A smorgasbord of interesting ArmageddonsOne of the breezier books you’ll ever read about the annihilation of all human life is “Our Final Hour,” by the British cosmologist Martin Rees. Taking odds “no better than fifty-fifty” that civilization will survive the 21st century, Mr. Rees ― Britain’s Astronomer Royal ― surveys in this short book the potential apocalypses to which the technology hyperacceleration is giving rise. These will make you nostalgic for the nuclear arms race.
Take nanobots ― basically, microscopic machines. They sound almost Disney-like. One day, it’s theorized, nanobot microsurgeons will travel around inside patients’ bodies, destroying tumors and clearing arteries. But imagine the potential downside to “nanoreplicators,” nanobots programmed to build copies of themselves. Suppose they’re designed to feed on organic matter, and suppose some programmer with a hangover types in the wrong code one morning. “Metabolizing efficiently, and utilizing solar energy, they could then proliferate uncontrollably, and not reach the Malthusian limit until they had consumed all life,” Mr. Rees writes.
Armageddon-by-nanobot, known as the “grey goo scenario,” is pure theory at the moment. But other very bad possibilities ― whether caused by accident or malice ― are closer at hand. Mr. Rees’s key point is that as technology accelerates and (thanks to the Internet) democratizes, it’s inevitable that a band of hate freaks, or even a lone Unabomber type, will soon be capable of murder on a scale once reserved for nuclear superpowers. “The blueprint of the ebola virus, for example, is already archived; there are thousands of people with the skills to assemble it, using strands of DNA that are available commercially,” it seems. Fortunately, the ebola virus has too short a gestation period to make for a world-scale epidemic. Unfortunately, genetic engineering could theoretically solve that problem. It’s enough to make a person not bother to give up smoking.
What’s to be done? One step, though it wouldn’t be a cure-all, might be to completely abandon the idea of privacy. “Universal surveillance is becoming technically feasible,” Mr. Rees notes, and if the species has to catch every single Unabomber to survive, that might be what it takes. Humanity (except John Ashcroft) would be appalled, but Mr. Rees is optimistic that “the next generation might find it less repugnant.”
Our Final Hour
by Martin Rees
Basic Books; $25
by David Moll