How long until midnight? The Doomsday Clock measures more than nuclear risk – and it’s about to reset again – Technology News, Firstpost
The conversationJanuary 20, 2022 14:05:32 IST
In less than 24 hours, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will de Doomsday Clock. It is currently 100 seconds past midnight – the metaphorical time when humanity could destroy the world with its own technologies.
The hands have never been this close to midnight. There’s little hope of it coming back on what will be its 75th birthday.
The clock was originally conceived as a way to draw attention to nuclear conflagration. But the scientists who founded the Bulletin in 1945 were less focused on the first use of “the bomb” than on the irrationality of build weapons because of nuclear hegemony.
They realized that more bombs would not increase the chances of winning a war or make anyone safe if just one bomb was enough to destroy New York.
While nuclear destruction remains the most likely and acute existential threat to humanity, it is now just one of the potential disasters measured by the Doomsday Clock. As the Bulletin puts it:
The clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to disasters from nuclear weapons, climate change and disruptive technologies in other domains.
Multiple Connected Threats
On a personal level I feel a certain academic affinity with the clockmakers. Mentors from me, especially Aaron Novick, and others who have profoundly influenced how I see my own scientific discipline and approach to science were among those who shaped and joined the early Bulletin.
By 2022, their warning will go beyond weapons of mass destruction to include other technologies that concentrate potentially existential hazards, including climate change and its root causes in overconsumption and extreme prosperity.
Many of these threats are already known. For instance, commercial chemical use is all pervasive, just like the poisonous waste it creates. In the US alone, there are tens of thousands of large-scale waste sites, containing 1,700 hazardous “superfund sites” priority for cleanup.
if Hurricane Harvey turned out when it hit the Houston area in 2017, these sites are extremely vulnerable. An estimated two million kilograms of pollutants have been released into the air above legal limits, 14 toxic waste sites have been flooded or damaged, and dioxins have been found in a major river at levels exceeding legal limits. 200 times higher than the recommended maximum concentrations.
That was just one metropolitan area. With increasing storm intensity due to climate change, risks for toxic waste sites increase.
At the same time, the Bulletin pays increasing attention to the rise of artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, and mechanical and biological robotics.
The movie clichés of cyborgs and “killer robots” tend to disguise the real risks. For instance, gene drives are an early example of biological robotics already in development. genome editing instruments are used to create gene drive systems that spread through normal reproductive pathways, but are designed to destroy other genes or offspring of a particular sex.
Climate change and prosperity
Climate change is not only an existential threat in its own right, but is also related to the risks of these other technologies.
Likewise, it is possible to imagine the effects of climate change that allow concentrated chemical waste to escape confinement. Meanwhile, highly dispersed toxic chemicals can be concentrated by storms, picked up by floods, and dispersed into rivers and estuaries.
The result could be the looting of farmland and freshwater resources, the displacement of populations and the creation of “chemical refugees”.
Reset the clock
Since the Doomsday Clock has been ticking for 75 years, along with countless others environmental warnings from scientists at that time, what about humanity’s ability to envision and strive for a different future?
Part of the problem lies in the role of science itself. While it helps us understand the risks of technological advancement, it also drives that process in the first place. And scientists are people too – they are part of the same cultural and political processes that affect everyone.
J. Robert Oppenheimer – the “father of the atomic bomb” – described this vulnerability of scientists to manipulation, and to their own naivety, ambition and greed, in 1947:
In a sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no exaggeration can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose.
If the bomb was how physicists learned about sin, then perhaps those other existential threats that are the product of our addiction to technology and consumption are how others come to know it.
Ultimately, the interconnected nature of these threats is what the Doomsday Clock reminds us of.