Looking Human Extinction in the Face

(Cross-posted from the Lifeboat Foundation blog.)

A point on human extinction risk analysis.

To look at existential risk rationally requires that we maintain a cool, detached perspective. It’s somewhat hard to think of how this might be done, although watching videos of planetary destruction could actually help! As a detective needs to look at a few crime scenes before he can get experienced and move beyond being a simple gumshoe, existential risk analysts need to view simulations and thought experiments of planetary destruction before they can consider it without flinching. Because it is impossible to acquire experience of human extinction risk, as by definition no one is alive afterwards, we have to settle for simulations.

The reaction of many educated adults to extinction risk discussions reminds me of the reaction kids in my Middle School health classes had to the mention of the word “penis”: adolescent giggling. If I were to get onstage in front of a random audience and start talking about existential risk when they didn’t expect it, using words like “planetary destruction”, they’d probably start giggling, at least in their minds. Obviously, we have a way to mature as a society until we can look calmly at the prospect of our own demise. By resolving to do so yourself, you can be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Last week a blogger for the Houston Chronicle, Eric Berger, covered my post on immortality and extinction risk, and the immaturity of most of the comments received is expected but also telling. One reader writes that we should hire Will Smith to save the world, another writes: “I don’t worry about this sort of thing, because when it happens, I’ll be dead and won’t care.” Just like how you get to see someone’s true self a little better when they’re a tad tipsy, we get to see what people really think of extinction risk analysis by their anonymous comments on a big website. When people are on the record, they aren’t likely to make pithy comments like those on the blog, but they might be thinking them, and what they say in public is likely to be a dressed-up version of these sentiments. For instance, there’s an article that appeared in The Mercury on the 22nd of April in 2003, “Disastronomer Royal: More Apocalyptic then the Pope”, which exemplifies the reaction to those who take the prospect of extinction risk seriously, referring to Martin Rees in this case. Extinction denialist articles are not hard to find on the Internet: just Google them.

Ideally, existential risk analysis should be getting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, as the study of global warming does today. Until there are planetary immune systems in place that can respond so quickly and comprehensively that the likelihood of terminal disaster is reduced to practically nothing, existential risk mitigation should be the number one priority of the human species. And the first step is for individuals, such as yourself, to look at the prospect of human extinction in a serious way.

Comments

  1. Michael Wrote:

    Until there are planetary immune systems in place that can respond so quickly and comprehensively that the likelihood of terminal disaster is reduced to practically nothing, existential risk mitigation should be the number one priority of the human species.

    It seems to me once again that this runs into the stumbling block of diminishing returns: We don’t spend any money because there’s a total lack of perceived ability to even attempt to mitigate said risk, save by planetary diaspora; and even that isn’t viewed as feasible with current technology levels (and it isn’t, really).

    So what, then, should we be spending the lion’s share of our wealth on, then? If it’s our #1 priority, it should have primacy in our spending patterns. But what good would this do? Today, especially. Extinction Level Events are serious business and need to be addressed seriously. But we must also recall the law of diminishing returns: If we start spending too much on ELE-mitigation, we’ll actually impede progress. Much as has happened with global warming.

    I believe I’ve said much of this before.

  2. Michael, I agree with you that it is hard for people to think of such a catastrophe in any real sense.

    This may be due to the sense that our lives are so fleeting that it’s not worth the expenditure.

    One could argue that the money is much better spent accelerating the advent of AI powerful enough to defend the Earth should the need arise.

    Now, if Earth has stood its ground for four point five billion years, then it isn’t completely unreasonable to assume that it will be around for another forty.

  3. Hawkeye

    How do you imagine the extinction of humanity? It is a bit overwhelming. Perhaps if you break off a piece of it and look at it as a stand-alone.

    Can you imagine your culture being destroyed because your “race” was being targeted for genocide? Haven’t we seen this example of selective extinction of a group or groups before in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, Rwanda or Sudan? Isn’t it what all of the countries surrounding Israel seek…to wipe them off the map and end their existence?

    Still too big?

    Ok, what about the Huns charging across Asia and into Europe? Or Christianity being wiped from what was the eastern and southern Roman Empire by Islamic Dhimmitude?

    There are plenty smaller examples of pockets of humanity wiped out entirely. Who recalls Babylon, Assyria or hundreds of other small states, city-states or tribes? This is existential anhilation of a subgroup.

    This is the same thing…only every human being is gone. No one is left to carry on the genetics of humanity or vestiges of our current culture.

    A bit morbid, but it has happened throughout history on a more personal scale and it continues to this day around the globe.

  4. Bob Mottram

    To think about extinction risks sensibly requires you to consider the context of human life in relation to other life on earth. Extinction is an omnipresent possibility, and the fossil record tells us that many types of creature have arrisen and vanished from the scene, and that large scale mass extinction events have occured more than once in the past.

    It should be remembered that all but one human species are already extinct. Homo sapiens are the last remaining survivors of the hominid line.

    There is also the question of what it means for a species to “survive”. All creatures are in a constant state of change, and even if humans are able to dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous technologies or dramatic climate change they will not remain in the form that they are now.

  5. Has anyone considered building simulations of ways to deter meteorite collisions? Maybe that would help.

  6. It’s important to contextualize this. I recommend a fella named Joe Bageant. He wrote an essay called The Simulacran Republic a few years back.

