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Martin Rees' center studies 4 worst threats for mankind

Climate change is on par with robot uprising

The cataclysm on December 21st, 2012 is less than a month away and I am regularly asked by people in the real life as well as those on the Internet whether a particular doomsday scenario they read about will happen. They are just polite when they ask; of course that if I explain to them that they don't have to worry, they keep on $hitting into their pants, anyway. ;-)

Nude Socialist, Fox News, BBC, AP, and the rest of the pack told us about CSER.ORG, a center founded by the Lord [Martin] Rees of Ludlow, among others (including a co-founder of Skype), that will study the huge one-time risks that can make us extinct and everyone underestimates. What are they? Well, they are:

  1. robot uprising
  2. Hiroshimas all over the world
  3. artificial germs making all of us sick and die
  4. global warming
As you can see, the global warming hysteria finds itself in a good company of comparably (un)realistic worries.

I am always amazed how disproportionate impact various crazy people decorated by the queen may have on the society.

A senile woman who has lived a materially wealthy life – greetings, Elizabeth – attaches a medal to a Martin. He goes to the pub, gets really high, talks to his friends about four greatest threats for the humanity, and when he collects the answers from his hopelessly drunk buddies, they establish a center that instantly attracts at least millions of dollars to study these four phrases pronounced in the pub.

Note that the identity of the four most dangerous one-time threats for the mankind is "inserted" as a defining description of the new center. So if you found out that there exists a much more serious or much more likely threat that could exterminate the life on Earth, you wouldn't be welcome. Sorry but this is not the scientific approach. It's a corrupt scheme to use money and influence to promote and strengthen predetermined memes, fears, and prejudices.

In hundreds of articles, this website – and many others – has demonstrated that the idea of a threatening "climate change" is a preposterous delusion believed by the uneducated ones and promoted by the ideologically and financially motivated people who don't really believe what they're saying. What about the other three threats?

Nuclear war

Concerning the nuclear holocaust, I think that there's a very limited number of countries that possess the nuclear arsenal capable of a "truly global" destruction. And to activate them in this global way, active and deliberate collaboration of many people would be needed. It can't be quite excluded that weapons could be activated so that almost all of Russia is flattened. But with apologies to our Western Slavic readers, this would be still far from a threat of human extinction. I believe that there are no real plans that would detonate the weapons "everywhere" which is needed for the mankind to go away and it wouldn't be easy for a group of outsiders to launch such a process. And even if you could explode nuclear warheads in every squared mile of the Earth's surface, many people and nations would probably still have and apply tricks to save their skin.

We may see some local usage of nuclear weapons in a foreseeable future but if it's so, we will be reminded how extremely far a single nuclear warhead (or three of them) is from the human extinction. It's powerful but it's just a little bit stronger weapon, not a button able to destroy a planet.

Artificial germs

There are various germs and new ones will be produced both by Mother Nature's evolution processes as well as by biologists. I am actually not sure which of them represents a more genuine threat for us at this moment although I know which of the two threats is growing bigger more quickly. Again, it's hard to imagine how new viruses or bacteria could bring us global extinction. By locality, they're not able to be everywhere. If the new germs act too strongly or quickly, people and nations will immediately introduce harsh measures to protect themselves against the infection (and the infected ones).

Nature is making progress in improving the resiliency of the evil germs but this progress has arguably not sped up too much. Our ability to artificially engineer viruses or bacteria has improved dramatically and will improve even more quickly in the future, I guess. But the ability of biologists to do "good things" and detect and kill the germs and diseases is improving equally quickly. So even though the threats may have gotten more sophisticated, our ability to resist has improved by a more important increment. The total result is, I believe, that the mankind has gotten and is still getting more resilient towards infectious diseases, including the (hypothetical) man-made ones.

I am much more worried about the "gradual" negative developments when it comes to our physical, intellectual, and moral qualities.

