This post is the second half in our Future of Humanity series. The post is not a traditional RTU-style piece but follows on logically from the previous, now focusing on the anthropogenic risks that face our species i.e. those facing humans, caused by humans. The non-anthropogenic risks described in the previous posts were risks pertaining to far larger timescales than those discussed today. Here it is reasonable to think about the mentioned risks and their development over the next hundred or so years.
The first is artificial intelligence (AI). AI has seen huge advancements in recent years, with possible revolutionary developments on the near term horizon. A term used in the field of AI is ‘super-intelligence’, hypothetical cognitive performance possessed by an agent that far surpasses that of the brightest human minds. It is a contentious issue, somewhat even a philosophical debate, as to whether the level of present-day human intelligence could be attainable or even surpassable by AI. Some argue that the lack of human consciousness would prevent AI ever being able to rival a human level of sophistication in their thought. However, others argue that the advantage of perfect recall, a digital knowledge storage base and the ability to multitask gives AI powerful potential to displace human beings.
Another term in the field of AI is ‘semi-autonomy’ or ‘autonomy’, whereby agents develop the ability to make independent choices, not directly fed as prior inputs from their creators. The line from independent choice to independent values is a fuzzy one. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has written that possible super-intelligent AI would be able to realise any goal they ‘valued’. Therefore, even if such AI were not actively malicious towards humans, should human activity block the realisation of their goals, Bostrom believes they would work towards the removal of such a barrier. A 2008 survey by the Future of Humanity Institute estimated a 5% probability of extinction by superintelligence by 2100.
Bioengineered organisms are those whose genetic sequences have been artificially modified in some way. These could be pathogens of humans, livestock or crops on which we depend. Due to these genetic alternations, such organisms could have the potential to catastrophically disrupt ecosystem functions or be the cause of pandemics. For example a bioengineered pathogen of crops could have the potential to cause a global blight on essential agriculture. Remember the state of Earth in Interstellar? Alternatively, a bioengineered human pathogen could cause a pandemic more infectious or fatal than that yet seen by humanity. With technological developments in genetic modification increasing and laboratories with advanced biological equipment becoming commonplace, there must exist regulations to safeguard biotechnology.
As Martin Rees, a British cosmologist and astrophysicist said “The global village will have its village idiots, and they’ll have global range”.
Overpopulation and Environmental Disaster
The 20th century has seen an exponential increase in human population. Whether the planet can cope with humanity’s ever increasing demand on its resources is becoming a serious question. The increasing need for energy, food and infrastructure puts an alarming demand on what are finite supplies. Agricultural crises, not due to pathogens but simply over demand, have been speculated to come to the forefront of humanity’s problems shortly after 2050. You don’t have to have watched many post-apocalyptic movies to then imagine the ensuing wars over remaining scarce resources. David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology at Cornell University published a study which stated that, in order to avert disaster, the world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds…
The increasing demand on the planet from humanity, resulting in massive deforestation, eradication of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, water and air pollution could be putting Earth on a path to eventual inhabitability. The Lancet Commission has warned that pollution levels are now at the point of exceeding “the envelope on the amount the Earth can carry” and “threaten the continuing survival of human societies”. The subsequent effect of global warming and the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events and weather-related disasters paint a dark picture for the future life on our planet, should we not take substantial action.
Warfare and mass destruction
The last of our anthropogenic risk is probably the most dismaying, mutual destruction. Sadly, despite our loneliness in the cosmos, we are not yet a collective species. Much divides humanity, political ideologies, religion, wealth, to name a few. Although a war that results destruction on a global scale is low, some argue it is inevitable in the long run unless we become a truly united species. In 2008, the Future of Humanity Institute estimated a 4% probability of extinction from warfare by 2100, with a 1% chance of extinction from nuclear warfare.
These anthropogenic existential risks, that now exist due to the state of advancement humanity has reached, could provide a potential explanation to the Fermi Paradox. The paradox as to why, when considering the vastness of the universe that we inhabit, we seem completely alone. That explanation being, that perhaps civilisations reach a level of advancement that results in their own destruction, before they develop the capability to colonise other planets or acquire the sense in enough numbers to do what is necessary to protect their species on whatever planet they call home. This is a rather pessimistic thought, condemning not only our species but any potential species to be its own worst enemy. I recently read an interesting paper that argued that the Fermi Paradox should in fact not be regarded a paradox at all. It is argued that the calculation that presents the probability that we are surely not alone, is inherently wrong in its formulation. The paper is titled ‘Dissolving the Fermi Paradox’ can be found here. I may revisit the paradox, that I originally wrote about back in 2016, in light of it soon.
As for now, although this post may have filled you with doom and gloom, it need not be so. Discussing existential risk today helps us think about the measures that need to be taken to best safeguard humanity’s tomorrow. Planning for the worst, puts us on the path to realising the best.