Big­gest threat to mankind

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

Two of our re­spon­dents list ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence as the big­gest threat to hu­man­ity. How­ever, what wor­ries far more of the No­bel lau­re­ates sur­veyed is the en­vi­ron­ment, with one in three cit­ing issues such as global warm­ing and over­pop­u­la­tion.

The num­ber is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing given the US’ with­drawal from the Paris cli­mate change ac­cord and Don­ald Trump’s ap­point­ment of cli­mate change scep­tic Scott Pruitt to head the US En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. While Trump may re­gard cli­mate change as a Chi­nese hoax to ham­string US man­u­fac­tur­ing, it is clear that No­bel lau­re­ates beg to dif­fer.

“Cli­mate change [and pro­vid­ing] suf­fi­cient food and fresh wa­ter for the grow­ing global pop­u­la­tion…are se­ri­ous prob­lems fac­ing hu­mankind,” says one US lau­re­ate. “Science is needed to ad­dress these prob­lems and also to ed­u­cate the pub­lic to cre­ate the po­lit­i­cal will to solve these prob­lems.”

For Roberts, feed­ing the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion is the big­gest prob­lem fac­ing hu­man­ity. And he wor­ries about the op­po­si­tion in many quar­ters to the use of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied plants and an­i­mals to meet this chal­lenge, de­spite the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus over its safety.

“The bla­tant dis­re­gard for sci­en­tific opin­ion is go­ing to lead to a world­wide cri­sis,” pre­dicts Roberts, who cites a let­ter signed by 124 No­bel lau­re­ates in June call­ing on Green­peace and other non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions to drop their cam­paigns against cer­tain types of biotech­nol­ogy-en­hanced crops.

“To tell peo­ple that they can­not eat or grow a food type that might stop them from starv­ing is plain dis­gust­ing,” says Roberts, who adds that cli­mate change will make the need for ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms more press­ing than ever.

Mean­while, Nasa’s Mather notes that “hu­mans are very busy with the great­est cli­mate change ex­per­i­ment since the ice ages, but science has the po­ten­tial to com­pletely trans­form the sys­tem of eco­nomic re­wards that en­cour­age the use of fos­sil fuel. In other words, if re­new­able en­ergy be­comes cheaper than fos­sil fu­els, peo­ple will switch over very quickly.”

With North Korean mis­sile tests strain­ing US-China re­la­tions and the fall­out of Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the US elec­tions ratch­et­ing up ten­sions al­ready stoked by the coun­try’s ac­tions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, it is hardly sur­pris­ing that nu­clear war is the sec­ond most com­mon threat to hu­man­ity cited by sur­vey re­spon­dents.

Among the 23 per cent of re­spon­dents to men­tion it (some re­spon­dents cited more than one threat) is a lau­re­ate from Is­rael who com­plains of “war­mon­ger dic­ta­tors”. A re­spon­dent from Ger­many sin­gles out “pop­ulist regimes in pos­ses­sion of nu­clear weapons”, while Mather is more con­cerned about nu­clear weapons in the hands of ter­ror­ist groups.

Other threats to hu­mankind cited by re­spon­dents in­clude med­i­cal fears such as global pan­demics and an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance (8 per cent), fun­da­men­tal­ism and ter­ror­ism (6 per cent) and a loss of self­less­ness, hon­esty or a “hu­man­ist per­spec­tive as we rush into the age of the in­ter­net and its se­duc­tions” (8 per cent). And two re­spon­dents specif­i­cally men­tion Trump – “I don’t think science can do much about him,” one adds.

Sev­eral lau­re­ates, how­ever, are op­ti­mistic that a world­wide apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nario is un­likely.

“The hu­man species is so suc­cess­ful in mak­ing the world a bet­ter place,” says one. Another con­cedes that there are “sev­eral low prob­a­bil­ity but quite ex­is­ten­tial threats to hu­man­ity, in­clud­ing pan­demics, nu­clear war and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence”.

But science, the lau­re­ate be­lieves, could of­fer a way out: “The ul­ti­mate in­sur­ance pol­icy is to make hu­man­ity a mul­ti­planet species. And science ob­vi­ously has a big role to play in that.”

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