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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies