September 21, 2020

'Two minutes' for the end of the world | Science

'Two minutes' for the end of the world | Science

Humanity is in danger. Not even in the most alarming moments of the Cold War was the world closer to the abyss. This is what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ensures, a group of experts created to warn humanity of the risk of self-determination. For this they created a symbolic clock, the Clock of the Apocalypse, which shows the minutes that remain until midnight, that is, the end of the world. Last year they placed the hands at 23:58, so we were two minutes from the end. And nothing has improved since then, on the contrary, so it remains exactly the same. Never in its 72 years of history the minute hand was closer to midnight: in 1953, in full evidence of Soviet and American thermonuclear weapons, it was also two minutes away. If 99.9% of all the species that have existed on Earth have been extinguished, it seems logical to think that this is the inevitable future of humanity. Because as Carl Sagan said: "The rule is extinction, survival is the exception".

Warming, political instability, risk of nuclear war, disinformation … Humanity is living a "perfect storm", as indicated by Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, who recalled that since 2007 climate change was included as a serious risk for humanity that demanded an "urgent and immediate" response. "It seems we are normalizing a very dangerous world," added Bronson. "We are playing Russian roulette with humanity," said Jerry Brown, former governor of California and executive director of the Bulletin.

In the diagnosis of the group, of which 15 Nobel prizes are part, begins by talking about two main threats, global change and atomic weapons: "They were aggravated last year by the increasing use of information warfare to undermine democracy throughout the world, expanding the risk of these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger. "

These fears were unimaginable until the middle of the 20th century, when the great superpowers began to play with fire. It was then when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was created to warn humanity of the risk of self-determination. In the placid years of the 1990s it became 17 minutes from 0.00 hours, but since 2011 it has not stopped approaching midnight. 23:55 in 2014, 23:57 in 2015, 23:57 and 30 seconds in 2017 … Until 1947, when this body was created, humanity had no way to completely destroy itself.

"Impetuous leaders, intense diplomatic disputes and regional instabilities combine to create an international context in which nuclear dangers are too real"

However, there are quite a few factors that could trigger the destruction of human civilization. Historically it has been feared, fabulated and fantasized in innumerable with the end of the world, or of humanity. But how are the risks that lurk now? They can be ordered in many ways: natural and of human origin, involuntary and deliberate, that cause the complete extinction of humanity or that return us to the caverns …

The four human riders

At this time, there are four main threats that threaten us and that are behind humans: a nuclear catastrophe, climate change, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The risks of conflicts with atomic weapons and global warming have been detailed in the diagnosis of the Clock of the Apocalypse: "Impetuous leaders, intense diplomatic disputes and regional instabilities combine to create an international context in which nuclear dangers are too real."

For many specialists, artificial intelligence also poses a significant risk, in case it ends up developing beyond human interests. And not just submitting: even wanting to serve our purposes could be terrible. The specialist Nick Bostrom speaks of a "perverse" obedience that would also end up subjugating us and gives as an example an artificial intelligence that was asked to provide happiness to all people and that responded by implanting electrodes in the pleasure centers of our brains. That is why they demand that their development be monitored, although we are still far that machines make that leap in their capabilities that allow them to adapt to any circumstance to make decisions for themselves.

Experts include biotechnology and genetic engineering, increasingly accessible, among the future threats

Experts also include biotechnology and genetic engineering among the future threats. The revolution of genetic editing with CRISPR allows doing anything with living organisms. And the worst of these new technologies is that their capabilities grow exponentially together with how easy and accessible their use is. In addition, there is no way to put doors to the field, as the case of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, when creating the first babies genetically modified against any legal or ethical limit. "Whatever the imposed regulation, for prudential or ethical reasons, it could never be fully applied in the whole world, nor can the anti-drug laws or the tax laws." Anything that can be done will be done by someone, in some way. And that is deeply scary, "says Phil Torres, author of Morality, foresight and human prosperity. An introduction to existential risks (Pitchstone).

Natural catastrophes … or not

Despite the imminence of these risks, specialists warn that we should not underestimate the natural and environmental hazards. Not even those of us who still do not know about nature, such as the fearsome supervolcanoes, a threat practically unknown until three decades ago. However, we now know that a supereruption that took place 70,000 years ago caused the closest thing to a nuclear winter, putting the sapiens on the verge of becoming an ephemeral species on Earth.

The Spanish flu ended at a stroke with tens of millions of lives, smallpox devastated up to 75% of the Aztecs in some regions, the Black Death killed between 11% and 17% of the population of the entire planet. In such a globalized world, a serious unknown epidemic would have the capacity to become a planetary problem, as the penultimate Ebola crisis showed.

Besides, as the Gauls said, we must watch that the sky does not fall on our heads. There are too many potentially dangerous asteroids and comets that we do not have located. And it's something that's going to happen: every half million years, the Earth is hit with some space rock a kilometer in diameter, dimensions that could be catastrophic.

The possible existential risks for humanity can be caused unintentionally, derived from ignorance, formidable mistakes or unexpected situations

Wrong and ignorant

"Thus, both societies and smaller human groups can make catastrophic decisions through a series of sequenced reasons: the impossibility of foreseeing a problem, the impossibility of perceiving it once it has occurred, the inability to be ready to resolve it. Once it has been perceived and the failure in attempts to solve them, "writes Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. Specialists also warn of the possible existential risks caused unintentionally, that is, derived from ignorance, formidable errors or unexpected situations.

For example, by bad governance (as could happen if climate change and biodiversity loss were ignored), or a wrong decision, such as undertaking a major planetary geoengineering intervention with terrible and unforeseen consequences. Many of these risks can only be possible trigger factors: when we stumble on the first step of the ladder, what we fear is not a slight loss of balance, but continue to fall step after step until we break our necks, as Bostrom says in his book Global catastrophic risks (Oxford University Press).

"We can not reap the benefits of science without accepting some risks (…) All technology is dangerous in its early stages.In our increasingly interconnected world, there are new risks whose consequences could be global," writes Bostrom in that same text. For example, the threat of drawing the attention of an extraterrestrial civilization that erases us from the map. That is what led Carl Sagan to criticize the emission of signals from Earth to other worlds as "profoundly impudent and immature." Because he preferred that we be the exception of the rule of terrestrial species.


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