Stephen Hawking's on the team - but why no Bruce Willis? World’s biggest brains get together to work out how to save us all from the end of the world

Leading scholars establish centre for the study of 'existential risk' in order to prepare for potentially devastating events

Some of Britain’s finest minds are drawing up a “doomsday list” of catastrophic events that could devastate the world, pose a threat to civilisation and might even lead to the extinction of the human species.

Leading scholars have established a centre for the study of “existential risk” which aims to present politicians and the public with a list of disasters that could threaten the future of the world as we know it.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomer royal and past president of the Royal Society, is leading the initiative, which includes Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge cosmologist, and Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientist.

The group also includes the Cambridge philosopher Huw Price, the economist Partha Dasgupta and the Harvard evolutionary geneticist George Church. Initial funding has come from Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype.

“Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole,” says a statement on the group’s website.

Lord Rees said in his closing speech to the British Science Festival in Newcastle this evening that the public and politicians need the best possible advice on low-risk scenarios that may suddenly become reality, with devastating consequences.

“Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth,” Lord Rees told the meeting.

“But we are less secure than we think. It seems to me that our political masters, should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened – events that could arise as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis, but which could cause world-wide disruption,” he said.

Professor David Spiegelhalter, an expert in risk at Cambridge University, said that our increasing reliance on technology and the formation of complex interconnected networks is making society more vulnerable.

“We use interconnected systems for everything from power, to food supply and banking, which means there can be real trouble if things go wrong or they are sabotaged,” Professor Spiegelhalter said.

“In a modern, efficient world, we no longer stockpile food. If the supply is disrupted for any reason, it would take about 48-hours before it runs out and riots begin,” he said.

“Energy security is also an issue, as we import much of our fuel from abroad, so a conflict over resources in the future is possible,” he added.

According to Lord Rees, the threat of nuclear war was the main global risk we faced in the last century, but in the fast-developing 21st Century there are new concerns over risks such as deadly bioterrorist attacks, pandemics accelerated by global air travel, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and artificially intelligent computers that turn hostile.

“In future decades, events with low probability but catastrophic consequences may loom high on the political agenda,” Lord Rees told the science festival.

“That’s why some of us in Cambridge - both natural and social scientists - plan, with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere, to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these existential risks, and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones,” he said.

The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is so far a loose coalition of scholars but Lord Rees hopes later this year to announce major funding and a more detailed programme of research into the “doomsday” scenarios.

“Our goal is to steer a small fraction of Cambridge’s great intellectual resources, and of the reputation built on its past and present scientific pre-eminence, to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future,”  the centre states on its website.

Lord Rees, who has written popular science books on 21st Century threats to humanity, said that the organisational aspect of the centre is still being finalised but he hopes to have this clarified by the end of the year.

“The response we've had to our proposal has been remarkably wide, and remarkably positive. The project is still embryonic but we are seeking funds via various sources and have strengthened our international advisory network,” he told The Independent.

There is a need for a more rational approach to the low risk events that could have devastating consequence because politicians tend to think of short-term problems and solutions while the public is in denial about scenarios that have not yet happened, he said.

“The wide public is in denial about two kinds of threats: those that  we’re causing collectively to the biosphere, and those that stem from the greater vulnerability of our interconnected world to error or terror induced by individuals or small groups,” Lord Rees said.

“All too often the focus is parochial and short term. We downplay what’s happening even now in impoverished, far-away countries and we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for our grandchildren,” he said.

Risk assessors: The distinguished panel

Martin Rees

Lord Rees of Ludlow is emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge. Rees is the astronomer roya, a former president of the Royal Society and master of Trinity College Cambridge.

Huw Price

The Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge. He is a fellow of the British Academy, a fellow and former member of Council of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a past president of the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

Jaan Tallinn

An Estonian software programmer and co-found of Skype. Tallinn provided the seedcorn money to set up the centre for the study of existential risk. He is an academic adviser to the Estonian president.

Stephen Hawking

Probably the world’s most famous living scientist. A cosmologist and author of the best-seller ‘A Brief History of Time’, Hawking is an adviser to the centre. He has stated his concerns about the demise of the human species.

Robert May

Lord May of Oxford is a former Government chief scientist and past president of the Royal Society. His specialities include studying the spread of infectious diseases and estimating the rate of species extinction.

The end? Scenarios

Cyber attacks

One of the biggest threats is some kind of attack on the computers controlling the electricity grids around the world. Loss of electrical power would have immediate and possibly severe consequences if it could not be restored quickly.

Bioterrorism

Large infrastructure is required to build and deliver nuclear weapons, but genetically engineered harmful microbes or viruses could be developed in a relatively simple laboratory.

Food shortages

The modern food industry is based on “just in time” delivery with little or no stockpiling. Failure of the information networks controlling this could quickly lead to shortages and food riots.

Pandemics

The increasing mobility of the human species makes it more likely that a new, emerging infection could quickly spread around the world via air travel before a vaccine is developed to combat it.

Malign computers

Some experts fear that increasingly intelligent computers may one day turn “hostile” and not perform as they were designed.

Runaway climate catastrophe

Climatologists fear that, as the climate is polluted with increasing quantities of carbon dioxide, it may pass a tipping point after which feedback effects cause it to get warmer and warmer.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on