Irish Times: The world’s governments need to begin preparing for existential risk scenarios

19 September 2019
by Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, Science Editor at the Irish Times, on our new report:

"Humans have done much to promote health, extend lifespan and make widespread use of all the resources delivered by our remarkable planet Earth. Unfortunately, in the process, we have also developed any number of ways to destroy ourselves and wipe out human civilisation. Nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, biologically engineered organisms and the massive impacts we are triggering due to climate change are just a few of the ways that could bring about the end of the world as we know it.

When you line them all up they provide the next best thing to an instruction manual for societal collapse and an assuredly dystopian future. A research group at the University of Cambridge, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, did just that, teasing out the potential risk of what might happen if, for example, an autonomous weapons system controlled by an artificial intelligence suddenly went rogue, a scenario delivered to our cinema screens in the Terminator series of films.

They looked at other end-of-the-world possibilities such as intentional or accidental release of engineered toxic biological organisms and the collapse of the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica, but their purpose was not to deliver pointers for terrorist plotters. Rather it was a call on the world’s governments to take the risks seriously and begin planning for their potential arrival. Climate change is a well-understood risk that has been advancing slowly over the past decades, yet few governments have prepared a response to the impact their populations might face if sea level were to rise by 5m or 10m.

“The risks emerging now are varied, global, complex and catastrophic. And if even only one manifests – whether through nature, accident or intention – it would harm human security, prosperity and potential on a scale never before seen in human history,” the Cambridge centre published in a report last month. It was prepared as a way to encourage governments to take action now rather than wait until the doomsday scenario was suddenly upon us.

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