On the future: Prospects for Humanity

23 October 2018

Interview with

Professor Lord Martin Rees, University of Cambridge

How can you plan for the future of humanity? Technology, society, and even the climate seem to be changing at unprecedented rates, so how do we prepare for an uncertain future? This tricky topic is being tackled in a new book, called - On The Future - by Professor Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, who joined Izzie Clarke in the studio. But how far into the future can you try and plan?

Martin - Well, of course, we can’t predict on Earth as confidently as in the heavens, but I think there are a couple of things we can predict at least 50 years ahead. One is that the world will get more crowded. The world population’s going up, mainly because people are living longer and because the birth rate is high in Africa and parts of India. So we can predict that the world population, by 2050, will be about 9 billion and that means we’ll have more people to feed and they’ll be more demanding of energy and resources. And that leads to a second prediction which is that because of all those things, it’s almost certain the world will be warmer because the carbon dioxide concentration: it is going up, will almost certainly continue to go up, and there’s a big time lag in its effects so almost certainly we’ll have to contend with a changed and warmer climate.

Izzie - Absolutely. So are those major threats to our natural planet?

Martin - Well, that’s right. Of course, because I’m an astronomer people think do I worry about asteroid impact etc. They can happen but they’re rare. What is worrying about the two things I mentioned is, as you said in your introduction, the rate at which things are changing because of expanding populations and because of advancing technology.

Izzie - And in your book you also mention the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who recently announced their recent report, so how important is this?

Martin - Well, I think there’s a risk that if the temperature rises we might cross so-called “tipping points” when some really serious affect happens. And we’ve got to think not just about 50 years but about what will happen at the beginning of the next century because any baby born now is quite likely to be alive in the early part of the 22nd century. So we’ve got to think about how we can pay an insurance premium now to reduce the risk which otherwise would be encountered by those who are recently born.

I would say that if we want to deal with climate change, then in my view the only effective way will be new technology. I’m rather sceptical about whether politicians will agree to cut carbon for the benefit of people 50 years in the future in remote parts of the world. But I’m slightly less pessimistic now, and I think we do have a future. And what I say in this book is that the best solution to the climate problem is to accelerate research and development into all forms of clean energy. Because if we can have carbon-free energy which is developed fast and cheap, then countries like India, which certainly need to have more power. They will not be able to afford to have anything other than coal fired power stations unless the cost of renewable energy comes down. So if it comes down they can leapfrog directly to clean energy. That’s good for them and good for the country which developed the technology.

Izzie - Absolutely! So if we can get that technology, a lot of us are living our lives online, is there any chance that even that can take over and perhaps go in a negative direction?

Martin - It’s a worry because I said we could predict some things 50 years ahead, but what we can’t predict is technology, because smartphones and the internet would have seemed magic, even just 30 years ago. So if we think about 2050 and beyond, we can’t be confident of whether there’ll be some new breakthrough. And, in particular, I discuss in my book two technologies - cyber and bio, which offer huge benefits but also they present serious risks. And the reason they do that, is that it’s possible for just a few people, by error or by design, to have an effect that cascades globally. We know about cyber attacks and how catastrophic they can be, and we’re going to be more vulnerable in that way. And also possible misuse of biotech can happen in the same way. So I think we need to be concerned about those two technologies.

Izzie - And when we talk about biotech, what do we mean, what does that encompass?

Martin - Well, of course, we know we will have gene sequencing, and maybe gene synthesis, which will allow us to do certain things which you may feel are ethically or prudentially not a good idea to do. But also we have the risk that there will be some experiments that go wrong. About 5 years ago, peopled did experiments to show that you could make the flu virus more virulent and more transmissible, and the American Government stopped funding these experiments because obviously they’re risky, and there are other experiments like that.

And whereas 50 years ago when molecular biology started there were just a few labs and they could regulate themselves. Now these technologies are global there are strong commercial pressures. And I really worry because if you want to try and regulate them, but regulation can’t be enforced globally in my view effectively because of these pressures, anymore than the drug laws or the tax laws can.

And if you ask me what keeps me awake at night, it is the misuse of cybertech and biotech.

Izzie - Okay. So very quickly, what do you think we need to do to make sure the future of our humanity has a positive outcome, because the book itself is quite optimistic?

Martin - Well, that’s right. I think there’s a big gap between the way things could be and way things are and technology has a huge upside, but to go with that there are risks. So I think awareness of these things, and ensure the benefits of these technologies don’t just go to an elite but are widely spread. And, in particular, that they go to the countries like Africa where otherwise the population may run away and there may be real pressures. 

On The Future is out NOW in hardcopy and audio book.

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