Will humanity survive this century? Famed astronomer predicts ‘a bumpy ride’ ahead

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By Denise Chow

Humanity is under threat. At least according to Sir Martin Rees, one of Britain’s most esteemed astronomers.

In his new book, “On the Future,” Rees turns his focus closer to home, examining the existential threats that face humanity over the next century. From cyberattacks to advances in biotechnology to artificial intelligence to climate change, Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, says we are living at a critical juncture — one that could define how the human species fares.

To learn more about which technologies worry him most, his prospects for humanity’s survival and why he thinks we’ll eventually enter a period of “post-human evolution,” MACH recently sat down with Rees in New York City. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACH: Why did you write this book now?

Rees: Over the last few years, I’ve had an opportunity to interact with different technologies and more science policy people. I was concerned that they weren’t worrying enough about some potential threats and some potential opportunities. I thought it was good to try and tie together my various thoughts, which I’d expressed in lectures and articles, in a book which I hope is fairly small and readable.

In your 2003 book, “Our Final Hour,” you gave humanity about a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century. Where do you think we stand today?

Well, we survived 18 years so far, but I do think we will have a bumpy ride through the century. I think it’s unlikely we’ll wipe ourselves out, but I do feel that there are all kinds of threats which we are in denial about and aren’t doing enough about. I’m thinking about climate change and the associated loss of biodiversity. We are not urgently dealing with that. Also, we need to contend with the fact that the world population is getting larger. It will be at least 9 billion by midcentury. It is going to be a big stress on resources as well as on food production.

Apart from those two predictable trends — a warming world and a more crowded world — there are also other concerns. We have new technologies, which are wonderful and powerful, but which involve risks as well. I’m thinking of biotechnology, cybertechnology and artificial intelligence. Biotechnology is wonderful. It’s allowed us to grow more food. It’s improved health. It’s allowed us to eliminate some diseases, but it also has a downside. It allows us to modify viruses like the influenza virus to make it more virulent and more transmissible. It allows us to change human beings and animals in ways that might be ethically unacceptable. All these new technologies are developing so fast that we are not sure that we can really cope with them well.


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