Cybernetic revolt

Machines may do lots of things and they're already more intelligent than us according to many somewhat useful measures of intelligence (but clearly not all of them). However, we're still in the regime in which the machines are our slaves.

We must realize that unlike animals, the machines haven't evolved to egotistically protect their interests. They have "evolved" (in the engineering labs) to increasingly efficiently help the interests of some humans – those who built them or those who paid for the construction.

Despite the immense technological progress I am expecting, I don't see a reason why something should change about the previous paragraphs. Machines are, by definition, man-made objects and the reason why people build them is that these machines should bring something good to the people, at least some of them. It's a waterproof logic.

So even though the power of humans is already immensely amplified by technology – and this amplification will get even stronger in the future – the people are still ultimately in charge of things because that's why and how the technology was built and improved.

Of course, it's plausible that there is already a lab that is building robots "who" are trained to protect their own interests – rather than the interests of [some] humans – and prepare some kind of a "robot uprising". That's great but these robots are still tools belonging to the crazy engineer who is building such a thing. So this person and his assets may be considered the "true enemy".

The intent ultimately comes from a human or humans. I can't imagine how it could not be the case. As long as we are not worried about the human rights for robots, we shouldn't be worried about anthropomorphic threats posed by the robots, either. And if we ever wake up in the future to find out that robots are (at least) our peers because their artificial intelligence resembles ours, our logic will be transformed and the feelings about our identity will be blurred, too. We won't think of robots as someone "completely alien".

In fact, I am sure that the "discrimination against robots" will be viewed as a bad thing by many people – in the same sense why many people fight against "discrimination against other races" and similar things. When the artificial intelligence gets this advanced, the problem "how to resist a robot uprising" will be transmuted into a moral problem "should we try to suppress the robots' free behavior", anyway. Martin Rees' center will be viewed as a controversial center defending some kind of "anti-robot racism" and will surely lose the (now undisputed) label of a "center helping every human to fight some threats". After all, all of us – Americans, Chinese, men, women, and Hyundai robots – will be neighbors and fellowmen who deserve dignity. If robots ever take over, the reason won't be our lack of knowledge about the ways how to stop the revolt but our lack of will to do so.

Interdisciplinary centers produce babbling, not hard science

While the doomsday scenarios are lots of fun to think about, I have explained some of the reasons why I think that a center actively investigating these risks is an irrational enterprise. But even if the threats were genuine, I would have serious doubts that Martin Rees' center would attract the most relevant nuclear experts, microbiologists, atmospheric physicists, and artificial intelligence experts who would be the leaders in the "fight against these threats". The center looks like an insanely multidisciplinary institution and I simply don't believe that the most relevant, advanced, and reliable insights on bacteria, nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, or atmospheric physics would be born in such an environment that is full of other distractions.

It seems much more likely that the most important discoveries relevant for the four threats – and other threats – would be made by scientists who intensely focus on their field and who are trying to find important truths and mechanisms, not necessarily constrained by the predetermined motivation to "save the mankind".

This was my last piece of evidence that Martin Rees' center is a waste of money.

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snail feedback (28) :

reader John H. said...

They forgot to mention the biggest threat: the amount of nonsense peddled on the internet is turning everyone into scare monkeys. We're all going to die from fear of each other.

reader Bernhard Jordan said...

I'm not worried about extinction by infection , but the world in the future will be less infection free than now, antibiotic resistant bacteria are a true thing , and a growing one,


reader Coldish said...

If Rees and Co. had listed global cooling into the next Milankovich-cycle-driven glacial episode they might have had a point. That threat is real enough, although likely still some thousands of years away, so hardly more worth worrying about now than the science fiction of CAGW.

reader George Christodoulides said...

the guy is so much more image and british snobbery than actual substance. it is not that he was not one of the best in his field but his field was much easier than others. he talks fancy and was pushed a lot

reader Gordon Wilson said...