    He said, “A while back it was announced that a Japanese inventor had successfully created an invisibility cloak using a material made of thousands of tiny beads called “retro-reflectum.” I found this so amazing that I told six friends, three men and three women, about it over the next two days. Not a one of them found it even interesting, much less amazing. Two of the men subsequently showed mild interest when I pointed out that it could be used to mask tanks and soldiers in combat, and one speculated on its terrorist implications. Our techno hyper-reality has so gutted and rewired the brains of Americans that ordinary intelligent people are not even capable of amazement at such a thing as invisibility! To me, this is an indication of a near-total death of the individual mind and imagination caused by our over-technologized, effects glutted sensory environment.”

    That pretty much sums up what we are dealing with. You and I disagree on a number of details, but we are on the same page. So many folks out here don’t even believe the book we’re reading even exists!

    Here is the entire piece.

  7. Carl Shulman

    “The reaction of many educated adults to extinction risk discussions reminds me of the reaction kids in my Middle School health classes had to the mention of the word “penis”: adolescent giggling. If I were to get onstage in front of a random audience and start talking about existential risk when they didn’t expect it, using words like “planetary destruction”, they’d probably start giggling, at least in their minds.”
    For what kinds of existential risk? At some points during the Cold War human extinction was surely within the grasp of many (even if the nuclear arsenals of the time were not actually quite up to the task of annihilating humanity).

    Hiroshima, a scary tribal enemy, and government propaganda seem to have been up to the task of making people worry about existential risk, but not of getting efficient efforts deployed to prevent it. The lackluster nature of post-Cold War counterproliferation efforts, the gaps filled by Ted Turner/Warren Buffett’s fuinds in the Nuclear Threat Initiative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Threat_Initiative), and the failure of the major powers to undertake larger nuclear arms reductions all speak to this.

  8. Carl, most people laugh at discussions of synthetic bio (artificial microbes) taking over the natural world (it is believed that nature is somehow stronger than artificial biodesigns), at self-replicating nanites, and autonomous AI. Sites such as Exit Mundi present such scenarios, and others, as entertainment.

    Nuclear war was never really a human extinction risk. It would be extremely, extremely unlikely to kill everyone.

  9. Michael: As of right now, any synthetic biotics will be weaker, on a genetic level. Lack of capability to out-compete. For example; most geneticists are planning to “make do” without introns; we still don’t know what actual impact they have — but it is known they serve a purpose. Maybe, after time, they could be designed to be stronger. But that’s not something that can be done accidentally, not long before it will be easily corrected. General computer intelligence & ‘grey-goo’ nanites are a far bigger worry.

    Maybe this lack of precision is part of why it’s seen to be so… facetious? The simple fact is — they’ve all been screamed at about threats of one sort or another, none of which were true. It’s called “rational ignorance” for a reason.

  10. Ryan

    Agreed IConrad. Most people, I think, automatically put existential risk in the same category as alien abduction and y2k paranoia.

  11. floss

    Toynbee (d.1975) describes a period in a civilization called Interregnum, when there is a breach in order or government. This period may last a few hundred years. Population disperses and society breaks down. The Greco-Roman civilization had this period, as did most of the major civilizations of the past 10,000 years. It would serve us well to study civilizational history.

    At any one time there are several civilizations going through their cycle. We have an elderly civilization acting out its Roman era, we have a mature civilization in its post Greek civil war era, and we have several civilizations in a dark age. One or two are coming out of an Interregnum and there’s even one that is being born as we speak.

    So although we discuss human extinction it’s good to keep in mind civilizational life cycles.

  12. Carl Shulman

    Michael,

    I noted above in parentheses the actual inadequacy of the arsenals of the time for human extinction (which would have required strong Sagan-style ‘nuclear winter’ or the like).

  13. Excellent point, Michael, about all the money being spent on (C)AGW, which can not with a straight face be considered an existential risk, when comparatively little is being spent on genuine risks.

    Does anyone remember Thomas Disch’s novel “The Genocides?” Most species go extinct through loss of habitat. Humans had best extend their habitat range significantly.

    The danger of new biologies is that the ecology that sustains us could be replaced by a new ecology that cannot sustain us.

  14. Al fin wrote:

    The danger of new biologies is that the ecology that sustains us could be replaced by a new ecology that cannot sustain us.

    Only if the new biologies possess a greater energy economy efficiency than the old — that is; only if they can ‘out-compete’ the native environs.

    Now, oddly, GM agro is actually more of a concern than early-stage synthetic biology; not because the material itself is transferable, but because the genetics of agricultural goods has been demonstrated to find its way into fallow plants (even of other species…?) Of course, the fears of “deep ecologists” when it comes to the Terminator gene are just plain not founded on science — but what of their beliefs really are, anymore?

  15. Jeffrey Herrlich

    It’s no news to Michael, but with truly **massive** resources humanity could probably put-up a self-sustaining space station, today. Granted, it wouldn’t be luxurious living. That tech will probably continue to get cheaper to some degree. And it could be used to back-up up humanity’s future potential, in the sense that some humans could survive an earth-bound existential disaster from genetics or nanotech. Unfriendly AI, fuggetaboutit. Government’s are already spending some money on space development, but a laughably tiny amount on Unfriendly AI investigation. And they are at least beginning to ask questions about the safety of nanotech/genetics. (eg. The NNI) That’s the primary reason that I believe Friendly AI deserves the lion’s share of attention at this time.

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