Good and Bad News About Global Risks

The World Economic Forum publishes its Global Risks Report 2013 today, and my opinion is buried in there somewhere among the other thousand experts. It’s always a fascinating document, although it is a survey of opinion, hence nanotechnology being defined as a high likelihood high impact risk eight years ago!

That said, the first paragraph of the report flags carbon nanotubes as a risk on a par with asbestos, which although similar in morphology are vastly different in both application and the attitude of manufacturers to health and safety.

The nature of global risks is constantly changing. Thirty years ago, chlorofluorocar­bons (CFCs) were seen as a planetary risk, while threat from a massive cyber attack was treated by many as science fiction. In the same period, the proliferation of nuclear weapons occupied the minds of scientists and politicians, while the proliferation of orbital debris did not. We see a similar story with asbestos then and carbon nanotubes today, and the list goes on.

The good news for nanotechnologies is that their unforeseen consequences are still a low risk, low impact issue, as they have been for many years now, although the potential impact seems to have edged up a little.  More relevant to emerging technologies are the gradual progression towards the upper right quadrant, symbolising high likelihood and high impact, of the unforeseen consequences of new life science technologies and climate change mitigation, i.e. geoengineering (of which more later). To some extent the likelihood and severity of risks are a function of their visibility, the NGO’s that were using nanotechnology as a poster child for all that is bad about technology – creating a north-south imbalance, controlled by an elite, lack or transparency etc. – have all moved onto other issues meaning that while the risks still exist, they are much less visible.

Another issue flagged by the Global Risks Report 2013 is that experts views differ from those of non-specialists, so environmental experts are far more alarmed by climate change than those withe no direct involvement, while experts in nanotechnology and life sciences are less worried about unforeseen consequences than others. The report asks:

Are economists more informed about economic issues than others, or are there ideological differences at play? Are the technological specialists more knowledgeable here, or does their excitement about new technologies dampen their risk perceptions? And where experts are more worried, does that mean that we should listen to them more, or do they just feel more strongly about their issue without knowing enough about other threats?

Perhaps it is all of the above?

Reports of this nature are a useful starting point to identify risks, taking action is more difficult. Indeed some of the most severe risks such as chronic fiscal imbalances or diffusion of weapons of mass destruction are either insoluble or can only be addressed at a global level, but are there others that we can head off?

At Cientifica we have looked at using emerging technologies to mitigate some of the risks identified by the WEF, food and water shortages, and the vulnerability of the supply of critical minerals for example. Through a number of on going initiatives we are working to ensure that we can at least attempt to find cures for some of the inevitable crises that will lead to plenty of human suffering and even war. While technology is not the only solution to risk mitigation, it requires political and diplomatic effort too, though the efforts of the WEF Global Council on Emerging Technologies, technology is at least appearing on the geopolitical agenda with a far greater frequency than in the past.

The Global Risks Report 2013 contains a few questionable statement however, such as this discussion of the need to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria, which seems to advocate diverting effort away from understanding the genomics of bacteria to researching herbal cures!

An increasing amount of effort has been invested in exploring the potential of new life science technologies such as genomics, nano-scale engineering and synthetic biology, without yet yielding new approaches in the treatment of bacterial disease. One unintended consequence of this has been to divert researchers’ attention from the traditional approach of discovering natural compounds to kill bacteria, which may be getting harder.

New for this year is the inclusion of X Factors, summarised below, emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences, developed in conjunction with Nature.

Runaway Climate Change

The threat of climate change is well known. But have we passed the point of no return? What if we have already triggered a runaway chain reaction that is in the process of rapidly tipping Earth’s atmosphere into an inhospitable state?

 

Significant Cognitive Enhancement

Once the preserve of science fiction, superhuman abilities are fast approaching the horizon of plausibility. Will it be ethically accepted for the world to divide into the cognitively-enhanced and unenhanced? What might be the military implications?

 

Rogue Deployment of Geoengineering

In response to growing concerns about climate change, scientists are exploring ways in which they could, with international agreement, manipulate the earth’s climate. But what if this technology were to be hijacked by a rogue state or individual?

 

Costs of Living Longer

We are getting better at keeping people alive for longer. Are we setting up a future society struggling to cope with a mass of arthritic, demented and, above all, expensive, elderly who are in need of long term care and palliative solutions?

 

Discovery of Alien Life

Given the pace of space exploration, it is increasingly conceivable that we may discover the existence of alien life or other planets that could support human life. What would be the effects on science funding flows and humanity’s self-image?It was only in 1995 that we first found evidence that other stars also have planets orbiting them. Now thousands of “exoplanets” revolving around distant stars have been detected. NASA’s Kepler mission to identify Earth-sized planets located in the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too hot, nor too cold) of Sun-like stars, has only been operating for 3 years and has already turned up thousands of candidates, including one the size of Earth. The fact that Kepler has found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy. In 10 years’ time we may have evidence not only that Earth is not unique, but that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

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