"His field was much easier than others"--really?
Easier than say, climate science, women's studies,
sociology etc ? What are you, George? Rees is now an emeritus prof. and has done many things of value, recently more administrative like being Master of Trinity College, and head of the Royal Society.

reader Klimatflykting said...

Head of the Royal Society? That says it all. That institution has lost all credibility

reader Ann said...

He picked 4 scenarios that would be caused by humans (human-built machines running amok, human-designed biotech, human carbon-based industry, human weapons) and ignored the random grand violence Nature herself is capable of -- a big meteor hitting us could be pretty bad.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

His term finished in 2010---Paul Nurse has been the President recently (now) and is an AGW tub-thumper

reader Ann said...

Doomsday prophets seem like big scolds, without useful insights of any kind. BTW, fun & readable new book by Nissam Taleb 'Antifragile' (guy who wrote Black Swan). One main idea wrt bad future events is to create systems that can withstand and even thrive from such possible big rare events, rather than trying to predict them and/or prevent them.

reader George Christodoulides said...

in astronomy they still give too much attention to people that were at the top of their field decades ago. you don't see the same thing in theoretical particle physics.

generally talking in theoretical physics you need to have certain skills above a certain level to have a certain name but in astronomy you don't.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Yes, Ann, asteroid/comet strike---see Nasa Near Earth Object program---http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/

I posted a longer comment, but it didn't load---

look at all the philosophers on the board!!--enough to make Feynman spin in his grave. And Max Tegmark to represent MWI :)

How about collapse of the false vacuum (great paper by Sidney Coleman)?

Here is George Carlin's take on saving the planet---http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=CA&v=eScDfYzMEEw

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Lubos---you must notify Alexander Ac about this new think tank....a great opportunity for him to expand his anthropomorphic fear base to yet more PC causes...:)

reader George Christodoulides said...

what are you Gordon Wilson? a physician or a physicist? if you are a physicist put a better profile picture.

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reader John Archer said...

Rees is a limp-wristed dickhead. Instead, he should take up crochet to while away his dotage. His brain is addled. Demented prattlers and moral poseurs like him are dangerous, not only because they talk up non-existent threats but primarily because they deflect attention away from the real ones.

The greatest current threat—indeed a clear and present danger—to humankind by far is the spread of pisslam and the anti-'racism' vector that carries it, particularly in the West. We need an eradication programme, something like that for smallpox. The whole lot needs to be wiped out.

I wouldn't even keep laboratory specimens.

reader Smoking Frog said...

I read "The Black Swan." While I somewhat liked it, I thought it was too ranting and off-the-wall. The main idea I recall from it is that you can't calculate probabilities for the tails of a distribution (of real-world data). I like that one, but I'm skeptical of the assumption that anyone was trying to calculate them.

reader Smoking Frog said...

I like "robot uprising" the best, since America could lead a war with the robots and save the world. :-)

Aside from that, but still on robots conquering the world, I highly recommend the novel "Mockingbird" by Walter Tevis (who also wrote "The Man Who Fell to Earth," which is great, too - greater). The story takes place in 25th-century New York City, which was wrecked centuries earlier in an inter-human war. Among the tall buildings, only the Empire State Building remains standing.

Robots have been ruling the world for 200 years, but they did not conquer us out of malice. Rather, they were programmed to make humans happy, and they decided that being dominated would make us happy. Everyone belongs to a religion invented by the robots. The religious practice consists of taking tranquilizer pills and covering your eyes and ears whenever anything bad happens.

The novel has a plot, of course, and it's a very good one, but I don't think I should make this message much longer.

reader Gene Day said...

Gordon is a Canadian physician who has at least one highly cited theoretical physics paper. He is probably the smartest TRF respondent as well although Ann and Shannon are in the running.

reader Cees de Valk said...

The threat of a takeover of society by robots is less imminent than of a takeover by numerical
models, because models provide us with boxes to think in.

reader George Christodoulides said...

that's your opinion. in my opinion he mumbles a lot of nonsense. if he was so smart he would have stuck with physics.

reader Gene Day said...

