Lord Martin Rees: the Future and Catastrophe

Lord Martin Rees: the Future and Catastrophe

Lord Martin Rees is a former Master of Trinity College and an accomplished cosmologist and astrophysicist. He has been Astronomer Royal since 1995, and was President of the Royal Society between 2005 and 2010. Lord Rees spoke to Gabija Maršalkaite and Deyan Mihaylov.

Cambridge is a good place to convene experts who can try to decide which threats can be dismissed as science fiction and which are worth thinking about.

There is not very much study of these possibly devastating, albeit unlikely, events, especially those that are becoming more likely with technological advances. We are familiar with cyber-attacks but we also have to worry about pandemics – both natural and artificially- induced ones – and think how to minimise their impact. I think all these extreme risks, which are unlikely but would have colossal consequences, are understudied.

Panic and rumour can spread via social media literally at the speed of light.

This rapid spreading means that it’s very hard to implement an optimum response if one has not foreseen such an event beforehand and taken precautions. It also means that serious catastrophes are more likely to cascade globally. In the past, there have been catastrophes which have affected certain societies – even causing their collapse – but they have not been global, whereas now it would be unlikely that a really severe setback could occur in one particular country without it cascading to the rest of the world.

It’s most unlikely anything could happen that would wipe out all humanity.

I think what is frighteningly possible, however, is a real setback to civilization and to the way society is now organised. We’re very vulnerable because we have high expectations. To give you one example of this: a severe pandemic would of course produce a large number of casualties. Even if the fraction who were infected was only one in 1000, that could already cause social unrest because it would overwhelm the capacity of hospitals and people would then clamour for access to treatment they felt entitled to. Does the fact that most people have mobile phones make things better, or even worse? It allows people to be warned of risks, and given advice. But it also allows panic and false news to spread. So we don’t know the net effect of the interconnectedness of everyone today.

In the future, we will develop the capacity to augment human beings through genetic and cyborg techniques.

If you ask what my scenario would be for these developments, I’d conjecture that they’ll be spearheaded away from the Earth. A century from now, there will be a few bold pioneers living away from the Earth, maybe on Mars. They will of course be living in an environment to which they are badly adapted, so they would have a massive incentive to modify themselves or their progeny by genetic techniques or cyborg techniques to adapt to that environment. So I think if there is going to be evolution to a posthuman stage, it will happen away from the Earth where there is no regulator that can reach them and they have strong incentives to adapt.

Lord Martin ReesThat’s my scenario. And of course it has huge implications on the even longer term. Evolution up ‘till now has happened on a rather slow time scale of Darwinian selection, where it has taken maybe a million years for species to evolve significantly. Now these changes will happen on a technological timescale – maybe just one or two generations.

So this posthuman evolution is going to happen far faster than any evolution that has happened until now. And we have no idea what is going to evolve, whether it will be mainly genetic modification, or cyborgs, or whether we will even be downloading our brain to machines. This is where we have to hand over to science fiction writers!

I think being an astronomer gives me a greater awareness of the long-term future.

Most of us are familiar with the vast timescale of biological evolution that led to humanity’s emergence. All educated people realise that we are the outcome of 4 billion years of evolutionary history. But many people tend to think that we are the culmination of it all. Astronomers can’t really believe that – indeed, they would guess that we may be barely at the half-way stage – because we’re aware that the future of our Sun and our Solar System, and certainly the Universe, is probably far longer than the past. This perhaps offers an extra motive for ensuring that there’s no catastrophic setback that would foreclose the future, which otherwise could extend not just for centuries, but for billions of years.

I think it is important for students to be activists.

One hopes they’re more rational than most citizens. And because they’re young they’re likely to be alive at the end of the century, and so care about the longer term. That’s important because what’s worrying is that the focus of politicians is on the local, the parochial, and the short-term. They care about what happens here, and they care what happens before the next election. Politicians will, however, be more likely to engage with an issue if it features in their inbox, or gets regular high- profile coverage in the press. It’s therefore very important for us in academia to discuss these issues, make sure they are widely understood, and thereby help to raise them high on the agenda. Especially things like energy and climate, which are very long-term.

This is the first century when one species, ours, can determine the future of the planet.

The main dangers come not from nature but from us. Through our ever- heavier collective footprint on the Earth, we can produce catastrophes in a way that earlier generations could not. And small groups or even individuals, empowered by new technology, could have global impact – for good or ill. I think there will be a rising tension between privacy, security and freedom. So the stakes are higher, the responsibilities are greater, and there is ever more need for a global perspective. I think it’s sad that so few young people want to embark on a political career. That is understandable because such careers are now less attractive, and more pressured, than they were, but we do need to ensure that enough really capable people have the dedication to go into straight politics. But even if one is not a politician, one can affect public opinion, through the media, through pressure groups, through blogging, through movements like Effective Altruism, all of which involve students. I think it is very encouraging that such movements are gaining traction with the student body, not just in this university, but in all the major universities around the world. So that’s a hopeful sign for the future.

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