Monday, May 28, 2012

A book's question: Will humanity survive?


It is a simple enough question.

Will humanity survive the 21st Century?  Sir Martin Rees places the odds at about 50-50, given our current path.  Who is Rees?  He is the royal professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the author of a book called, Our Final Hour.  The book's been around since about 2003 but it's only recently come onto my radar.

What's going to take us out?  That's a popular question/refrain that I get from the terminally optimistic whenever I bring this cheery subject up.  Oh well.  I see it as my duty to asperse bland conversations with the truth of impending existential demise.  Keeps me from having to go to social gatherings.  But I digress...

Supervolcanoes are threat.  The Yellowstone Caldera is probably the biggest and most potent example of such a catastrophe.  Asteroids, comets, and other space-borne killers are another, but I feel I've dwelt too long on that subject in recent weeks to provide any kind of fresh perspective.  A new, deadly virus is another risk.  So that leaves us with human-caused disasters as catalyst for the end.  Things like nuclear war.  Wars in the name of religious zealotry.  You can find more information at Global Catastrophic Risks, a site backed by Nick Bostrom. 

In his book, Rees apparently places far greater weight on the threat of our own technological advancements getting loose of our control and bringing us to ruin.  Things like robots with artificial intelligence or perhaps nanotech unleashed by terrorists.  As I've always maintained, transhuman advancement is open prey to human nature, but I by no means see a reason to cease development.  While disasters are certainly one potential outcome, we're far more likely to do ourselves in via another self-created catastrophe such as doubling the amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere and raising global temperature past the disaster point.

Here's another kooky thought: what if Rees really is an optimist?  All of the scenarios that he and other "doomsday" analysts have researched are not remote possibilities.  True, the likelihood of any of them coming to pass tomorrow or even one year from now is low.  But we are in danger of all of these things happening.  When you're faced with an array of low-probability scenarios, the likelihood of at least one of them coming to pass is greatly increased. 

Something bad is going to happen.  It's just a question of what and when.  I can only hope that we can put aside human differences and hubris in time to prevent it.  Or failing that, to help as many of each other as we can to survive it.

Now who's being the optimist?




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4 comments:

  1. On Facebook, Dr. Rich said: "Seven billion is a huge number. One percent of that is 70 million. If we can get at least one percent of humanity surviving to the next century, we got it made. No worries here."

    Hubris...

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  2. On Facebook, Dr. Rich said: "Need to recalibrate your sarcasm detector."

    Given that this is textual and you have a well-established habit of terminal optimism, the sarcasm detector doesn't work that well.

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  3. On Facebook, Dr. Rich said: "I will concede both your points. Actually, I'm only half kidding. The Toba supervolcano is assumed to have nearly decimated the human population, much as you described could happen in your blog. The human population was estimated to have been reduced to between 1000 and 10,000 breeding pairs. From this remnant, the human race grew to over 7 billion in 70,000 years. There is a fine line between screwed beyond description and utterly doomed, but that critical difference determines if human history ends or only takes a tragic turn. Given the choice between the two, I'll take a slim hope over zero hope."

    I will likewise concede that as you say, a population of 7 billion would be difficult to wipe out entirely. I once wrote and uploaded a shameless bit of Star Trek fanfic where the Borg took over Earth but couldn't get us all.

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  4. On Google+, Tribal_Gothic said: "I put our odds at 30/40 after I created The Firefly Code - based on hidden meanings in the TV series, Firefly. I am also not very good at math..."

    Math? Bwah-ha-ha! I got a whopping 17% on the math section of the GRE.

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