How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists – a father and son – basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.
It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.
People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.
Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.
Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.
Looking back and saying “Things have been fine so far, why worry?” is not satisfactory. We’ve only recently acquired technologies that can quickly and easily kill vast numbers of us while compromising the viability of the Earth (if only temporarily), and new more powerful technologies (that have huge upsides too) are on the horizon. Also, because of a kind of anthropic principle, we know that if we’re sitting here saying “Nothing too bad happened before”, it means we’re still alive to think about it; we’re a biased sample.
If we play our cards right, our technology can help us deal with environmental problems while being used to immensely reduce suffering around the world (cures for more diseases, including those of aging, bringing more people out of poverty, etc).
But even if we succeed on that side, we can’t ignore natural disasters. As we become longer-lived individually, and stick around as a species, this increases our chances of being victims of a super-volcano or an asteroid striking the Earth. The dinosaurs didn’t get wiped out because of bad luck, they stuck around for about 160 million years so something was bound to happen sooner or later…
We need to design active and passive defense mechanisms against those threats (the details of those are a whole other post, but you can read something I wrote a while ago about deflecting Earth-bound asteroids), as well as make our human civilization more robust. Leaving all our eggs in the same basket for too long is dangerous. I expect that eventually space colonization will become feasible. Not necessarily other planets at first, but maybe giant space habitats made from raw materials harvested from the asteroid belt. With sufficiently advanced nanotech, this wouldn’t be out of the question.
But in the short-term, what matters is understanding the risks better and raising awareness.
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For more on global catastrophic risks, see:
- The Book: Global Catastrophic Risks edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic
- The Lifeboat Foundation
- The Foresight Institute (working for the “beneficial implementation of nanotechnology”)
- The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (trying to steer AGI research towards “Friendly AI”)
Photo: From upcoming movie based on The Road. Source: IMDB.