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Date: Mon, 28 Oct 2013 07:16:00 -0400
From: Ruben Safir
Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] the end of all if us
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BBC News Business
24 April 2013 Last updated at 05:42 ET
How are humans going to become extinct?
By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent
What are the greatest global threats to humanity? Are we on the verge of
our own unexpected extinction?
An international team of scientists, mathematicians and philosophers at
Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute is investigating the
And they argue in a research paper, Existential Risk as a Global
Priority, that international policymakers must pay serious attention to
the reality of species-obliterating risks.
Last year there were more academic papers published on snowboarding than
The Swedish-born director of the institute, Nick Bostrom, says the
stakes couldn't be higher. If we get it wrong, this could be humanity's
Been there, survived it
So what are the greatest dangers?
First the good news. Pandemics and natural disasters might cause
colossal and catastrophic loss of life, but Dr Bostrom believes humanity
would be likely to survive.
This is because as a species we've already outlasted many thousands of
years of disease, famine, flood, predators, persecution, earthquakes and
environmental change. So the odds remain in our favour.
And in the time frame of a century, he says the risk of extinction from
asteroid impacts and super-volcanic eruptions remains "extremely small".
Even the unprecedented self-inflicted losses in the 20th Century in two
world wars, and the Spanish flu epidemic, failed to halt the upward rise
in the global human population.
Nuclear war might cause appalling destruction, but enough individuals
could survive to allow the species to continue.
If that's the feelgood reassurance out of the way, what should we really
be worrying about?
Dr Bostrom believes we've entered a new kind of technological era with
the capacity to threaten our future as never before. These are "threats
we have no track record of surviving".
Lack of control
Likening it to a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child, he says the
advance of technology has overtaken our capacity to control the possible
Experiments in areas such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and
machine intelligence are hurtling forward into the territory of the
unintended and unpredictable.
Synthetic biology, where biology meets engineering, promises great
medical benefits. But Dr Bostrom is concerned about unforeseen
consequences in manipulating the boundaries of human biology.
Nanotechnology, working at a molecular or atomic level, could also
become highly destructive if used for warfare, he argues. He has written
that future governments will have a major challenge to control and
There are also fears about how artificial or machine intelligence
interact with the external world.
Such computer-driven "intelligence" might be a powerful tool in
industry, medicine, agriculture or managing the economy.
But it also can be completely indifferent to any incidental damage.
These are not abstract concepts.
Seán O'Heigeartaigh, a geneticist at the institute, draws an analogy
with algorithms used in automated stock market trading.
These mathematical strings can have direct and destructive consequences
for real economies and real people.
Such computer systems can "manipulate the real world", says Dr
O'Heigeartaigh, who studied molecular evolution at Trinity College
In terms of risks from biology, he worries about misguided good
intentions, as experiments carry out genetic modifications, dismantling
and rebuilding genetic structures.
"It's very unlikely they would want to make something harmful," he says.
But there is always the risk of an unintended sequence of events or
something that becomes harmful when transferred into another
"We are developing things that could go wrong in a profound way," he
"With any new powerful technology we should think very carefully about
what we know - but it might be more important to know what we don't have
And he says this isn't a career in scaremongering, he's motivated by the
seriousness of his work. "This is one of the most important ways of
making a positive difference," he says.
This eclectic group of researchers talk about computers able to create
more and more powerful generations of computers.
It won't be that these machines suddenly develop a line in sarcasm and
bad behaviour. But research fellow Daniel Dewey talks about an
"intelligence explosion" where the accelerating power of computers
becomes less predictable and controllable.
"Artificial intelligence is one of the technologies that puts more and
more power into smaller and smaller packages," says Mr Dewey, a US
expert in machine super-intelligence who previously worked at Google.
Along with biotechnology and nanotechnology, he says: "You can do things
with these technologies, typically chain reaction-type effects, so that
starting with very few resources you could undertake projects that could
affect everyone in the world."
The Future of Humanity project at Oxford is part of a trend towards
focusing research on such big questions. The institute was launched by
the Oxford Martin School, which brings together academics from across
different fields with the aim of tackling the most "pressing global
There are also ambitions at Cambridge University to investigate such
threats to humanity.
Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal
Society, is backing plans for a Centre for the Study of Existential
"This is the first century in the world's history when the biggest
threat is from humanity," says Lord Rees.
He says that while we worry about more immediate individual risks, such
as air travel or food safety, we seem to have much more difficulty
recognising bigger dangers.
'Error or terror'
Lord Rees also highlights concerns about synthetic biology.
"With every new technology there are upsides, but there are also risks,"
The creation of new organisms for agriculture and medicine could have
unforeseen ecological side-effects, he suggests.
Lord Rees raises concerns about the social fragility and lack of
resilience in our technology-dependent society.
"It's a question of scale. We're in a more inter-connected world, more
travel, news and rumours spread at the speed of light. Therefore the
consequences of some error or terror are greater than in the past," he
Lord Rees, along with Cambridge philosopher Huw Price and economist Sir
Partha Dasgupta and Skype founder Jaan Tallinn, wants the proposed
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate such threats.
So should we be worried about an impending doomsday?
This isn't a dystopian fiction. It's not about a cat-stroking villain
below a volcano. In fact, the institute in Oxford is in university
offices above a gym, where self-preservation is about a treadmill and
Dr Bostrom says there is a real gap between the speed of technological
advance and our understanding of its implications.
"We're at the level of infants in moral responsibility, but with the
technological capability of adults," he says.
As such, the significance of existential risk is "not on people's
But he argues that change is coming whether or not we're ready for it.
"There is a bottleneck in human history. The human condition is going to
change. It could be that we end in a catastrophe or that we are
transformed by taking much greater control over our biology.
"It's not science fiction, religious doctrine or a late-night
conversation in the pub.
"There is no plausible moral case not to take it seriously."