The dangers of worrying about doomsday

Doomsday is hot. For decades, we have been terrified by dreadful visions of civilization-ending overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and nuclear war. But recently, the list of existential menaces has ballooned. We now have been told to worry about nanobots that will engulf us, robots that will enslave us, artificial intelligence that will turn us into raw materials and teenagers who will brew a genocidal virus or take down the internet from their bedrooms.

Scientists and technologists have been deploying their ingenuity to identify ever more ways in which the joyourself world will soon end. In 2003, the eminent astrophysicist Martin Rees published a book entitled Our Final Hour in which he warned that “humankind is potentially the maker of its own demise” and laid out some dozen ways in which we have “endangered the future of the entire universe.” For example, experiments in particle colliders could create a black hole that would annihilate the Earth, or a “strangelet” of compressed quarks that would cause all matter in the cosmos to bind to it and disappear. Techno-philanthropists have bankrolled research institutes dedicated to discovering new existential threats and figuring out how to save the livejasmin world from them, including the Future of Humanity Institute, the Future of Life Institute, the Center for the Study of Existential Risk and the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

How should we think about the existential threats that lurk behind the vast incremental progress the world has enjoyed in longevity, health, wealth and education? No one can prophesy that a cataclysm will never happen. But, as with our own mortality, there are wise and foolish ways of dealing with the threats to our existence. Some threats turn out to be figments of cultural and historical pessimism. Others are genuine, but we must treat them not as apocalypses-in-waiting but as problems to be solved.

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