The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic timepiece that measures how near humans are to global catastrophe, ticked over to 90 seconds to midnight at the start of this year – the closest we’ve ever been to annihilation. A new book suggests we should be more optimistic.
Doom has become a profitable industry. Do a quick search for ‘wipe out humans’ and Google will spit out page after page of the-end-is-nigh predictions: ‘Researchers warn artificial intelligence could one day kill everyone’; ‘Study says zombies would wipe out humans in less than 100 days’.
It’s all great Hollywood fodder. Clickable content. But, as the scientist and writer John Hands argues in his latest book The Future of Humankind, when these types of forecasts are tested against their eventual outcomes, they are always disproven – often wildly so.
Following on from the success of his last book, Cosmosapiens, which was named one of 2015’s best science books by the Telegraph, the former University of North London lecturer has spent the last six years delving into the evidence surrounding the main existential threats to humankind, and offers a different take: we should be more optimistic.
“I felt that the current general climate was pessimistic,” Hands says. To test that theory, he took a critical look at the chances of the human race being snuffed out by national disasters, warfare, biological accidents, population increases, AI, and climate change.
“My approach was to examine, as objectively as possible, long-term patterns”
He suggests that most existential threats had a low or negligible probability of coming true, and that there were many reasons to be sanguine. “My approach was to examine, as objectively as possible, long-term patterns,” says Hands. “I tried to avoid what’s happening in the day-to-day.”
Hands theorises that Homo sapiens are distinguished from other species by a “reflective consciousness”; the ability to think about ourselves and our future, and act in our own interests.
For millennia, humans have moved freely around the world, sharing ideas. Scientific progress has been achieved through our findings. Humans have created a collective consciousness, he argues.
Indeed, Hands is one of an emerging set of writers offering a more positive outlook on our future, including Dutch historian Rutger Bregman who believes that humans are cooperative and kind by nature.
“Throughout history, a cynical view of human nature has always been a legitimisation of power,” Bregman says. “A hopeful view of human nature leads to institutions with more freedom. Because if people can’t trust each other, then they need powerful people to look over them. But if we can trust each other, we can live in a much more egalitarian, genuinely democratic society.”
Hands believes that altruism, creativity and a convergence of ideas have helped to foster human cooperation. He argues that this has allowed us to evolve from being in tribes, to being part of agricultural villages, and to creating global organisations like the United Nations. What’s more, Hands suggests this collective consciousness is “an accelerating progression”. Our long-term outlook, he argues, is good; it’s ours to determine.
Existential threats had a low or negligible probability of coming true
“We are currently in the process of collectively deciding to restrict technological developments that result in increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Hands writes on climate change, though he admits progress is “often two steps forward, one step back.”
So is the doom unfounded?
Hands found that most existential threats had a low or negligible probability of coming true, such as being wiped out by an asteroid like dinosaurs. “The balance of evidence strongly suggests that an asteroid impact was not the main cause of a mass species extinction 66m years ago,” he writes.
Whilst a large asteroid certainly did hit present-day Mexico around this time, the fossil evidence suggests a much more gradual extinction rather than a full-on wipeout. The timespan was sufficiently long enough for some dinosaurs to evolve into birds. Reassuringly, NASA says there are no comparably large asteroids in orbits that could potentially hit Earth.
Fears of nuclear war have, understandably, ramped up since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s subsequent decision to suspend the New START nuclear treaty (which he did the same week Hands’ book came out).
It’s impossible to predict the implications of recent events, but Hands suggests that we should take comfort from the fact that the global nuclear weapons stockpile has shrunk to around one fifth of its 1990 peak. This has been achieved through international agreements, and declarations between nuclear states – including Russia, China and the US – that a nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought.
This ability for humans to reflect on the threats we face and create solutions is the book’s overarching theme. From vaccines and laser systems that deflect comets, to a reduction in conflict mortality, the human race has long made progress in extending its own survival. More of us are living longer than ever before. Now we are turning our attention to the survival of other species (albeit not urgently enough), with the recent global agreement to protect oceans reminding us that positive change is possible.
Another perceived threat gaining international attention recently is AI. Stephen Hawking warned us about it. Elon Musk has, too. Indeed, Hands found that since modern AI was developed in the 1950s, there have been countless suggestions that the technology will overthrow or supersede humans. Yet none have come to pass.
“The most fundamental limitation of today’s intelligent machines is that each can achieve only the objective specified by its human programmers,” argues Hands. “To achieve human-level intelligence, it must demonstrate the multifunctionality, flexibility, insights, and self-reflectivity of a human.”
For now, it is nowhere near. Hands cites the 11 crashes reportedly caused by Tesla’s autopilot software since 2018 – each involved an emergency vehicle using flashing lights, cones, and flares – and facial recognition systems being duped by people wearing sunglasses as examples of how far away the technology currently is.
“I suspect that many futurists take insufficient account of the limitations of current AI because of the hyped claims made by companies who profit from selling their AI products,” he writes.
The climate crisis prompted Hands to reduce his own emissions – he gave up his car, stopped flying
Some in the industry disagree. Last July, Google engineer Blake Lemoine lost his job after claiming publicly that its conversational AI system, LaMDA, was sentient.
Holden Karnofsky, CEO of the Open Philanthropy Project, believes that AI doesn’t need super intelligence to inflict chaos. It could, he wrote in a recent blog post, hack into human-built software, or do its own research on how to self-improve, leading to disaster.
But the technology also has the potential to solve problems that have hitherto stumped humanity. It looks set to be a valuable tool in the fight against cancer, and already AI is being used to tackle overfishing and deforestation.
Which brings us to the climate crisis. It prompted Hands to reduce his own emissions – he gave up his car, stopped flying. He acknowledges that there will be significant disruption if we don’t ramp up climate action. But he argues that notions we could be rendered extinct by a warming world are far from the mark.
“If we take a long-term view, we see that the warm interglacials of the Quaternary period, with their much higher temperatures and greater rise in sea levels than now… was a time when several great human civilisations began and flourished.”
Indeed, we may already be turning a corner when it comes to reining in emissions. The International Energy Agency said recently that renewables were (slowly) starting to have a measurable impact. Some academics suggest that these kinds of ‘positive tipping points’ could trigger an unstoppable wave of decarbonisation.
“This is part of the long-term trend of reflective consciousness,” Hands says. “The more we think about these things, the more action we can take, and the more action we are taking.”
Maybe it’s time to wind the Doomsday Clock back again?