Can we survive?

By Steve Connor

Some of Britain's finest minds are drawing up a "doomsday list" of catastrophic events that could devastate the world, pose a threat to civilisation and even lead to the extinction of the human species.

Leading scholars have established a centre for the study of "existential risk" to present politicians and the public with a list of disasters that could threaten the future of the world as we know it.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal and past president of the Royal Society, is leading the initiative, which includes Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge cosmologist, and Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientist.

The group also includes the Cambridge philosopher Huw Price, the economist Partha Dasgupta and the Harvard evolutionary geneticist George Church. Initial funding has come from Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype.

"Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole," says a statement on the group's website.

Rees said in his closing speech to the British Science Festival in Newcastle yesterday that the public and politicians needed the best possible advice on low-risk scenarios that might suddenly become reality, with devastating results.

"Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth," Rees told the meeting.

"But we are less secure than we think. It seems to me that our political masters should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened - events that could arise as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis, but which could cause world-wide disruption."

Professor David Spiegelhalter, an expert in risk at Cambridge University, said our increasing reliance on technology and the formation of complex interconnected networks was making society more vulnerable.

"We use interconnected systems for everything from power to food supply and banking, which means there can be real trouble if things go wrong or they are sabotaged," Spiegelhalter said.

"In a modern, efficient world, we no longer stockpile food. If the supply is disrupted for any reason, it would take about 48 hours before it runs out and riots begin.

"Energy security is also an issue, as we import much of our fuel from abroad, so a conflict over resources in the future is possible."

According to Rees, the threat of nuclear war was the main global risk last century, but in the fast-developing 21st century there are new concerns over risks such as deadly bioterrorist attacks, pandemics accelerated by global air travel, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and artificially intelligent computers that turn hostile.

"In future decades, events with low probability but catastrophic consequences may loom high on the political agenda," Rees said. "That's why some of us in Cambridge - both natural and social scientists - plan, with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere, to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these existential risks, and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones."

The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is so far a loose coalition of scholars but Rees hopes this year to announce major funding and a more detailed programme of research.

"Our goal is to steer a small fraction of Cambridge's great intellectual resources, and of the reputation built on its past and present scientific pre-eminence, to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future," the centre states on its website.

Rees, who has written popular science books on 21st century threats to humanity, said the organisational aspect of the centre was still being finalised but he hoped to have this clarified by the end of the year.

"The response we've had to our proposal has been remarkably wide, and remarkably positive. The project is still embryonic but we are seeking funds via various sources and have strengthened our international advisory network," he told the Independent.

There was a need for a more rational approach to the low-risk events that could have devastating consequence because politicians tended to think of short-term problems and solutions while the public was in denial about scenarios that had not yet happened, he said.

"The wide public is in denial about two kinds of threats: those that we're causing collectively to the biosphere, and those that stem from the greater vulnerability of our interconnected world to error or terror induced by individuals or small groups.

"All too often the focus is parochial and short term. We downplay what's happening even now in impoverished, far-away countries and we discount too heavily the problems we'll leave for our grandchildren."


The end? Disaster scenarios

Cyber attacks - One of the biggest threats is some kind of attack on the computers controlling the electricity grids around the world. Loss of electrical power would have immediate and possibly severe consequences if it could not be restored quickly.

Bioterrorism - Large infrastructure is required to build and deliver nuclear weapons, but genetically engineered harmful microbes or viruses could be developed in a relatively simple laboratory.

Food shortages - The modern food industry is based on "just in time" delivery with little or no stockpiling. Failure of the information networks controlling this could quickly lead to shortages and food riots.

Pandemics - The increasing mobility of the human species makes it more likely that a new, emerging infection could quickly spread around the world via air travel before a vaccine is developed to combat it.

Malign computers - Some experts fear that increasingly intelligent computers may one day turn "hostile" and not perform as they were designed.

Runaway climate catastrophe - Climatologists fear that, as the climate is polluted with increasing quantities of carbon dioxide, it may pass a tipping point after which feedback effects cause it to get warmer and warmer.


Risk assessors: The distinguished panel

Martin Rees - Lord Rees of Ludlow is emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge. Rees is the astronomer royal, a former president of the Royal Society and master of Trinity College.

Huw Price - The Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge. He is a fellow of the British Academy, a fellow and former member of Council of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a past president of the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

Jaan Tallinn - An Estonian software programmer and co-founder of Skype. Tallinn provided the seedcorn money to set up the centre for the study of existential risk. He is an academic adviser to the Estonian President.

Stephen Hawking - Probably the world's most famous living scientist. A cosmologist and author of the best-seller A Brief History of Time, Hawking is an adviser to the centre. He has stated his concerns about the demise of the human species.

Robert May - Lord May of Oxford is a former government chief scientist and past president of the Royal Society. His specialties include studying the spread of infectious diseases and the rate of species extinction.

- Independent

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