Internationally renowned astrophysicist Martin Rees recently delivered a talk exploring the future, advocating for science to empower us while being guided by human values. Here’s an edited transcript.
Because I have the title Astronomer Royal, I’ve been asked: ‘Did you do the Queen’s horoscopes?’ But no, I’m just an astronomer – not an astrologer.
And we scientists are rotten forecasters – but maybe better than economists.
However, some trends can be predicted even with a cloudy crystal ball. For instance, the world will get more populated, reaching around 9 billion by 2050. Nourishing them all will require high-tech agriculture, including GM crops, artificial meat and the conversion of insects and maggots into palatable food.
There’s a second firm prediction: our world will get warmer. Politicians focus on immediate threats like COVID-19. But they won’t prioritise long-term measures needed to deal with climate change unless there’s a clamour from voters. Unsurprisingly, it’s the young – who expect to live to the end of the century – whose clamour is loudest. Their leverage on voters and businesses is amplified by charismatic influencers, especially the disparate quartet of Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg.
Nourishing 9 billion people in 2050 will require high-tech agriculture, including GM crops and artificial meat.
But, to insert a bit of good cheer: science offers a ‘win-win’ roadmap to a low-carbon future. Nations like ours should expand research and development into all forms of low-carbon energy generation, storage, and smart transcontinental grids. This should enable the prosperous North to reach net zero.
There’s an even more important motive. The impoverished 4 billion in the Global South must be enabled to leapfrog to clean energy, just as they leapfrogged to smartphones without ever having landlines.
And we must do this without our ecological footprint devastating biodiversity. To quote E.O. Wilson: ‘If humanity causes mass extinctions, it’s the sin that future generations will least forgive us for.’
We should be evangelists for new technology. Without it the world can’t provide food and sustainable energy for an expanding and more demanding population.
But there’s cause for worry, too. Powerful technologies may be hard to control. For instance, advances in virus research were our salvation in tackling COVID-19. But so-called ‘gain of function’ research opens the prospect of engineered pandemics. Biotech needs to be regulated.
Yet, I’d worry that whatever regulations are imposed cannot be enforced worldwide, any more than drug laws or tax laws can. The global village will have its village idiots. If empowered by bio or cyber expertise, their idiocies can cascade globally.
Perhaps we’ll never feel safe enough without universal intrusive surveillance.
Without technology the world can’t provide food and sustainable energy for an expanding and more demanding population.
These are my near-term nightmares. What about 2050 and beyond?
I think we’ll learn the combinations of genes that determine key human characteristics, and how to synthesise them. ‘Designer babies’ will become conceivable, in both senses of that word.
Already, special labs have been set up, in California and in Cambridge, to focus on another kind of human enhancement: extending the lifespan. When their billionaire founders were young, they wanted to be rich. Now they’re rich they want to be young again. That’s not so easy!
Some worry they’ll die before this research succeeds. They sign up with a company in Arizona that will freeze and store their body, until immortality’s on offer and they can be resurrected or their brain downloaded. Two academics I know have signed up for this ‘cryonics’. I’m glad they’re from Oxford, not from my university. I’d rather end my days in an English churchyard than an American refrigerator.
And what about artificial intelligence? Machines are already taking over much of manufacturing and retail distribution. It would be a win-win situation if those displaced by AI from mind-numbing jobs in call centres or Amazon warehouses could be offered well-rewarded and esteemed jobs where being human is crucial – such as carers for young and old, funded via proper taxation of global conglomerates.
AI already copes better than humans with data-rich fast-changing networks. The Chinese could have an efficient planned economy that Karl Marx could only dream of. AI can help science too, with protein folding and drug development, and perhaps even settle whether string theory can really describe our universe.
Artificial intelligent can help science, with protein folding and drug development.
Now I come to my favourite technology – space. It’s beyond our Earth, in environments hostile to humans, that AI-empowered robots have the most spectacular scope. Indeed, I have argued before that sending humans on space voyages should receive no taxpayer’s funds; it’s hugely more expensive than sending robots. There’s a minimal practical case. Leave this to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who could operate a cut-price programme far riskier than Western nations could impose on publicly-supported civilians.
There would still be many volunteers, some perhaps even accepting ‘one-way tickets’. Indeed, by 2100 heroic thrill-seekers may have established ‘bases’ independent from the Earth. Musk himself has said he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.
But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. Dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people.
Nonetheless, we should cheer on these brave space adventurers. They’ll be ill-adapted to a Martian habitat, so they’ll have a compelling motive to redesign themselves. So it’s them, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era.
If post-humans make the transition from flesh and blood to fully inorganic intelligences, they won’t need an atmosphere. And they may prefer zero-gravity. So it’s in deep space – not on Earth, nor even on Mars – that non-biological ‘brains’ may develop powers that humans can’t even imagine, as different mentally from us as we are from slime-mould.
So, even if intelligent life had originated only on the Earth, it need not remain a trivial feature of the cosmos. It could jump-start a diaspora whereby ever more complex intelligence spreads through the whole galaxy. Interstellar voyages would hold no terrors for near-immortals.
There’s plenty of time ahead.
To quote Woody Allen, ‘eternity is very long, especially towards the end.’
If science is to save us, we need to think globally, rationally and long-term.
This century is special. It’s the first, in the 45 million centuries of Earth’s history, where one species – ours – has our planet’s future in its hands. Our creative intelligence could jump-start the transitions from an Earth-based to a space-faring species, and from biological to artificial intelligence. These are transitions that could inaugurate billions of years of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us.
On the other hand, humans could, this century, trigger bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes that foreclose all this potential.
‘Spaceship Earth’ is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. But there is too little planning, too little horizon-scanning.
If science is to save us (the title of my newest book) we need to think globally, rationally and long-term, empowered by science, but guided by values that science alone can’t provide.
Martin Rees is an internationally renowned astrophysicist, and former President of the Royal Society. He has written numerous books on astronomy and science, and received honorary degrees from a number of universities. This text is an edited transcript of his speech at the ‘If Science Can Save Us…’ event in London, October 13, 2022.