Biotechnology

TEOTWAWKI!

Or, the end of the world as we know it at the Global Catastrophic Risks conference

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Oxford, England—People have long been fascinated by the end of the world. Some interpretations of Hindu scripture suggest that the world will end with the imminent conclusion of the current Kali Yuga cycle. Some New Agers believe that the world will undergo apocalyptic changes as the Maya Long Count calendar comes to an end on December 21, 2012. Some Christian End Timers believe that the period preceding the Day of Judgment described in the Book of Revelation is now upon us. Religious believers are not alone in their fascination with doomsday. Secular catastrophists predict environmental doom or worry about calamity raining down on us from outer space.

This week the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, headed by bioprogressive philosopher Nick Bostrom, is convening a conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. The Institute's work focuses on how radical technological developments such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and life-extension treatments will affect the human condition. One of the Institute's research programs is global catastrophic risks which mulls questions like: What are the biggest threats to global civilization and human well-being? Will the human species survive the 21st century?

The savants gathered here in Oxford will consider a wide variety of potentially apocalyptic risks. For example, Michelangelo Mangano from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) will explore the possibility that certain scientific research—e.g., the Brookhaven Lab's high energy experiments that might produce a black hole—could inadvertently destroy the world. Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology will discuss how the advent of molecular manufacturing could lead to massive economic and social disruptions, including a new arms race, the spread of tyranny, and dangerous environmental degradation. At the cosmic level, the Technion Institute's Arnon Dar will look at the devastation that a nearby supernova could wreak, and astronomer and author William Napier will evaluate the chances that the earth might soon suffer an asteroid strike. Whether future advanced artificial intelligences will think of us as pets or pests will be pondered by Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence research fellow Eliezer Yudkowsky.

In addition to the more exotic risks noted above, the conferees will also be discussing the prospects for nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. More reassuringly, Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security fellow Ali Nouri is apparently set to argue that trends in biotechnology are making it less likely that bad guys could unleash a man-made plague. On an even happier note, technoprogressive bioethicist James Hughes will discuss how to avoid cognitive biases toward over-pessimism and over-optimism. And Steve Rayner, director of Oxford's James Martin Institute (which is co-sponsoring the conference), will point out that much contemporary doomsaying shares cultural characteristics with earlier superstitious predictions of imminent catastrophe.

The whole cheery conference kicks off this evening with a talk by Sir Crispin Tickell entitled, "Humans: Past, Present and Future." Apparently Tickell buys into the whole litany of environmentalist doom. However, he thinks that doom can be avoided if we "radically change our thinking on global governance" and pursue some "interesting" technological options.

This is the first dispatch from the Oxford conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. Since the conference runs through the weekend, future dispatches will report various gloomy presentations chiefly as blog posts at reason online. I will finish up coverage of the conference with my science column next Tuesday.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Disclosure: The Future of Humanity Institute is covering my travel expenses for the conference; no restrictions or conditions were placed on my reporting.

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  1. Apparently Tickell buys into the whole litany of environmentalist doom. However, he thinks that doom can be avoided if we “radically change our thinking on global governance” and pursue some “interesting” technological options.

    Ron, If his presentation is placed on-line, I want a link.

    Pretty please?

  2. Was I supposed to crow FIRST! or something like that at 4:50pm?

  3. “radically change our thinking on global governance”

    This could include both more restrictive and less restrictive radical changes, of course, or a combination of more restrictions in one area and less in another.

    I wonder which way he will go.

  4. The coming Rise of Robots gets no love? Or is it considered part of the Singularity?

    My nomination for underrated catastrophe is soil and aquifer depletion. In places like Kansas and Eastern Washington, both the soil and water resources are getting used up very quickly — and there’s no quick way to restore them when they hit critical levels. Our system has no good way of addressing these negative externalities, and I think they’ll hit us hard.

  5. My nomination for underrated catastrophe

    The return of REM?

  6. The end will be marked with high out-of-network ATM fees and Internet bandwidth throttling.

  7. What are the biggest threats to global civilization and human well-being?

    The state control of the economy that Tickell will suggest to “radically change our thinking on global governance”?

