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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen