Vox interviews Martin Rees

18 October 2018
by Sean Illing

Vox's Future Perfect interviews our cofounder Lord Rees about his new book:

"Martin Rees is Britain’s astronomer royal, a professor at Cambridge University, and one of the leading cosmologists in the world. In a 2003 book, titled Our Final Hour, he gave civilization a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century, an estimate he reached after surveying all the ways humanity could destroy itself.

Rees has followed that book with another one about existential threats, titled On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. And the upshot of the new book is clear: The choices we make today, and in the next couple of decades, will likely determine the fate of life on earth.

Rees’s biggest fear is our enhanced technological capacity, which gives just a few people the power to do more damage than ever before. For example, a handful of bad actors could release malicious code that upends computer networks around the world, or bioterrorists could unleash a deadly virus that quickly becomes a global pandemic, or overeager physicists could spawn a black hole by smashing protons together.

Then there’s the very real possibility that bioengineering technologies, like gene editing, will produce unprecedented inequalities in society that could transform life as we know it. There’s also the looming danger of artificial intelligence, which, depending on who you ask, is either an existential threat or a wildly overstated non-concern.

In spite of all this, Rees still calls himself a “techno-optimist.” Which is to say, he thinks we can harness science and technology to save ourselves and the planet. I spoke to him last week about why he remains hopeful in the face of all these threats, and why he thinks scientists have an ethical obligation to engage politically. I also asked him if he thinks human beings will have to flee Earth if we want to survive in the long run. (His answer might surprise you.)"

Subscribe to our mailing list to get our latest updates