British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Lord Martin Rees, believes that humanity is unlikely to survive the 21st century. “Humanity is coming up with more and more ways of self-destruction, and it is easier to implement them every year,” he writes in his 2003 book entitled “Our Last Hour”. In it, in particular, the scientist reflects on the intersection of technology, politics, and human nature, noting that people and the planet face existential risk in the context of rapidly developing technologies such as artificial intelligence. He calculated that the probability of human extinction before 2100 is about 50 percent… The main reason is the potential of technology, which can lead to destruction, either through deliberate action or by chance. Interestingly, Rhys is one of the few scientists who predicted the emergence of a new infectious virus with incredible accuracy. In the meantime, the number of COVID-19 cases in the world continues to grow, exceeding the 200 million mark, let’s talk about why everyone should think about the future of humanity today.
Can humanity survive the 21st century?
Martin Rees believes the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to better prepare for long-term risks, but it is also a “recipe for global instability” amid growing inequality. Note that Rees has been contributing to our understanding of the universe since the 1960s and has published over 500 scientific papers on topics such as galaxy formation, the multiverse, dark matter, and black holes.
In 2021, he co-founded the Center for the Study of Existential Risks at the University of Cambridge to study the rise in extinction-level events on the planet. “I think that our society is more vulnerable than previous generations because we are closely interdependent and dependent on technology,” the scientist said.
The 21st century is the first century in which a single species has the ability to shape the future of the entire planet. The threats that humanity poses to the Earth can be further divided into “collective threats” that stem from climate change; or threats from one authorized person, such as a nuclear attack or a cyberattack. In any case, the coming century is not likely to be calm.
Having made a name for himself in the study of quasars and black holes, Rhys has been dealing with the death of humanity in recent decades. In his book Our Final Hour, he gives people a 50-50 chance of survival. Moreover, mass death should occur already in our century. The 2018 book On the Future is about the same.
Turning to the current pandemic, the cosmologist notes that it is not a surprise. Many scientists have been warning of an impending pandemic for years. In general, it is considered likely that a major infectious disease outbreak will occur every ten years. So COVID-19 is not the first large-scale pandemic, and certainly not the last.
What was unexpected, however, is the shape this pandemic has taken. The fact is that most scientists predicted some form of an outbreak of the influenza virus, as a result of which, for example, in the UK only schemes were in place to ensure preparedness for an outbreak of this infection.
How to predict a pandemic?
So, outbreaks of various infectious diseases occur in the world with enviable regularity. So, the outbreaks of SARS and MERS in 2003 and 2008, respectively, were followed by a swine flu epidemic in 2009, and then came the bird flu. If you set yourself a goal and study all the outbreaks of dangerous viral infections over the past 50-100 years, the picture may become somewhat clearer.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely something new for humanity. In terms of its contagiousness, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is comparable to chickenpox, and the death rate in the world has already exceeded 4 million people. At the same time, despite the rapidly developed vaccines, the virus continues to mutate, breaking through the formed immunity.
Interestingly, some researchers predict the emergence of a strain, the lethality from which will be at least 35% (which is comparable to the lethality of the MERS coronavirus). Others predict the emergence of a super strain that will not be affected by modern vaccines in the near future.
Where did COVID-19 come from?
I note that today there are several versions of the origin of the new coronavirus. Most researchers believe that the virus appeared naturally, as a result of close human contact with wild animals. However, a number of articles have recently been published on a possible leak of SARS-CoV-2 from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
According to CNN, the American special services extracted (probably with the help of hackers) a Chinese database of viruses that the country’s authorities hid back in September 2019. It is also reported that to study the report, intelligence officers are looking for scientists who speak Chinese, and also plan to use a supercomputer to process data.
At the same time, it is important to understand that the investigation may not bring results, and conversations about the origin of COVID-19, apparently, will continue for a long time. Ultimately, whichever version turns out to be wrong, you and I will have to deal with the pandemic (and then with its consequences) for a long time.
How Martin Rees Predicted Disaster
While doing research on existential risks, Rees published his forecast on the Long Bets website. The beauty of the resource lies in the fact that there you can make bets on a variety of topics, and in 2017, American linguist Stephen Pinker put as much as $ 400 on the fact that there would be no bio-disaster. But, as we know today, Pinker lost the bet, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives every day around the world.
If we look into the future, I think there are two reasons to worry about pandemics. First, these types of natural pandemics will become more common as the world becomes more and more overpopulated. But there is also a threat of possible malicious intent leading to man-made pandemics, he said.
In general, the list of threats to humanity compiled by Rhys about ten years ago looks incredibly prophetic. In the first place is a pandemic; second, the risks associated with inaction and inappropriate tackling of climate change; on the third – cyberattacks and large-scale failures in the software of the most important objects of human infrastructure.
The future of humanity
In interviews, Lord Martin Rees often notes that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated already thriving inequalities. “I am very worried about the inequality between the North and the South, especially between the prosperous countries of Europe and the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of India,” says the British cosmologist.
I am worried about this in part for humanitarian reasons, because these are regions that are likely to suffer from real poverty and massive deaths due to lack of medical care. But I also think that if we want to have a stable world in the future, then the richest parts of the world really need to make sure Africa, in particular, keeps up.
To begin tackling growing socioeconomic inequalities and the rise of automation and robotics replacing jobs, Rees proposes to raise wages and strengthen the role of caregivers for the elderly and youth. He notes that these services are incredibly in demand around the world, but in most countries, there is simply no money, there are not enough people like that, and they are not paid much.
“COVID-19 will be a shock. We need to change our social values in order to understand that caring for children, helping in hospitals, caring for the elderly is a decent job, where we want to have real people, not cars. Instead, machines should be used for high-risk tasks such as space travel or repetitive tasks that are not performed by humans, ”says Rice. And it’s hard to disagree with him.
As for the conquest of other planets, on this issue, Rees’s opinion is at odds with the opinion of not only the entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk, but also with his own late colleague Stephen Hawking.
I think it’s a dangerous misconception to think about mass emigration to Mars and think that we can somehow avoid problems on Earth by going somewhere else. Dealing with climate change here on Earth is simple compared to terraforming Mars, and the idea of a large colony on Mars is as ridiculous as a large colony on the ocean floor or at the South Pole, Rhys said.
He hopes a private colony will be established on Mars by the end of the century. “Elon Musk himself said that he would like to die on Mars, but not in a collision. Now he is 49 years old, so he could handle it. Good luck to him. ”
Well, you and I should clearly think seriously about the existential threats facing humanity. After all, the more people think about the future of our civilization, the better our chances of survival. Do you agree?