5 Existential Threats to Humanity

An asteroid is going to pass very close to earth on Feb 15. According to the article, some are calling this a wake-up call. Although this asteroid isn’t big enough to cause an extinction event, even if it were to hit us, other asteroids whizzing around our solar system are. Since I missed the bandwagon at the end of 2012 to talk about end-of-the-world scenarios, I’ll take the opportunity now to talk about a few threats to our existence.

Sure, there are asteroids and super-volcanoes that could put a serious dent in humanity’s population. However, some experts, including Sir Martin Rees and Nick Bostrom, suspect that the most serious threats come not from nature, but from ourselves. Humanity is resilient; we’ve rebounded from natural disasters many times in our history. We know roughly how to deal with them. However, the more serious threats, according to some experts, are those novel events that we’ve never encountered and have had no time to prepare for. I’ve narrowed the list down to five, but there are definitely more. I don’t know how likely each of these scenarios are; they aren’t listed in any particular order. Some may wonder why climate change isn’t on the list. I’m not a climate change skeptic, but I don’t consider it a threat to humanity’s existence. It may make parts of the earth uninhabitable, which would be bad, but as a species we would survive. In order to make the list, doomsday scenarios need to have a pretty good chance of putting our lights out for good.

1. First, there’s the old standby: nuclear war. We’ve come to the threshold of annihilation before, for example, the Cuban missile crisis. The threat of nuclear destruction did not end with the Cold War. If anything, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a proliferation of nuclear weapons. The nightmare scenario, of course, is that a rogue state or a radical sect will get its hands on such weapons. This could have dire consequences and is not too unlikely. The know-how for making nuclear weapons is readily available and perverse agents, either state or non-state actors, could put them to use.

2. Another way that humanity could bite the dust is through biological warfare. Anthrax and smallpox could be released by terrorist groups on civilian populations. But it isn’t just the malevolent intentions of hostiles that we must fear. Super-germs could be created by our best efforts to cure ourselves of disease. Viruses can be used as carriers to deliver medicine that targets cancer cells. While this research is promising, it carries the risk that such tailor-made viruses could get out of our control. What if such biological engineering resulted in a super-germ that could not be contained or combated?

3. Another threat from the world of the very small could come from nanotechnology run amok. We will soon have the technological capacity to create nano-robots, tiny machines smaller than molecules. These machines will consume matter like fuel and have the power to self-replicate. These nano-robots could, like the viruses mentioned before, be deployed for medical purposes, and be greatly beneficial. However, they also carry the risk of replicating at an exponential rate, consuming the entire biosphere and, thus, destroying all life. All that would be left, according to some experts, is ‘grey goo.’

4. Another machine that could kill us would be a super intelligent computer. This is the problem of unfriendly AI. Although it may sound like science fiction, many have argued that we’re getting closer to creating artificial intelligence. It’s of utmost importance that this intelligence is friendly to humanity or we may find ourselves facing extinction. Martin Rees says, “A superintelligent machine might be the last invention that humans need ever make.” That’s assuming that it’s friendly. Otherwise, it may well be the last invention that we ever make.

5. A physics experiment could also destroy us. At CERN, for example, physicists have built the most powerful super-collider on the planet. This device has already yielded many secrets about our universe, but it may do more than that. It is theoretically possible that such experiments could cause the earth to collapse into a hyper-dense sphere or create a tear in the fabric of space-time and collapse the universe into a vacuum. Although many will argue that the chances of this happening are remote, the loss would be so great that others feel that the risk is not worth taking.

I know that some will read this list and think it farfetched or paranoid on my part. Again, although the odds in some cases are small, the loss is so great that it’s rational to think about these problems and how to prevent them. Unfortunately, many shrug off these warnings as science fictional futurism run rampant. However, we need more people who are willing to think long and hard about existential risks. The future of humanity may depend on it.

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