Friday March 27th… Dear Diary. The main purpose of this ongoing blog will be to track United States extreme or record temperatures related to climate change. Any reports I see of ETs will be listed below the main topic of the day. I’ll refer to extreme or record temperatures as ETs (not extraterrestrials)😉
Main Topic: Top Ten Existential Threats To Humanity… Where Do Pandemics And The Climate Crisis Rank?
Dear Diary. Now that COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet we need to ask the question whether or not this disease will significantly affect the long term health of the human race. COVID-19 could potentially kill millions just like the Spanish Flu back in 1918 but will probably not put a significant dent in the worldwide population of about eight billion human beings. Loosing thousands and perhaps millions of people to this bug will be quite devastating though, particularly if we know those who are lost, or if we personally get sick, even if we survive the infection.
Also, the economic ramifications of COVID-19 are just beginning to be felt. A worldwide depression may kill more than the disease itself and will definitely detrimentally affect quality of life should economics go way south for a prolonged period of time. Just today the U.S. Congress passed a two trillion dollar aid package that will help, but due to our prior deficit shortfall our economy may be substantially hurt going forward because of this action and more to come.
If we come up with say a top ten list of existential threats to our species where might a bad pandemic like COVID-19 stand? I’ve spent the morning looking at lists made up by various writers who in the last few years have ranked species ending threats from top to bottom. It’s interesting how varied these can be and where the climate crisis and pandemics rank. This one from 2018 I am in basic agreement with:
The Top 10 Existential Risks to Humanity
An existential risk is a man-made or natural disaster of such devastating consequence that either 1) all human life on earth is lost or 2) modern civilization is destroyed/altered to an extent that mankind is unable to fully recover. The second scenario does not necessarily require the eradication of all or even most homo sapiens. A qualifying example might be the ascendance of a global government that enslaves 99% of humanity. Or an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to manipulate humans on a subconscious level thereby stripping us all of our free will – an actual existential risk not easily dismissed by many serious thinkers who work in the field of AI.
Existential risks can also be categorized as man-made (anthropogenic) or natural. An example of a natural existential risk is a large asteroid crashing to earth – a scenario introduced into popular culture in the movie Armageddon. More worrisome to the scholars who analyze these risks however, are the increasing numbers and seemingly increasing probabilities associated with anthropogenic existential risks. The unfortunate reality is that however concerned you are about the future of humankind, you are almost certainly not scared enough. The greatest theoretical physicist of our generation, Stephen Hawking, estimated that we have a mere 100 years to begin colonization of planetary bodies other than earth or face extinction. The following are the top 10 existential threats that should be keeping you up at night the longest.
10. Asteroid Hit
There is a 100% chance that a large asteroid body will someday crash into earth with devastating consequence. We just don’t know exactly when. Most (perhaps all) of the great mass extinctions that have occured in the planet’s history have been the result of an impact event. Fortunately, impact events of this magnitude are rare. Unfortunately, governments have done little in the way of preparation for such an eventuality. Still, detection methods for NEO’s (near earth objects) have improved and the technology does exist which, if implemented properly, could avert disaster. And so, due to the infrequency of significant impact events and due to the fact that technology will likely soon deliver methods to avert harm, an asteroid hit is probably not going to be the cause of the demise of the species. But we are just getting started……
9. Alien Invasion
This one is depressing. Any civilization that has the ability to traverse the galaxy to earth would be so far ahead of human technologically that their powers would appear god-like. Forget “War of the Worlds” nonsense you’ve seen in movie theaters. If advanced extra terrestrials decide to come visit with mal intent there is precious little anyone could do to defend against them. A reasonable argument can be made that our only defense is not to be seen in the first place. A contentious scientific debate is currently being waged against active SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Active SETI is the attempt to send messages into space with the purpose of initiating dialogue with extra terrestrials. History teaches us that whenever advanced civilizations have come into contact with more primitive ones it is almost always to the detriment of the latter. (Think American Indians and Europeans). Detractors of active SETI have likened it to the folly of placing a crying babe in the wilderness – and we are the baby.
