Threats to humanity more dangerous than Covid-19

Threats to humanity more dangerous than Covid-19

Andrew Anthony writes:

According to [moral philosopher Toby] Ord, the period we inhabit is a critical moment in the history of humanity. Not only are there the potentially disastrous effects of global heating but in the nuclear age we also possess the power to destroy ourselves in a flash – or to at least leave the question of civilisation’s survival in the balance.

Thus Ord believes the next century will be a dangerously precarious one. If we make the right decisions, he foresees a future of unimaginable flourishing. If we make the wrong ones, he maintains that we could well go the way of the dodo and the dinosaurs, exiting the planet for good.

When I speak to Ord over Skype I remind him of the unsettling odds he awards humanity in this life-and-death struggle between our power and our wisdom. “Given everything I know,” he writes, “I put the existential risk this century at around one in six.”

In other words, the 21st century is effectively one giant game of Russian roulette. Many people will recoil from such a grim prediction, while for others it will fuel the anxiety that is already rife in society.

He agrees but says that he has tried to present his modelling in as calm and rational a fashion as possible, making sure to take into account all the evidence that suggests the risks are not large. One in six is his best estimate, factoring in that we make a “decent stab” at dealing with the threat of our destruction.

If we really put our minds to it and mount a response equal to the threat, the odds, he says, come down to something more like 100-1 for our extinction. But, equally, if we carry on ignoring the threat represented by advances in areas like biotech and artificial intelligence, then the risk, he says, “would be more like one in three”.

Martin Rees, the cosmologist and former president of the Royal Society, co-founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge. He has long been involved in raising awareness of looming disasters and he echoes Ord’s concern.

“I’m worried,” he says, “simply because our world is so interconnected, that the magnitude of the worst potential catastrophes has grown unprecedentedly large, and too many have been in denial about them. We ignore the wise maxim ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.” [Continue reading…]

Comments are closed.