Environment

What Are The Anthropogenic Sources Of Global Catastrophic Risk?

Several man-made factors like global warming, artificial intelligence, bioterrorism, etc., might trigger a catastrophic disaster in the future.

The Earth has existed for billions of years since its formation some 4 billion years ago. During its history, the Earth has undergone numerous changes in its composition, temperature, and atmosphere to have the ideal conditions required for life. As the dominant species, humans have had catastrophic effects on the Earth through runaway pollution and destruction of entire ecosystems. Humanity has even been pointed out by scholars as a probable cause of the destruction of the Earth. Anthropogenic sources of global catastrophic risk are the human activities pointed out as probable causes of the destruction of modern human civilization on a global scale.

Risks Associated with Advancements in Biotechnology

While humans are making great strides in biotechnology, altering the genetic composition of organisms for research or medical purposes, many scholars see these bioengineered organisms as potential causes of a global catastrophic risk. Scholars believe that if biotechnological experiments in organisms necessary for human survival goes haywire, then that would lead to the extinction of humanity. Such organisms include gut bacteria and crucial pollinators of essential crops. Biotechnology can also alter the virulence of lethal pathogens, making the engineered pathogens impossible to destroy with modern medicine. An example of such an incident was the recent research from Australia when scientists altered the characteristics of the mousepox virus by mistake, leading to the creation of an invincible strain of the virus which could not be contained even through vaccination. Biotechnology risk is real and is pointed as one of the most likely sources of a global catastrophe, due to the ability of pathogens to extensively spread over a large area and the near-impossible task of containing the spread. The risk of biotechnology is compounded by the low-cost involved in the bioengineering process, which was originally the exclusive domain of few world-class laboratory. While few countries such as the United States have laws regulating the research of dangerous pathogens, many countries lack such legislation, allowing extremely dangerous unregulated bioengineering activities to take place.

Potential Risks of Cyberattacks

Warfare in the world is progressively moving from traditional physical attacks to cyberattacks. Cyberattacks are offensive maneuvers used by individuals, organizations, or countries aimed at sabotaging the computer software, hardware, or digital information owned by another party through malicious procedures known as syntactic attacks and semantic attacks. These attacks are usually conducted anonymously and can be in the form of cyberterrorism, cyber campaigns, or cyberwarfare. While most past cyberattacks are usually on a small scale, focusing on personal computers or the servers of large corporations, scholars believe that cyberattacks aimed at critical infrastructures such as servers belonging to international banks or major power infrastructure were potentially catastrophic on a global scale.

Risks Associated with Advancements in Artificial Intelligence

Another anthropogenic source of global catastrophic risk is artificial intelligence. The theme of artificial intelligence taking over the world is popularly depicted in numerous literary works such as comics and films. Since the creation of the first computer in the 20th century, computer technological advances have grown by leaps and bounds, and computers have become more efficient. Robots of the modern age have become semi-autonomic and not reliant on human control. However, there are fears that shortly artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and ultimately phase out humanity as the dominant global species. Renowned scholars and inventors like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk have all stated the possibility of artificial intelligence developing to a point where it will become impossible to be controlled by humans, an event which will have catastrophic effects on the human race. Vernor Vinge who is known for his study of the possibility of artificial intelligence eclipsing human intelligence in a philosophy known as “singularitarianism,” also stated that humanity was at risk of extinction if robots do become smarter than human intelligence. To study the effects of an autonomous artificial intelligence on humanity, scholars use the interaction of humans and chimpanzees as an example where human activity dictates the survival of the chimpanzees. Using the human-chimpanzee scenario, one can see the potential danger artificial intelligence poses on human survival. While there are numerous scenarios proposed to lead up to the rise of artificial intelligence, they are categorized into two: technical failure of artificial intelligence and philosophical failure of artificial intelligence. Many scholars agree that such an event is almost impossible to predict since anthropomorphism acts as a bias to artificial intelligence.

Possibility of Global Nuclear War

A common belief has it that the world is currently at its most peaceful period in its history, despite the gloomy perception that is portrayed in the media. However, the relative peace in the world has not stopped countries from mass production of deadly weapons, with all major economies in the world having the mind-boggling amount of military arsenal. Russia and the United States are known to have a combined 14,700 nuclear weapons, accounting for the bulk of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The destructive power of nuclear bombs is well known and is usually pointed as the prime suspect for the cause of the end of civilization. The probability of the world engaging in a nuclear war has been a polarizing topic amongst scholars, but almost all see such a scenario as being inevitable. A global nuclear war has the potential of altering the Earth’s climate, plunging the world into a nuclear winter with cold weather and decreased sunlight penetration which would have catastrophic effects on global food production and ultimately lead to the collapse of modern civilization. In 1949, renowned physicist Albert Einstein, whose formula was integral in the creation of atomic bombs, stated that the next world war (World War III) would send humanity back to the Stone Age. Global warfare would not be exclusively based on nuclear weapons but would also include biological warfare which could potentially lead to the extinction of humans.

Risks of Runaway Climate Change

Another likely cause of global catastrophic risk is runaway climate change where the effects of climate change make the Earth uninhabitable. The effects of climate change have already been felt all over the world. Rising sea levels are placing coastal communities and island dwellers are at risk of being submerged and disappearing forever. Changing weather patterns have caused food production to plummet in many regions around the world, leading to droughts and famines at levels not seen before in the Earth’s history. Scientists believe that the continued emission of greenhouse gases has the potential of permanently making the Earth uninhabitable due to the greenhouse effect caused by these toxic gases.

More in Environment