8. Experimental Technology Accident
Ever heard of Fermi’s Paradox? Legendary physicist Enrico Fermi postulated that considering the size and age of the universe there should be millions of alien species inhabiting the galaxy….so where are they? This contradiction between what is expected verses what is observed has come to be known as Fermi’s Paradox. One possible explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that once civilizations reach a certain point in their technological development they invariably destroy themselves. Before the first atomic bomb was detonated some scientists feared that the resulting explosion might catch the atmosphere on fire. More recently, when the (LHC) Large Hedron Collider was built in Geneva Switzerland, critics were concerned that particle acceleration collision experiments conducted there might create miniature black holes that would swallow the planet. Fortunately, in both cases, it appears concerns were misguided. But these experiments were done precisely because we weren’t 100% sure what would happen. Is it possible that there is a planet destroying physics experiment lurking in our future?
It is difficult to overstate how reliant civilization is on computers. A sophisticated and successful cyberattack on the digital networks that run the modern world would be devastating. Governments, Energy, Transportation, Agricultural, Communications and Banking Systems would fail and a world wide collapse would likely ensue. Few people who have become accustomed to 21st century lifestyle would be prepared mentally or physically for such a scenario. Global population would plummet. Unfortunately, the threat is growing. According to a report by the World Ecomomic forum 2018, “Offensive cyber capabilities are developing more rapidly than our ability to deal with hostile incidents.”
6. Global Pandemic
In the middle of the 14th century a global pandemic killed an estimated 1/3 to 2/3’s of the people in Europe. It took nearly 200 years for the world to recover to it’s prior population level. The disease was called the “Black Death” and was transmitted through flea bites from small animals (usually rats). So this has happened before. A couple of factors emerging in the last century have greatly enhanced the potential of an especially virulent disease to evolve and rapidly spread, annihilating human populations. The first is the speed of travel. It is possible that an infected individual in Asia could board a plane, travel half-way around the world to the USA and expose hundreds of people to contamination before he/she shows any symptoms of disease. This was not possible until the advent of commercial flights approximately 75 years ago. A second factor has to do with the miracle of modern medicine. The pharmaceutical miracle drugs that are currently holding diseases at bay are also causing pathogens to mutate and become ever more resistant to developed cures. A mutated virus or bacteria can become especially deadly, contagious and unresponsive to treatment, posing a very serious existential threat to humanity.
Nanotechnology is the science of the very, very small. It involves the manipulation of the smallest physical particles known to man – things like molecules, atoms and their components. There is a lot of promise in the field of nanotechnology. Think of an extremely small robot – the size of a molecule. Now imagine millions of these robots injected into the blood stream of a cancer patient. The robots are programmed to destroy all cancer cells in the body – a miracle cure for cancer! Now imagine a molecular robot programmed to replicate itself using any available physcial matter at its disposal. Suddenly you have an exponential runaway effect where quadrillions of tiny robots suck up all available matter on earth – including your body!
