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Can we avoid end of the world?

2012: For decades Hollywood has been making films about the end of the world and how, sometimes, plucky humans manage to avert it.

2012: For decades Hollywood has been making films about the end of the world and how, sometimes, plucky humans manage to avert it.

Published Sep 13, 2013


London - For decades Hollywood has been making films about the end of the world and how, sometimes, plucky humans manage to avert it.

Now some of Britain’s finest minds have come together to draw up some real-life doomsday scenarios – and work out how mankind could avoid being wiped out.

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From killer computers to crippling cyber-attacks by terrorists using the internet to the release of engineered diseases, the members of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk warn that the future could be far from rosy.

But once the threats have been identified the group – led by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and including Stephen Hawking – intends to devise ways of “ensuring our own species has a long-term future”.

Although nuclear annihilation and a giant asteroid obliterating the planet remain distinct, if unlikely, possibilities, Lord Rees believes “the main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature”.

Other scenarios being considered by the 27-strong group – which also involves academics from Oxford, Imperial, Harvard and Berkeley – include extreme weather, fast-spreading pandemics, and war or sabotage resulting in a shortage of food and resources. Speaking at the British Science Festival at Newcastle University, Lord Rees said: “In future decades, events with low probability but catastrophic consequences may loom high on the political agenda.

“That’s why some of us in Cambridge – both natural and social scientists – plan, with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere, to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these ‘existential risks’, and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones.”

Lord Rees’s co-founders in CSER are Jaan Tallinn, one of the people behind internet phone service Skype, and Cambridge philosopher Professor Huw Price.

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The group says in its manifesto: “Our goal is to steer a small fraction of Cambridge’s great intellectual resources ... to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future. In the process, we hope to make it a little more certain that we humans will be around to celebrate the university’s own millennium, now less than two centuries hence.”

CSER member Professor David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge statistician, said: “Asteroids crashing on Earth are an existential threat, but there is not really a lot we can do about preventing such an event.

“The ones that we are not so well aware of are the technological threats. Our reliance on technology leaves us vulnerable to it. We use interconnected systems for everything from power, to food supply and banking, which means there can be real trouble if things go wrong or they are sabotaged.

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“In a modern, efficient world, we no longer stockpile food. If the supply is disrupted for any reason, it would take about 48 hours before it runs out and riots begin.”



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Intelligent technology

A network of computers could develop a mind of its own. Machines could direct resources towards their own goals at the expense of human needs such as food and threaten mankind.

Cyber attacks

Power grids, air traffic control, banking and communications rely on interconnected computer systems. If these networks collapse due to action by enemy nations or terrorists, the paralysis could result in society breaking down.

Engineered infection

A man-made super virus or bacteria with no antidote escapes the lab or is released by terrorists. Millions die.

Food supply sabotage

Efficient distribution networks mean many Western nations have only 48 hours worth of food stockpiled. Any disruption would result in panic buying and riots.

Extreme weather

As the Earth continues to warm a tipping point is reached and the process snowballs, resulting in irreversible and worsening natural disasters.

Fast-spreading pandemic

International travel means a new killer virus, mutated from animals, could travel the globe in days, wiping out millions before a vaccine can be developed.


Growing populations put a strain on water and food resources. Nations will go to war to protect or capture these precious supplies.

Nuclear apocalypse

Nations with atom bombs launch targeted strikes leading to all-out warfare and global loss of life. Also fears nuclear warheads could fall into terrorist hands.

Asteroid impact

A giant asteroid is believed to have killed off the dinosaurs. Some fear a similar impact could do the same for mankind. - Daily Mail

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