ideas that weren’t a million miles from reality, like the Y2K bug, are still pretty laughable to most people.

Just something that happens in Hollywood?

Just something that happens in Hollywood?

Is this really fair? Those involved realise it might all be a bit hard to buy into, but argue that this should not stop us from at least considering what may prove to be legitimate concerns. After all, avoiding these high-impact, low-probability events would yield as much ‘expected pay-out’ as avoiding some low impact, high-probability events, such as food contamination.

The point is that we simply have no idea what the world will look like, even in the not too distant future. Advances in everything from healthcare to infrastructure are occurring so rapidly that it’s likely that the biggest issues for our descendants in 100 years’ time will be completely different from ours. We can see this historically, and advancements are only speeding up. The difference is that we only now have the capacity for creating catastrophic and irreversible damage on a global scale, and to not even consider the worst-case scenarios is pretty stupid.

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Do you buy it? The founders of CSER are giving a public lecture on Wednesday at 5:30 to make the case themselves:Existential Risk: Surviving the 21st Century“. All the data points towards a low risk of boredom.