AND NOW THE FINAL FOUR. THESE LAST 4 RISKS ARE ALL EXTREMELY WORRISOME. WE HAD A BIT OF FUN WITH THE FIRST SIX, BUT I DO CONSIDER THESE LAST 4 AS VERY REAL EXISTENTIAL THREAT SCENARIOS. THEY ARE ALL VIABLE POSSIBILITIES IN MY OPINION AND WE SHOULD BE HAVING A VERY SERIOUS GLOBAL CONVERSATION ABOUT EACH OF THEM. THE FUTURE OF HUMANITIES INSTITUTE HAS PUT A PERCENTAGE RISK OF EXTINCTION BY THE YEAR 2100 FOR 3 OF THESE LAST 4 RISKS. I WILL LIST THEM FOR YOU NOW : BIOTECHNOLOGY EXISTENTIAL RISK 2%, GLOBAL WAR EXISTENTIAL RISK 4%, AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE EXISTENTIAL RISK 5%. PLEASE NOTE THAT I HAVE ALSO INCLUDED GLOBAL WARMING AS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT IN ADDITION TO THESE THREE. THAT IS BECAUSE IT IS MY PERSONAL BELIEF THAT HUMAN EXTINCTION AS A DIRECT RESULT OF GLOBAL WARMING AND RUNAWAY GREEN HOUSE EFFECTS IS UNDERVALUED AS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT. ALSO, EVEN IF GLOBAL WARMING AS A DIRECT EXISTENTIAL THREAT IS UNLIKELY, THERE IS A STRONG ARGUMENT TO BE MADE THAT CLIMATE CHANGE WILL INVARIABLY LEAD TO A REDUCTION OF RESOURCES THAT WILL ULTIMATELY LEAD TO CONFLICT BETWEEN NATIONS. IN A WORLD OF NUCLEAR AND BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS THAT IS A VERY SCARY SCENARIO.
Scientific advances in the field of genetics are making it possible to bioengineer all forms of life, including pathogens like viruses and bacteria. A bioengineered Supervirus or Superbacteria is a grave threat to the globe. A Superpathogen could be released accidentally from a lab or deliberately by a nation state, terror organization or lone agent. It is also sobering to realize that bioengineering a deadly pathogen would likely take considerably less resources than building an atomic weapon. Another problem is that the techniques used to bioengineer pathogens are becoming more accessible as the technology improves. Governments are not well prepared to protect their populations from this particular threat. An especially malignant microorganism has the potential to cause the world wide population to plummet. The resulting destabilization would make you wish you had joined that prepper group crazy Uncle Harry invited you to last year.
3. Global War
“I don’t know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” quote attributed to Albert Einstein.
The frightening thing about World War III is that it will be fought with weapons whose destructive powers have never before been unleashed on humankind at the same scale. A nuclear exchange between superpowers could release so much sun blocking dust and smoke into the atmosphere that a global nuclear winter ensues. One that could last for several years, making it impossible to grow enough crops to sustain populations. Not to mention the radioactive fallout that would inevitably occur.
There is also the possibility of biological warfare causing a worldwide pandemic. Though we may not know the exact consequences of full scale war between superpowers we can be sure of one thing….the loss of human life would be greater than any previous event in the history of the world. And it is an open question whether any man or woman on earth survives the aftermath.
2. Global Warming
Global warming is established science. The earth IS getting hotter, that fact is not up for debate. Records prove that average global temperatures have risen about .85 degrees Celsius (about 1.5 degrees Farenheit) in the last 135 years. To a layman this may not sound like a lot, but consider that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has warned that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius will cause irreversible climate change for most of the planet. Because the rate of warming has increased in the last couple of decades we will likely reach that threshold well before 2050. The IPCC also warns that “As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5 degrees Celsius, model predictions suggest significant extinctions (40 – 70% of species assessed) around the globe.” This is beyond alarming. There is some public debate whether the warming is due to natural causes or is man-made. But the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that greenhouse gases (mostly carbon dioxide) are responsible.
There is also the frightening prospect of a runaway greenhouse effect where feedback loops reinforce the warming trends creating a planet whose overheating spirals out of control well past survivability. Perhaps the most frightening quote of the decade was uttered by Stephen Hawking when he said “We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.” To be fair, most climate change experts think these extreme predictions are not likely. But even sober climatologists are becoming extremely alarmed at the implications of current trends in climate change. At the very least we are certainly headed for unavoidable changes in the earth’s climate and these changes will cause significant disruption.
1. Artificial Intelligence
Question: What happens when machines become smarter than us?
Answer: We will, almost by definition, become hostage to their desires and goals.
