The Edinburgh Science Festival last night welcomed the Astronomer Royal, the cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, to the auditorium of the National Museum of Scotland for a wide ranging lecture entitled If Science is to Save Us, discussing how technology can both exacerbate and alleviate the current and emerging threats to our planet and its population.
Opening with the frequently used quip that as Astronomer Royal his duties did not encompass providing the Queen’s horoscope, rather any predictions he makes are based on science and though he confirmed they could be increasingly unreliable the further he looked into the future they were generally better than those of economists, but deep into the Anthropocene era the trends of past data inform the future and with the world population having doubled from four billion to eight billion in the last fifty years even with a recent drop in the birth rate it is likely we will host nine billion humans by the middle of this century.
The need to feed these billions inevitably requiring a change in the way food is grown and harvested with “dietary innovation” necessitating the consideration of grubs and maggots as sources of proteins and genetically modified crops, while it will be possible to feed the planet he quoted Mahatma Ghandi that there will only be “enough for need, not for greed,” with the issues of fair distribution to be addressed as much as the more obvious challenges of blights and droughts if famine is to be avoided.
Considering extinction rates, Lord Rees said we are “destroying the book of life before we’ve read it,” commenting that there is now more biomass in turkeys and chickens than in all wild birds, and said that climate change “is not under discussed, it is however under-responded to,” and lamenting that “politicians will only act long-term if they think the population is onside,” he urged the adoption of cleaner energy sources and in particular for support for developing countries to leapfrog a reliance on coal and oil and go straight to clean energy, praising the four individuals whose high profile had given them disproportionate sway in the movement for responsible use of resources, Pope Francis, David Attenborough (“our secular Pope”), Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg.
Acknowledging that the coming century would be “a bumpy ride,” while nuclear weapons are still a threat they were primarily one of the twentieth century and current stockpiles are vastly smaller than at the height of the cold war, but new dangers would be presented in the possibility of engineered bioweapons, Covid-19 having demonstrated how swiftly an infection spreads and becomes endemic in a population, and with the interconnectivity of power grids and services through the Internet a rogue operator could potentially bring an entire city or country to a standstill with malicious action, with even strong regulation impossible to enforce universally: “The global village will have its idiots, and their idiocy can cascade globally.”
Discussing artificial intelligence and robotics, Lord Rees speculated that they would reach a plateau as other technologies had done; with less than fifty years between the first flights across the Atlantic and the introduction of Jumbo Jets, Concorde never became a success and Jumbo Jets still dominate, and while little more than a decade lay between Sputnik and the Moon landings in the fifty years since we have not returned, and while AI technologies have made astonishing progress in the past decade they still struggled with “non-routine interactions with the outside world,” the plumbing and gardening trades currently in no danger of being superceded by automation.
The future of humanity as a species leading to a digression regarding the science of cryonics, freezing terminally ill individuals so they can potentially be revived and cured at a future time, Lord Rees revealed he had been astonished to find three acquaintances from Oxford had signed up for the process, two full body and one head only, but was pleased that to his knowledge his more sober colleagues at his own university Cambridge had so far resisted, while for his part he would “rather end my days in an English churchyard than an American refrigerator,” lamenting that “the young want to become rich, the rich want to become young again – that’s not so easy.”
Considering the future of manned and automated space exploration, Lord Rees returned to artificial intelligence and robotics, stating this is where these technologies had their widest scope and would be of the least potential threat to humanity and that the practical case for human spaceflight diminishes with each advance in automation, but regardless with only two Space Shuttle accidents in one hundred and thirty eight flights it was less than a two percent failure rate, something many test pilots would regard as acceptable, with the recognition that both the Challenger and Columbia disasters were “national traumas.”
A propos of that, Lord Rees was uncomfortable with the term “space tourism” moving into common parlance which he felt implied that the process was routine and low risk, in reality at least as dangerous as the most extreme sports, and that it was a dangerous delusion to think of space travel as a viable post-human future, the challenges presented in moving even a small population off-world far greater than tackling climate change and the other threats on our own planet, a far more hospitable home than any other we could hope to reach.
Closing the lecture with the message he wished the audience to take away with them, that twenty first century technology should allow a high quality of life even to nine billion people but that the political and sociological problems were greater than the science, Lord Rees urged people to focus on problems we are causing and to think on timescales of a century, offering the words of Margaret Mead as inspiration: “It takes only a few determined individuals to change the world; indeed, nothing else ever has.”