Illustration by John Bogan
According to history, the end has been forever nigh. If God isn’t about to destroy us, it’s our own weapons; if it’s not civil war, it’s foreign enemies or aliens. As such, it’s easy to get lost in the magnificent spectacle of uncertainty that plagues our very existence and lose sight of the things that might actually kill us all.
Stuart Armstrong is a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, where he’s been on a mission to gauge what sort of doom might befall mankind. The FHI makes it its business to track a bunch of legitimate apocalyptic risks, and Stuart was kind enough to offer me some insight into four of the most plausible:
“It’s either going to kill us all or we’re going to cope with it. Even if we just get human-level AIs, these things can be copied and trained; we can take the best of them and then we can network them together and form supercommittees with the intelligence equivalent of, say, Edison, Einstein, George Soros, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Plato, Goebbels, Bernie Madoff, and Steve Jobs combined—each entity brilliant in its own narrow domain and then networked with one another, running millions of times faster than any normal human.”
“With the ability to program cells as one programs computers comes the ability to engineer viruses, bacteria, and animal cells for specific and potentially deadly purposes. For the moment, what we have are basically superhackers who are making genomes that express certain things and propagate themselves.”
“With nanotechnology, we can build machines for spying and for military purposes on the tiniest of scales, seeding them throughout the ecosystem. This could collapse the need for trade and allow a completely disarmed state to build an arsenal in a single day, destabilizing the world.”
“The weapons of the Cold War are still out there, and their deadliness hasn’t decreased. Recent research has demonstrated that the nuclear-winter scenario remains plausible, even for a small-scale nuclear conflict. And proliferation remains a perennial possibility, especially if technological developments allow nonstate actors to get in on the game.”
Bring a box of tissues and read more from our Hopelessness Issue: