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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Averting Disaster

Air Date: Week of April 22, 2005

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Host Steve Curwood looks at a list of potential worst case scenarios for the Earth. At the top of that list are: climate change, nuclear war, and, believe it or not, a world run by robots.

Transcript

CURWOOD: And now, these thoughts. Being human is a risky business. In fact, genetic research suggests that, perhaps 70,000 ago, there were only about 2,000 humans alive and we were just a hoot and holler away from the drought or plague that would have meant extinction. Now, of course, at six billion and climbing, there are other risks and Kate Ravilious, a writer for the British newspaper, The Guardian, recently asked ten scientists what they thought might get us in trouble in the next century. She asked them to consider both the gravity of the threat and its likelihood. It's likely, one responded, that we'll have a global viral pandemic, but it is unlikely to wipe out the human species. All-out nuclear war is a far graver threat, said another, but the odds of it happening before the end of the century are low. On the other hand, climate change is likely to happen to a significant extent, although The Guardian analysts didn't think it would delete humanity, just civilization as we know it. But, there is something that has an even greater combined risk of danger and likelihood than climate change and this one was a surprise to me. The Guardian quotes Hans Morevic at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg as saying there is a good chance robots could take over things before 2100.

"Robot controllers double in complexity (processing power) every year or two," says Professor Morevic. "They are now barely at the lower range of vertebrate complexity, but should catch up with us within a half-century. By 2050, I predict, there will be robots with human-like mental power, with the ability to abstract and generalize," he says. So, while you may have joked that a cranky police officer or high school principal was an android, what would it be like to have the real thing? Uncompromising robotic voice mail systems already provide a taste of what could be coming. So, is there any good news here? The self-awareness of our species means that we can, in fact, take action to address dire but distant threats. Environmental advocates have succeeded in sounding the alarm about climate change and already billions are being spent and invested in response. Even if governments are still squabbling about the details and dimensions of the problem, citizens are already snapping up climate-sparing hybrid cars and planting trees. The signs are good that these efforts could not only blunt the worst effects of climate disruption but they might become powerful drivers of job creation and prosperity as well. So then, what about the robots? During the last two decades, activism has brought down the Berlin Wall, freed Nelson Mandela from prison to lead a multi-racial South Africa and set the world on the path of confronting global warming. So, don't be surprised to see green activism doing its part to make sure robots are used to make us more human, rather than less. Robots may eventually do some things better, such as long distance travel in space, but they can never replace the feeling of joy that is life itself.

 

Links

Guardian Unlimited article "What a Way To Go"

 

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