  8. Oldie but goodie:

    Yudkowsky’s Friendly AI Critical Failure Table

  9. Bluebook: that’s awesome. I really like #27.

  10. Damn, I thought for sure this would be a discussion of mortgage finance…

  11. Even more than hyperbolic scientists, I’ll believe the end of the world is nigh when the Actuaries that compose insurance tables say it is. Until then, I’ll continue driving my SUV and hope to run over some of you small-car-loving pseduo-Green pussies.

  12. My nomination for underrated catastrophe is soil and aquifer depletion.

    I’m too old to believe in global catastophes, because I’ve outlived all the predictions. Soil depletion was one of them. It definitely is a problem to keep an eye on, but I have no fear that civilization will collapse because of it. What I do fear is unchecked government trying to “solve” a soil depletion problem.

  13. There is some evidence that mammals in Russia were quickly frozen many thousands of years ago by a fairly abrupt catastrophe. (with tropical plants in their stomachs)

    If this actually happened, it had nothing to do with manmade causes. If and when it happens again, “radical changes in our thinking on global governance” will make little difference.

    If such major “extinction” events have occurred in the past, and if by some remote chance one were to happen during our lifetime,debates between the likes of Tickell and Mr. Bailey will have little relevance.

    Dear Danny K., aquifier depletion is a huge problem in India, when coupled with the huge demand for water, the depletion of glaciers in the Himalayas, and the pollution in the rivers.

    In both India and China, one huge factor in the large increases in food production over the last 30 years was the massive drilling of local tube wells. Now these are also going dry, so for India, everything is coming home to roost at once.

  14. Disclosure: The Future of Humanity Institute is covering my travel expenses for the conference; no restrictions or conditions were placed on my reporting.

    Ron Bailey is shilling for Big Apocalypse!

  15. Given the very limited number of extinction level events in the Earth’s history, the odds of anything catastrophic happening in our lifetimes is next to nil.

    Far from humankind fouling the planet beyond livable limits, in much of the world the air and the water are cleaner than they were 30 years ago.

    If global warming is indeed occurring due to natural or human-influenced reasons, it would likely increase agricultural output and human welfare, as the last period of global warming did around 1000 A.D.

    And the standard of living, at least in those parts of the world where rights to private property are respected, is higher now than it has been at any point in human history.

    Sorry to call a parade while you were hoping for a rainy day.

  16. Did anyone discuss the catastrophic effects of proliferating global bureaucracies and unaccountable groups of busybodies funded by bored billionaires?

    They’re far more of a threat than black holes or “global warming”.

  17. “My nomination for underrated catastrophe is soil and aquifer depletion.”

    Soil and water are just about free right now, so if there is a stress on the system it will not take much of a price increase to pick up the slack. There is a lot of land just sitting around. I own a 50 acre old farm in PA that is now just brush fields and woods. I have a creek, great soil and very gental slopes. The land is worth $1000/acre (with active gas well). If Kansass can’t make food then we will make it back East were it use to be made, it will just cost a little bit more.

  18. There is some evidence that mammals in Russia were quickly frozen many thousands of years ago by a fairly abrupt catastrophe (with tropical plants in their stomachs)…onlyskyisthelimit .

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  20. Soil and water are just about free right now, so if there is a stress on the system it will not take much of a price increase to pick up the slack. There is a lot of land just sitting around. I own a 50 acre old farm in PA that is now just brush fields and woods. I have a creek, great soil and very gental slopes. The land is worth $1000/acre (with active gas well). Wholesale Game Accessories Wholesale Iphone AccessoriesIf Kansass can’t make food then we will make it back East were it use to be made, it will just cost a little bit more.

  21. Make tracks to the nearest lodge in this

  22. Even more than hyperbolic scientists, I’ll believe the end of the world is nigh when the Actuaries that compose insuranceDiscount Cordless Screwdriver tables say it is. Until then, I’ll continue driving my SUV and hope to run over some of you small-car-loving pseduo-Green pussies.

  23. increase to pick up the slack. There is a lot of land just sitting around. I own a 50 acre old farm in PA that is now just brush fields and woods. I have a creek, great soil and very gental slopes. The land is worth $1000/acre (with active gas well). If Kansass can’t make food then we will make it back East were it use to be made, it will just cost a little bit more.

  24. The whole cheery conference kicks off this evening with a talk by Sir Crispin Tickell entitled, “Humans: Past, Present and Future.”

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