We already know that conciousness can arise from mere matter. Exhibit A – You. If you accept the proposition that there is nothing magical about meat based intelligence vs. silicon then it is difficult to argue that computers won’t surpass humans in cognitive ability in the near future. Compared to people, computers are already superhuman in narrow fields of intelligence. The best chess player in the world is a computer. Even more impressive, the best Go player in the world is a computer who taught itself to play the game given only the rules. (Go is an ancient game of strategy and intuition and considered by many to be the most difficult game in the world to master.)
Estimates vary as to when computers will become as intelligent as humans. But here’s a sobering snippet, a survey was conducted at the Joint Multi-Conference on Human Level Artificial Intelligence in September 2018, in it 37% of respondents thought that machines would reach human level General Intelligence in 5 -10 years. General Artificial Intelligence, as opposed to Narrow Artificial Intelligence, is the gold standard of intelligence for machines. General Artificial Intelligence is sometimes called Full Artificial Intelligence. It is the ability of a machine to think and draw connections across many fields of understanding. In short, General AI is the ability of computers to think like humans.
Electronic circuits function about a million times faster than carbon based bio-tissue. (Imagine playing a game of chess against a computer with the exact same intelligence as you. You both make a move a minute. The processing speed advantage of the computer means that it will have, in comparison to you, thought about it’s move for 1.9 years. Who do you think will win?)
Once machines reach human level intelligence they will be able to improve themselves. Biological constraints for these improvements will not apply. We already know that intelligence is generally proportional to brain size. Just how intelligent would a silicon brain the size of a football stadium be?
Between competing entities the most powerful predictor of dominance is intelligence. It is naive to think that the most celebrated genius’s on earth could compete intellectually with a superhuman intelligence. Do not have a failure of intuition when you assess this intelligence gap. It will likely be colossal. We cannot just lock a superintelligence in a back room in a black box. Think of the psychological advantage alone that a superhuman intelligence would have over the people who are trying to contain or control it. Consider how easily an adult manipulates a child. Then consider how likely is it that a superintelligence would be content knowing that an ape is holding the power cord that supplies it’s life energy.
A superhuman artificial intelligence is the number one existential risk to mankind. In all likelyhood, we will someday build this thing, and when we do it will essentially be a god. Perhaps we will merge with it. Perhaps it will be benevolent and make our lives infinitely better. Or perhaps it will consider our pathetic history of greed and war and find us wanting…..
Well, there you have it. Stone considered A.I. to be the #1 threat and lists global warming as #2 with a bad pandemic, such as COVID-19, coming in at #6. Since 2017 when I started gyonclimate.com this is the first time I have ever mentioned artificial intelligence as a threat. Truth be known I am not an expert on A.I., so I’m not qualified to rank that as a threat. Still, it’s very interesting that many have listed A.I. on their top five or ten threat lists. It’s also interesting that just about every ranking I’ve seen has the climate crisis in the top five above pandemics.
Logically, even if a vaccine does not come along for COVID-19, eventually the human race will build up natural immunity to this awful disease. I seriously doubt that green little men or a giant asteroid will be threatening us in 2021, so that leaves nuclear proliferation and global warming as the main two long term threats in my book.
What’s most horrifying as of late March 2020 is that we are finding that the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis are becoming more interrelated. Resources and attention given to fight COVID-19 are being taken away from fighting the global warming problem. I’ll have a full report out on that tomorrow.
Perhaps you have a subjective top ten existential threat list of your own you would like to share. If so, please drop me a note or make a comment at the end of this post.
Now, here are some of todays articles on the horrendous coronavirus pandemic:
Here is more climate and weather news from Friday:
(As usual, this will be a fluid post in which more information gets added during the day as it crosses my radar, crediting all who have put it on-line. Items will be archived on this site for posterity. In most instances click on the pictures of each tweet to see each article.)
Here are some “ET’s” from Friday and the last couple of days:
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Guy Walton “The Climate Guy”