In the book ‘Our Final Century: will the human race survive the twenty-first century?‘, Martin Rees concludes that humanity has just a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. We refrain from applying such odds, as the century is fraught with unpredictability and even incomprehensibility. There are certain future events though that we know for certain will happen (should technological advance continue uninterrupted).
1 & 2 – Nanotechnology & 3D Printers
Nanotechnology describes a wide variety of technologies and materials that share one thing in common: They are incredibly small in size. Typical nanostructures are the width of a strand of DNA (2 nanometers), 50 thousand times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. We are already seeing the emergence of nanotechnology; you can read about that in our article, ‘Phase One of the Nanotechnology Revolution has Begun‘. Nanotechnology will really start to make an impact on our world in the next couple of decades; you can read about that in our article, ‘Superhumans Created by Nanotechnology within 30 years‘. For more general background information about nanotechnology, visit here.
Why we need nanotechnology
Just as the industrial revolution ushered our way into the world we know today, nanotechnology will soon change our world beyond comprehension. It is predicted to cure all current types of illness, even aging. It will lead to massive improvements in battery and solar power, ending our dependence on the Earth’s gas, coal, and oil resources. Nano Fabricators will allow us, in our homes, to 3D-Print anything by literally building it from scratch. Quantum computing will create computers that are billions of times more powerful than the ones we have today. Many many more innovative examples exist; literally everything you know will be dramatically enhanced by nanotechnology.
But how it could destroy us
Yes, but the risk of misuse of these breakthroughs rises along with the benefits. There are many potential threats that could be caused through nanotechnology misuse/accident, of which provide an existential risk (a risk that would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential).
One of the soonest and simplest threats could arise from the ability of ‘passive’ nanostructures to pass through the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is a tightly knit layer of cells that affords the brain the highest possible protection from the simple chemicals and microorganisms that could harm it. Neuroscientists are purposefully engineering nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier to deliver medicines in a targeted and controlled way directly to diseased parts of the brain. This ability would also be utilised by the malevolent, in the creation of new forms of biological and chemical weaponry. These types of new biological/chemical WMDs would utilise simple non-toxic chemicals (which would harm the brain but not anything else), which would consequently be very hard to detect by authorities. At its simple stages though it is unlikely to cause an existential risk as it would not be contagious. Further advances though will see the rise of ‘active’ nanostructures, which pose a far greater threat. These are essentially nano-sized robots, which can be programmed to perform specific tasks. Tasks could be to attack certain materials, such as metals, water, internal organs, or specific DNA sequences.
Apocalyptic Scenario 1: Human Killing Nanobots
Active nanostructures (nanobots) can be programmed to specifically target and kill humans. The smallest insect is about 200 microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about 100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. As many as 50 billion toxin-carrying devices—theoretically enough to kill every human on earth—could be packed into a single suitcase. You can read more about this threat, here.
A potential exists that the activity of anti-technology terrorists would significantly increase in the future. This could be in response to the imminent development of an Artificial General Intelligence, which the anti-technologists may believe could turn against humanity. They may see it as necessary to release the ‘human killing nanobots’, to prevent an AGI from rising. They could create the nanobots using advanced molecular 3D-Printers, which by the 2040’s will be owned by many production companies, universities and research centers. Eventually, such printers will be available in all homes.
Apocalyptic Scenario 2: Gray Goo
Another threat of nanobots could arise from the Gray Goo Problem. Gray Goo is easily defined and explained as, ‘runaway nanobots’: A swarm of rapidly self-replicating nanobots, in a ravenous quest for fuel, which would consume the entire biosphere until nothing remained but an immense, sludge like robotic mass. It is incredibly difficult to build though, and so an accidental release will be very unlikely. As time passes though it will become easier to build, and if regulation is not put in place to allow it to be detected & disabled, then a terrorist organisation could release it. You can read more about the Gray Goo Problem, here.
3 & 4 – Artificial General Intelligence & Big Data
AGI is defined as a ‘conscious’ artificial construct that would be an intellectually independent thinker, just as are humans. It is predicted by Ray Kurzweil (Chief of Engineering at Google) and many others, that the first AGI will be operational before 2030. For more information about the basics of AGI, visit here.
Big Data is what we are creating through our use of social networks and smartphone apps. The data pot will become so immense that it can be assembled by us and utilised in new apps which have the new capability of understanding us and our world. Google could use the date to not only respond accurately to your search requests, but preempt what those requests will be. Big Data will drive forward a world where everything is connected in what is called the ‘Internet of Things‘. Our world will become ‘smart’, and that will give AGI a far better understanding, and potential control.
Why we need Artificial General Intelligence
When we develop an AGI that is significantly more intelligent than human beings, our rate of evolution will rapidly accelerate. The world which would as consequence be created, is mostly incomprehensible. The level of the resulting technological advance and incomprehensibility, has been referred to as the ‘Technological Singularity‘ (an event horizon that cannot be predicted beyond). What we hope though is that it will define the next stage of our evolution; we will transcend our biology; our Earth bound reality will only be the beginning; we can explore the universe; explore our existence; our creator; we can become the creator; become Gods.
Optimistically, our future is a wondrous one. The reality though is fraught with security concerns. The main concern with AGI arises from what we have all seen in the movies – our machines turning against us. The University of Cambridge has launched a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which has the primary task of studying AGI risk.
The exact development strategy of AGI is largely as yet unknown. It could involve the integration of an already adult, human mind (as will be seen in the 2014 Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence); it could involve an artificial mind being activated, which would learn from scratch, just as a human child would; or it could be a supercomputer that is tweaked by adding hardware that would allow it to become conscious.
