When it comes to human extinction, we could be our worst enemy and our best hope


There are days when it’s hard not to wonder how much time humanity has left.

Whether it’s war, famine, another grim report on climate change, or a pandemic that has killed 6 million people so far, life on this planet can start to feel precarious. Sometimes it all feels like an action movie going into its final act.

But is it really possible that nearly 8 billion humans will disappear one day? That the planet could continue to spin in peace without us?

“The end of the world is a terrific concept to shape history,” says Anders Sandberg, senior fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. “We want to know how it ends. We want there to be meaning or tragedy or comedy. Maybe a laugh track at the end of the universe.”

It turns out that scientists, academics, policy experts and many more are studying this question, trying to decipher how the end of humanity might occur and if there is anything that can be done about it. prevent it.

Well it’s a dark thought

According to Thomas Moynihan, author of the book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, anyone worrying about human extinction is relatively new.

There were marginal whisperings in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Romantic poets picked up the idea. Mary Shelley’s Last Man was about a plague that nearly killed mankind. Few people at the time were keen to read such an uplifting story. The rise of Darwinism made people realize that humans were part of a long chain of organisms. In 1924 Winston Churchill wrote the essay Shall We All Commit Suicide? on the potential of war to destroy humans. But according to Moynihan, it may not have been until the explosion of the atomic bomb in World War II that people fully realized they could wipe themselves out.

Humans have also come to realize that we might be the only ones just like us. Everything we have, however imperfect, may one day be lost entirely, not just from the planet, but from the universe.

“Once a species is gone, it’s gone forever. Extinction is forever,” says Moynihan, “We now understand the implications of that.”

We can learn more about the direction we are heading as a species by examining the past (even beyond all the pre-modern humans no longer with us), especially the fossil record. In a 2020 article on human extinction in The Conversation, paleontologist Nick Longrich pointed out that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.

So maybe our chances are not good. Additionally, humans also have key vulnerabilities that could make it difficult to survive a large-scale disaster – we are those large, warm-blooded animals that need lots of food; our generations are relatively long and we are not the most prolific breeders, writes Longrich.

However, being human also has certain advantages.

“We are a profoundly strange species — widespread, abundant, extremely adaptable — which suggests we’re going to stick around for quite some time,” Longrich writes, noting that humans are just about everywhere. We can adapt our diets in ways that other species cannot, and we can learn and change our behaviors.

Risky business

Those who work in the field of existential risk are pushing people today to do just that: learn from our behaviors and change them.

The Future of Life Institute is a Boston-based outreach organization focused on how to avoid making big cash-ending mistakes with technology. FLI’s advisory board is full of names from institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Cambridge University, plus Elon Musk, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Alda, for good measure.

Over the phone, Senior Government Affairs Advisor Jared Brown talks to me about something called the Collingridge dilemma. When a new technology is developed, we see the benefits. The fire, for example, was great at keeping us warm and keeping predators away. The moment a technology takes root in the workings of a society, we begin to discover its downsides, like burning down villages. Or, you know, three square miles of Chicago in 1871. Overall, though, we mostly take the good and the bad together. Many people die in car accidents every year, but we still drive cars.


Some lessons you don’t learn twice.

Getty Images

“It works to the point where some of the dangers are potentially catastrophic or existential. And you don’t learn a lesson twice,” Brown says.

When FLI examines its four main existential threats – artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear weapons and biotechnology – technology is at the heart of all these threats, dating back even to the invention of the combustion engine.

That’s why groups like the FLI are trying to get the powers that be, like lawmakers, to put safeguards in place now before we need them.

It’s not always easy to talk to people about a topic that’s a bit big and scary but also abstract enough not to be of immediate concern. Could a malicious AI meant to maximize paperclip production ever decide that humans are slowing down the process and should be eliminated? Uh, maybe. But that won’t happen next week.

“The natural instinct is, ‘It’s somebody else’s problem’… [or] even, ‘If I believe you, what am I going to do about it?’ “Brown said.

In a disturbing twist, the pandemic has introduced a bit of recency bias into the equation, he says. Perhaps that sounds less like an alarmist twist than worrying about an event that seemingly came out of nowhere and affected every person on the planet.

For FLI, it’s not so much about watching a countdown to disaster.

He said they don’t need to know the exact likelihood of something happening over the next 30 years to know there is enough uncertainty about the risk that it should be treated.

survive to the end

Despite these four major risk areas, there is fortunately no guarantee that a disaster would kill every person on the planet. It’s a small comfort, but as Sandberg says, “You can totally imagine someone locked in a Walmart with a can opener.”

As long as the catastrophe, or confluence of catastrophes, befalling us leaves behind at least a few survivors, there might be hope. How many humans it would take for humanity to get by is up for debate. Depending on who you ask, it could be anywhere from a thousand. These people should still survive any other challenges along the way.


Stainless steel preservation chambers inside Alcor facilities.

John Kim/CNET

“We still don’t really understand the resiliences of our societies,” says Sandberg.

As incredibly bleak as the outlook for humans may seem, even some of these people who reflect on existential risk every day don’t think humans are completely depressed. At least not yet.

One of the main differences between humans and every other living thing on the planet is that humans have the ability to change their view of the world and course-correct, Moynihan says. But just because we can change our habits doesn’t mean we always do.

“I think the future might be better in ways that we can’t even fathom,” he says, “But that doesn’t mean it will be. What’s worth fighting for , it’s this ability for us to revise ourselves, correct past mistakes, and keep going.”

Sandberg, meanwhile, wears a stainless steel medal on a chain around his neck wherever he goes. He considers it a secular medal of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. Instead of depicting the third-century saint, this medal contains instructions on what to do with Sandberg’s body if he dies.

Pump it full of heparin; freeze quickly.

Sandberg’s head should be frozen by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and, ideally, brought back to a distant time.

The decision to join Alcor was made, in part, out of curiosity about what the future will hold – pending many questions, both practical and existential about whether this experiment is working – and to some extent, a shred of faith in the future.

“I’m an optimist,” says Sandberg, “the future could be great. I think the world is really, really good. And it could be even better, much better, which means we have a reason to try to protect the future.”


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