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Doomsday? Or Just Another Sunday

2007.02.04   prev     next

DID you hear the news? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved its “doomsday clock” a couple minutes closer to “midnight.” Stephen Hawking is concerned:

As we stand on the brink of a second nuclear age, scientists have a special responsibility once again to inform society of the peril humanity faces.

What, exactly, are they concerned about? Impending nuclear attack by a huge, new, aggressor nation in the same league as the late USSR? Global thermonuclear war and “nuclear winter,” wiping humanity off the face of the planet? I don’t think so. They’re concerned that a whole new generation is collectively yawning at their stupid doomsday clock, which inches ever-closer to midnight while the real probability of nuclear armageddon seems lower than ever since the invention of the H-bomb. They’re concerned that their clock and their cries of “peril!” are getting another coat of silly-paint with each passing year that sees humanity expand, advance, and thrive, and sees psychopathic dictators retreat further and further into tiny pockets of the world. And maybe they’re concerned that some of their thunder has been stolen recently by the geniuses who gave us “Threat Level Orange.”

Now, I’d give 50-50 odds that a city or two somewhere in the world will get nuked while I’m still alive to watch it on CNN. But a once-in-a-blue moon, terrorist disaster is one thing — “doomsday” is quite another. I’m personally more worried about balancing my budget or getting my kid into a good school.

Notice that they set the clock forward just two minutes. Why not fifteen or thirty, or an hour? Because they can’t: They’ve had their clock hovering close to midnight for decades now. So let’s ask ourselves: What might realistically happen that would cause the BoAS to move its clock back — and not just a little bit back, but way back; hours back? If you asked the BoAS they would probably say it would take some sort of global dismantling of all nuclear weapons. But is that realistic? What are the odds that any nuclear-armed nation will destroy its nukes, knowing that other nations might only pretend to destroy theirs? And even if a nation had absolute, foolproof assurance that other nations are destroying their nukes (and will never build new ones), what would that leave: magically guaranteed peace, or just a reversion to World War II-style combat? No doomsday clock needed for that, I suppose — as long as it isn’t “atomic” it must be OK. The massive loss of life at Normandy wasn’t atomic, so it’s OK. So was Auschwitz for that matter. Say, maybe stockpiled nukes aren’t such a terrible thing. I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours — perhaps we don’t need to go to war after all... And hey, look at this at this swell iPod I just bought! Check out the great new track Beyoncé just cut. Peace can be fun too.

Nothing that’s plausibly likely to happen in this world is going to cause the BoAS to set their clock hours back. A ticking clock just minutes from midnight, with midnight representing massive annihilation of humanity, is what gives the appearance of gravity and importance to the BoAS as an organization. They have absolutely no incentive to undo that.

When clocks are functioning correctly, they don’t move backwards and they don’t pause. They move forward steadily and inexorably. The BoAS’s clock metaphor implies that nuclear doomsday is inevitable; that it’s just a matter of time. The clock metaphor would be better applied to human progress. We live in a world that gets steadily more prosperous, capable, and safe. Like clockwork.

Hey, I think the Superbowl is on! Pass the chips.

 

Update 2008.05.17 — “psychotic” changed to “psychopathic”

 

Update 2010.01.15 — Hey, they just moved it back one minute, and it’s all over the news. I think I might wet myself.

Here’s the real news story: The BoAS will keep their clock hovering in the 11:45-to-midnight range forever. If a city gets nuked this year, the BoAS will keep their clock between 11:45 and midnight. If a city doesn’t get nuked this year, the BoAS will have their clock between 11:45 and midnight. It means absolutely nothing.

 

Update 2010.05.18 — “Digital DNA” stronghold! Oh boy:

In a secret bunker deep in the Swiss Alps, European researchers on Tuesday deposited a “digital genome” that will provide the blueprint for future generations to read data stored using defunct technology. Accompanied by burly security guards in black uniforms, scientists carried a time capsule through a labyrinth of tunnels and five security zones to a vault near the slopes of chic ski resort Gstaad. The sealed box containing the key to unpick defunct digital formats will be locked away for the next quarter of a century behind a 3-1/2 tonne door strong enough to resist nuclear attack at the data storage facility, known as the Swiss Fort Knox.

“Einstein’s notebooks you can take down off the shelf and read them today. Roll forward 50 years and most of Stephen Hawking’s notes will likely only be stored digitally and we might not be able to access them all,” said the British Library’s Adam Farquhar, one of two computer scientists and archivists entrusted with transferring the capsule.

Those doomsday people sure do like Hawking, don’t they?

 

Update 2010.08.09More from Hawking:

It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million.

Why do so many people think this guy is a genius? Here’s my hundred-year prediction: A hundred years from now, no one will think Stephen Hawking was a genius.

 

Update 2012.01.10 — They just moved it from 11:54 P.M. to 11:55 P.M. Yawn. Wake me up when somebody blows up an airplane or something.

 

Update 2013.04.18 — Hawking concedes defeat on his prediction that the Higgs boson would turn out to be nonexistent.

 

Update 2014.05.02 — Hawking now warning that smart robots threaten to destroy humanity. I wonder if that will happen before or after we’re all done in by nuclear war, bio war, climate change, overpopulation, or meteors. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Update 2014.12.02 — Hawking on AI again:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

 

Update 2015.07.27 — Along with Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Noam America-Is-the-Root-of-All-Evil Chomsky, Hawking now declaring, in a wannabe-Einstein’s-nuke-warning letter,* that we must ban robot (AI) weaponry. Yeah. That’ll work.

 

Update 2015.07.30 — BoAS runs a rebuttal of Nick Bolstrom’s book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. That’s nice — but at the top of the page it says, in bold type, “IT IS 3 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT®.” Where “MIDNIGHT,” of course, signifies human extinction. And “®” signifies, “We’re making money from this shtick, and we wouldn’t want anyone else getting any of it, uh, in humanity’s last three minutes.”

 

*Update 2016.05.02 — Just found out a couple days ago: Einstein didn’t write that letter! It was conceived and written by Leó Szilárd, with help from Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner. Then Szilárd asked Einstein to put his signature on it, just to make sure FDR took it seriously.

 

Update 2017.07.17 — Elon Musk warns that working on AI is “summoning the demon”:

I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal.

AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive about regulation instead of reactive. Because I think by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.

 

See also:
Betting Against Humanity

 

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