Cambridge scientists studying what will end humanity (and how to save us)

Cambridge scientists studying what will end humanity (and how to save us)

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The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries and yet this one we are experiencing is unique in history.

“It is the first century in which a species, ours, wields so much power and is so dominant that it has the future of the planet in its hands”, writes the prestigious British astronomer Martin Rees in “In the future. Prospects for humanity” .

“The stakes are more important than ever; what happens in this century will be felt for thousands of years“, sentence in said book of 2018.

In fact, Rees has been repeating these warnings for more than two decades, which, for the vast majority, would sound interesting, but unlikely. Perhaps at that time, more than science, they seemed like science fiction.

In fact, he himself acknowledged in a TED talk that “we worry too much about minor risks: improbable air accidents, carcinogenic substances in food, low doses of radiation … But we and the politicians who govern us live in denial of catastrophic scenarios. ”

Then 2020 came and every word from Rees had a chilling effect.

For example, in that talk he gave in 2014, he stated that now “the worst dangers come from us”: “And there is not only the nuclear threat. In our interconnected world (…) air travel can spread pandemics in a matter of days, and social media can spread panic and rumors literally at the speed of light. ”

However, there were those who did not need the covid-19 pandemic to listen to Rees. Since 2015 a small interdisciplinary group of researchers has been working under his leadership at the so-called Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.

The center, which has counted on the advice of leading figures from academia – such as physicist Stephen Hawking – and from industry – such as businessman Elon Musk – investigates the dangers that could lead to the extinction of humanity or the collapse of civilization and what to do to mitigate them.

It is precisely in this second aspect that the Peruvian molecular biologist Clarissa Ríos Rojas works, who joined the CSER in March, shortly before the British government decreed the quarantine for coronavirus.

Peruvian molecular biologist Clarissa Rios Rojas works at CSER in the area of ​​public policy.

© Courtesy Clarissa Ríos Rojas
Peruvian molecular biologist Clarissa Rios Rojas works at CSER in the area of ​​public policy.

We’ve had pandemics before and yet covid-19 caught us off guard“Ríos tells BBC Mundo.” So what went wrong? What are the lessons we can learn from this experiment and how can we prepare for the future again? “He wonders.

In other words, his work at Cambridge is to identify why predictions based on scientific data go unheard and, consequently, generate public policies that prepare humanity for the next global catastrophe.

As well as the deep crisis caused by the coronavirus It wasn’t the first, it won’t be the last.

5 risk areas

The first thing that Ríos explains is that there is a difference between catastrophic and existential risk.

Although the definitions vary slightly between them, it is generally understood that catastrophic risk events are those that, if they occur, would end the lives of 10% of the world’s population or would cause equivalent harm.

For reference, it is considered that the most lethal event of the 20th century was the 1918 influenza pandemic, better known as the Spanish flu, where between 1% and 5% of the world’s population died, according to different estimates.

© Getty Images

Instead, an existential risk event involves the annihilation of all human beings or a population reduction so great that it does not allow us to continue with current living standards, which drastically and permanently undermines its potential.

The CSER studies the latter type of events, which it divides into five major areas: biological, environmental, technological risks, derived from artificial intelligence and social injustices.

Some examples are very clear, such as pandemics within the biological area or climate change in the environmental area. In fact, other natural hazards – such as the impact of an asteroid or the eruption of a supervolcano – are very present in the collective imagination, since they have demonstrated their devastating power in the past.

But there are other less obvious existential risks, such as artificial intelligence.

The fear with artificial intelligence is not that an Arnold Schwarzenegger will emerge that kills us all“, says Ríos in reference to the Terminator character in the first film of the saga.

“In reality it can happen that, to achieve the objective of saving humanity, the entire ecosystem is destroyed because the necessary parameters were not given to guide that artificial intelligence that continues to learn by itself,” he explains.

Martin Rees is one of the world's leading researchers on cosmic evolution, black holes, and galaxies.

© Getty Images
Martin Rees is one of the world’s leading researchers on cosmic evolution, black holes, and galaxies.

In this case, Ríos’ task would be, for example, to work together with governments to establish protocols and monitoring tools for institutions in the area, or to ensure that the study programs of engineering-related universities have a strong base of knowledge. ethics.

Social injustice is another area where the level of risk may not be as noticeable. But there is a very clear example in history: the european conquest of America.

This episode “resulted in the potential loss of more than 80% of the indigenous populations, the collapse of the Aztec, Inca and Zapotec civilizations, and the death, torture, cultural disruption and political destabilization that occurred as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. “CSER states on its website.

And he adds: “Until today, European colonization continues to have catastrophic impacts globally, including neglect of tropical diseases. ”

Covid-19 effect

According to Ríos, the covid-19 pandemic – which has already claimed more than 1 million lives throughout the world – is teaching governments and society what does it mean to prepare for the worst.

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“Covid-19 has shown how systems begin to collapse one by one“, dice.

“One might think that only the health sector would be affected, but in reality transportation, agriculture, education, the economy, work were affected …”, he adds.

According to the Peruvian researcher, one way to incorporate these lessons at the public policy level could be to create government teams that analyze potential catastrophic risks linked to the country or the region (such as climate change in Central America or nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula. ) and generate action protocols.

But, as Ríos acknowledges, “policies can be beautiful, but if society does not want to accept them and, for example, continues to go out without masks, then they are useless.”

To achieve social commitment, a module on what we learned from the covid-19 pandemic could be incorporated into high school programs or create a master’s degree in global catastrophic risk, he exemplifies.

“If we want to put these topics on the political agenda, there has to be a joint effort and not just from the University of Cambridge,” says Ríos. “We need a global citizenship mindset“.

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