Existential Threats

Cambridge University have announced the foundation of a new Centre for the study of Existential Risk.

Its purpose? To consider the threats posed by four main areas:-

  • Climate Change;
  • Artificial Intelligence;
  • Nuclear War;
  • Rogue Biotechnology

The centre is to be led by professor of philosophy, Huw Price, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics, Martin Rees, and Jann Tallinn, the creator of Skype.

Apocalyptic disaster from nuclear fallout has long been thought to be a real threat. We are increasingly aware of the impact of climate change and aware that advanced biological or germ warfare could wipe out large numbers of the human civilisation.

Media coverage of the launch of this centre has focused on the advances in Artificial, or Super Intelligence, which raises the potential that “we are not the smartest things around” and, it is posited, could potentially threaten human survival.

These are real concerns. Somewhere beneath the Blockbuster movie hype is buried a genuine anxiety that humanity could well destroy itself. 25years ago Neil Postman’s perceptive book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” elicited one commendation “This comes along at exactly the right moment…we must confront the challenge of his prophetic vision”.

Postman argued that 1984 had come and gone. George Orwell’s book of that name feared the banning of books and the imposition of totalitarian oppression, reducing human beings to a mindless existence. But the world of 1984 was free from many of Orwell’s imagined threats. Aldous Huxley was more prophetic, though, in “Brave New World”. Here the threat is the trivialisation of culture, the preoccupation with image and feelings and the drowning out of truth in a sea of irrelevance. The threats which Huxley imagined could much more easily be implemented through artificial intelligence and out-of control biological forces.

But, Christians maintain, the existential threats to our existence pale into insignificance when you consider what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

As the Church approaches the season of Advent we prepare ourselves for Christmas. Not, in fact, by thinking first of Christ’s coming as a baby in the incarnation. But rather, we think his return as judge and king. When we ponder a final day of judgment we approach Christmas to welcome the saviour with open arms.

It might be that, as in the days of Noah, God will use natural means to execute the destruction of the world. But, nevertheless, the controlling initiative comes from outside of our world. Ultimately we will not destroy ourselves, but God will come back to wrap everything up: it will be a day of final destruction, initiated by the Judge of all the earth (see 2 Peter 3).

So, in the, we might say, the threats to the end of the world are more apocalyptic than existential. I wonder, will our Cambridge professors give my thought to this threat?



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