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February 27th, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Top 12 threats to human civilization

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Researchers at the Global Challenges Foundation released earlier this month a thorough and unsettling look at what threatens human civilization.  

The bad news is this is a long list. I’ve broken down what the researchers see as the doomsday scenario for each risk, and the odds that it will happen in the next 100 years. On the bright side, the odds are generally very low, but the risks should still be taken seriously.

 

1. Artificial intelligence

Why it’s bad: Machines with an extreme amount of technology could be difficult to control. They may hoard resources to boost their own intelligence, leaving little or nothing for humankind. That would be very bad for us.

Odds of wiping out civilization: 0-10 percent

 

2. Unknown consequences

What to be afraid of: That’s unclear. Lots of things could go wrong that we aren’t even considering. Remember the Fermi paradox — alien life likely exists but we’ve had no known contact. Perhaps intelligent life always destroys itself — or something else does — before it can explore the galaxy. This leaves us to guess at the causes that may have destroyed any other intelligent life.

Evaluating the risk:  0.1 percent

 

3. Synthetic biology

The issue: A pathogen could be engineered to target humans or a critical part of the ecosystem. If synthetic biology products became a part of our economy, that adds a vulnerability, as they could become an entry point for biowarfare or bioterrorism.

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Judging the risks: 0.01 percent

 

4. Extreme climate change

Nightmare scenario: Famines, mass deaths, social collapse and mass migration ignite global conflict. Civilization crumbles.

Now for perspective: 0.01 percent chance of happening in next 200 years (all other estimates are for 100 years)

 

5. Nanotechnology

How this goes badly: Self-replicating nanomachines could be engineered to consume our environment, destroying humanity. Another concern is whether nanotechnology can be used to build nuclear bombs.

Odds of destroying civilization in next 100 years: 0.01 percent.

 

6. Nuclear war

What to worry about: An all-out nuclear war could trigger a nuclear winter, in which temperatures plunge and the ozone layer may be destroyed. The world’s food supply would be at risk, likely triggering mass starvation.

The chances: 0.005 percent.

 

7. Major asteroid impact

Uh-oh: A large asteroid collision — something about 3 miles in size –  would destroy an area the size of Holland. The impact would trigger massive dust clouds, which would affect the climate and our food supply, causing political instability. The good news is an asteroid this size hits about once every 20 million years.

The risk: 0.00013 percent

 

8. Global pandemic

The concern: Infectious diseases can spread easily given our advanced global transportation systems and the dense nature of human populations. A new pandemic combining the incurability of Ebola, the infectious nature of the common cold and the long incubation period of HIV would have an extreme death toll.

The odds: 0.0001 percent.

 

9. Super-volcano

Why this would be very bad: Aerosols and dust would be shot into the upper atmosphere, cooling global temperatures. The effects would be similar to a nuclear winter.

The worry index: Only a 0.00003 percent chance.

 

10. Ecological collapse

The bad news: Species are going extinct at a faster than historic rate. If the ecosystem collapses some human lifestyles may be impossible.

The odds: not available

 

11. Global system collapse

The concern: The world’s economic and political systems face systematic risks because of their intricate and interconnected natures. The researchers say more work needs done to clarify what parts of the system could collapse and destroy civilization. But they felt enough research is out there to include it on the list.

The odds: not available

 

12. Bad global governance

The concern: Leaders don’t eliminate poverty, or they build a totalitarian state. Current technology can make it easier to create a totalitarian state.

The odds: not available

 

Image credit:  CTBTO | Flickr
Via The Washington Post

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