What are the greatest global threats to humanity? Are we on the verge of our own unexpected extinction?
And they argue in a research paper, Existential Risk as a Global Priority, that international policymakers must pay serious attention to the reality of species-obliterating risks.
Last year there were more academic papers published on snowboarding than human extinction.
The Swedish-born director of the institute, Nick Bostrom, says the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we get it wrong, this could be humanity’s final century.
Been there, survived it
So what are the greatest dangers?
First the good news. Pandemics and natural disasters might cause colossal and catastrophic loss of life, but Dr Bostrom believes humanity would be likely to survive.
This is because as a species we’ve already outlasted many thousands of years of disease, famine, flood, predators, persecution, earthquakes and environmental change. So the odds remain in our favour.
And in the time frame of a century, he says the risk of extinction from asteroid impacts and super-volcanic eruptions remains “extremely small”.
Even the unprecedented self-inflicted losses in the 20th Century in two world wars, and the Spanish flu epidemic, failed to halt the upward rise in the global human population.
Nuclear war might cause appalling destruction, but enough individuals could survive to allow the species to continue.
If that’s the feelgood reassurance out of the way, what should we really be worrying about?
Dr Bostrom believes we’ve entered a new kind of technological era with the capacity to threaten our future as never before. These are “threats we have no track record of surviving”.
Lack of control
Likening it to a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child, he says the advance of technology has overtaken our capacity to control the possible consequences.
Experiments in areas such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and machine intelligence are hurtling forward into the territory of the unintended and unpredictable.
Synthetic biology, where biology meets engineering, promises great medical benefits. But Dr Bostrom is concerned about unforeseen consequences in manipulating the boundaries of human biology.
Nanotechnology, working at a molecular or atomic level, could also become highly destructive if used for warfare, he argues. He has written that future governments will have a major challenge to control and restrict misuses.
There are also fears about how artificial or machine intelligence interact with the external world.
Such computer-driven “intelligence” might be a powerful tool in industry, medicine, agriculture or managing the economy.
But it also can be completely indifferent to any incidental damage.
These are not abstract concepts.
Seán O’Heigeartaigh, a geneticist at the institute, draws an analogy with algorithms used in automated stock market trading.
Such computer systems can “manipulate the real world”, says Dr O’Heigeartaigh, who studied molecular evolution at Trinity College Dublin.
In terms of risks from biology, he worries about misguided good intentions, as experiments carry out genetic modifications, dismantling and rebuilding genetic structures.
“It’s very unlikely they would want to make something harmful,” he says.
But there is always the risk of an unintended sequence of events or something that becomes harmful when transferred into another environment.
“We are developing things that could go wrong in a profound way,” he says.
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