It’s an opinion based on several years of his TRF offerings as well as private correspondence. You would do well to respect those who are so much more accomplished so very much wiser than yourself.

reader chris said...

Sorry to say so, John, but IMHO chances are indeed slim that any of those in charge will see your - to me, obvious - point. This is not a recent development you know: The so-called "Allies" decided to go down that road back in 1914, when they decided to wage war against Germany and Austria rather than help them fight the Serbian terrorists, maybe as a next step turn in the Communists who were threatening the Czar, and then march on to Peking to reinstate the rightful Emperor, and finally return the USA under British rule, the natural condition for all English-speaking humans. Now THAT would have been a "world war" to be proud of! If the decent people of this world had truly allied at that time, neither Socialists, nor Nazis, nor Muslims, nor Israelis, nor Blacks, nor Greenies would ever have gained a foothold, but would be rotting in their graves, or in asylums led by upright Britishers, Germans and Frenchmen. The lack of solidarity among those few nations that had reached the pinnacle of human society and civilisation around 1900, and the blatant laziness and unwillingness to shoulder "White Man's Burden" (as that wonderful poet Kipling put it so succinctly) pushed humankind on that continuing downhill slope on which minor pests like Hitler, Gandhi, Luther King, or Stalin - which a healthy society would just have laughed in the face, or squashed under their foot if they became too obnoxious - suddenly became serious threats who were able to ruin, or even end, millions of honest working peoples' lives. Sorry for being pessimist, but now that even the British Royals have turned Greenies and partying drunkards with not a pinch of Victorian decency and manliness left, who shall lead us out of this mess?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Good defense, Gene, and great to see you here again!

reader John Archer said...

Excellent. A very enjoyable read. :) And very kind of you to reply. Thank you.

Yes, a worthy stab indeed—especially for one clearly based on a severe paucity of data—but I'm afraid I have to tell you your 'model' of me is really no better than the climate models of the CAGW crowd and probably for roughly the same sort of reasons. So, just bad luck, old boy! But never mind — the important thing is the endeavour. Admirable!

I agree. If we're going to have to have empires then I'd say the British one certainly wasn't the worst of them, not by a long chalk. But unfortunately I could never find it in me to aspire to imperial enthusiasm. Yes, I know that's a severe impediment to greatness and an appalling character flaw but there it is. It's worse yet — if I had been around at the time of Empire it would have instead found in me the spirit of a rather unfaithful son. For one thing I would have instinctively sided with those upstart Yanks, and for another I wouldn't have given you tuppence for the Jewel in the Crown. I would have enjoyed quite a few of the pastimes though, the pig sticking especially, but in general would have had no time for that otherwise pesky "Burden". Speaking of which, Kipling probably got it about right with Gunga Din. It's always best to get someone else to do the carrying, though I can't see the need to be quite so self-effacing about it.

Tally ho!

reader John Archer said...

P.S. "Britishers"! What's this? Surely you mean Britons? Oh I get it — you're not one of us, are you? Never mind — not everyone has the good fortune to born an Englishman but life can nevertheless still be worth living. Nil desperandum!

reader George Christodoulides said...

look it's still your opinion. i am not going to argue here. for example the comment he made was irrelevant like other comments he has done before about things i 've said. i happen to have a good knowledge of who is who in both particle physics and astronomy. right Lubos?

reader Gordon Wilson said...

lol. It is interesting that I am generating so much interest---one would think I was Charlie Sheen. What an arrogant, snobbish comment, George. Do you usually go around wearing your horse blinders? And hmmm, what does the avatar of a physicist look like anyway?

If I were actually a professional physicist here and now, Lubos and others would be justified in flaming some of my comments more than the occasional ones I get.

Hmmm, Christodoulides logic---

All smart people are physicists

I am a physicist

Therefore, I am smart.

reader chris said...