Apocalyptic Scenario 3 – The Terminators
A potential threat is if the AGI has limited capacity to think intellectually (Weak AI). The threat of this has already been seen in humans. It translates as small mindedness, or selfishness. An example of a small minded group would be Al-Qaeda; it’s members have shown an incapability of thinking about other possibilities; they believe their religion is all that matters. As consequence, it is not possible to reason with them, no matter how intelligent they are; they believe they are morally superior.
If an Artificial Intelligence was to be ‘small minded’, it would be against all views which are not inline with its own, even if other opinions are rationally more likely to be correct. It would see all other ideologies as a threat. If humanity as a whole is in disagreement with it, possibility arises for a war of which we would be striped of our technological advantage, or made extinct. Big Data will allow this rogue Weak AI to potentially take control of all we know with the unleashing of a ‘superbug’, taking our cars, home appliances, power stations, communications, weapons etc; plummeting humanity back into the dark ages, or killing us off altogether.
5 – Biotechnology
The term biotechnology is used to define “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use” (Definition by UN Convention on Biological Diversity). Depending on the tools and applications, the term often overlaps/encompasases the fields of biomedical engineering, tissue engineering, biopharmaceutical engineering, genetic engineering, chemical engineering, bioprocess engineering, bioinformatics (a new brand of information technology), and biorobotics. Biotechnology is also researched and developed at the nanoscale, and so may also be spoken of as being a nanotechnology.
Why we need biotechnology
As obvious through the amount of biotechnology fields, it is set to make a huge impact on the world. Most exciting is the impact it will have on health care. Genetic therapy is currently being used to create cures for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS and cancer. And to go beyond exciting, into what most consider is not even possible, it is believed that developments in telomerase gene therapy could lead to effective indefinite lifespans. Visit the website of the SENS Foundation to see how humanity could bioengineer its immortality. You can read more about immortality on our website, here.
But how it could destroy us
With the ability to reengineer our own biology, comes the ability to easily destroy it. The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk cites that, “because the seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, that in itself seems a cause for concern”. The reality is that any imaginable disease could be potentially created.
The most dangerous examples are engineered diseases that are contagious, airborne, have long life spans and are able to avoid antibiotic attack. These new diseases could target anything their creator wishes, for example: The reproductive organs, destroying humanities ability to reproduce; organisms which have short telomere lengths – only killing people above a certain age; the eyes, blinding everybody; only certain ethnic groups, or a certain gender. It could be used to change our genetics, perhaps even transforming the science-fiction into reality with the creation what could be considered
Current biological weapons are simple organisms that have been produced through natural growth, and not genetically modified through gene therapy. The upcoming phase of bioweaponry will feature organisms that have had their genes manipulated, giving them new pathogenic characteristics (increased survivability, infectivity, virulence, stealthy dormancy, drug resistance, etc). Bioengineering of the aforementioned type is grouped and referred to as ‘black biology’, or ‘Chimeras’.
Apocalyptic Scenario 4: Jihad Chimera
Some scientists predict that within 20 years, biotech research will have advanced to a great enough level to allow biologists to switch their talents to black biology, and with relative ease create advanced Chimera pathogens that are resistant to biological defences (antibiotics and known antidotes). Reasons for biologist to want to do this in the future are many. In this scenario, we will feature Islamic fundamentalists in a hypothetical future where their ideology has almost been eradicated.
The year is 2035, the majority of the world has been democratised and all but 1 country
refuses to tolerates Islamist elements in their Governments; people want to be led by democratic governments who do not hold religious/ethnic bias. Iran is that 1 country, and has kept it’s religious rule; it has became ‘the last stand’ for violent radical Islamists who have flocked there for defence, because of the lingering public majority support for Islamist rule. The country had been defended from international sanctions by Russia and China, on the basis of ‘not interfering in other countries affairs’.
However, it becomes no longer in the Chinese and Russian interests to continue to defend Islamist Iran. Iran is left alone and living conditions in the country rapidly deteriorate. Iranians revolt against their leadership in desperation. Radical Islam now faces its final demise, as does the long ruling extremist regime.
In anticipation of this, the regime had been running a black biology program in their planning for a final Jihad. A new Chimera pathogen has been developed (we will call it the Jihad Chimera).
In 2025, gene therapy had led to a complete cure for cancer. Everybody in the world had been vaccinated. The vaccine involved the addition of certain genes into the human genome.
The Jihad Chimera works by seeking out the cancer-inhibiting gene. It sits on the gene, deactivating it, and it works as a carcinogen, making it certain that infected people will, within a few years, develop cancer. Once cancer cells develop, it activates the Jihad Chimera, releasing toxins which in turn accelerate the rate of cancer growth, making the cancer again untreatable and far more aggressive than traditional cancers.
The Jihad Chimera is released by the Iranians throughout the world in 2035. It is even more infectious that the common cold and by 2036, all of humanity is silently infected. By 2037 the cancer pandemic begins. Attempts at developing cures are made, but by 2040 everybody has terminal cancer.
What do you think?
However unlikely the above apocalyptic scenarios are, the technological threats will be increasing. It is up to us now to avoid these scenarios and all other potential threats that could arise from our rapidly accelerating technological advances. The answer is not the banning of technological advance (as some have proposed), the answer is strict regulation and surveillance. The regulation does not have to slow down progress, neither does the surveillance have to encroach on our liberties. What they both need to do though is keep dangerous tech out of the hands of the malevolent. Our defense will be powered by our advancing tech. Our threats will be powered by… What do you think?