An explosion in artificial intelligence has sent us hurtling towards a post-human future, warns Martin Rees.
In Davos a few years ago, I met a well-known Indian tycoon. Knowing I had the title Astronomer Royal, he asked: “Do you do the Queen’s horoscopes?” I responded, with a straight face: “If she wanted one, I’m the person she’d ask.” He then seemed eager to hear my predictions. I told him that markets would fluctuate and that there would be trouble in the Middle East. He paid rapt attention to these insights. But I then came clean. I said I was just an astronomer, not an astrologer. He immediately lost all interest in my predictions. And rightly so: scientists are rotten forecasters – worse, often, than writers of science fiction.
Nevertheless, 12 years ago, I wrote a book that I entitled Our Final Century? My publisher deleted the question-mark. The American publishers changed the title to Our Final Hour – Americans seek instant (dis)gratification. My theme was this: our Earth is 45 million centuries old, but this century is special. It’s the first when one species – ours – can determine the biosphere’s fate.
In the years since, a few forecasts have somewhat firmed up: the world is becoming more crowded – and warmer. There will be about 2 billion more people in 2050, and their collective “footprint” will threaten our finite planet’s ecology unless we can achieve more efficient use of energy and land. But we can’t predict the path of future technology that far ahead. Today’s smartphones would have seemed magic even 20 years ago, so in looking several decades ahead we must keep our minds open to breakthroughs that may now seem like science fiction. These will offer great hopes, but also great fears.