[OVERSEAS VIEW]Technology brings big advantages ― and risksToday’s headlines make it hard to be an optimist. Nuclear technology is proliferating; global oil prices have tripled in the last three years; emerging markets are taking a beating; violence in Afghanistan, Sudan and pretty much the whole Middle East is surging; a new generation of terrorists is plotting and geopolitical mistrust is growing.
Are we missing a longer-term, more positive picture?
Possibly. Advances in science and technology are steadily improving the human condition. The United Nations estimates that the global life expectancy at birth, which rose from 46 to 65 years over the second half of the last century, is expected to reach 75 by the middle of this century. According to a World Health Organization report released in 1998, “Life in the 21st century should be healthier and better as well as longer for more people than ever before.” The report predicted that deaths before the age of 50 worldwide would be cut in half by 2025.
In addition, more people than ever have a fighting chance to achieve prosperity. Globalization has lifted 3 billion new participants from China, India, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America into the global economic mainstream. Individuals now have more opportunities than ever to compete and collaborate globally.
Important differences of opportunity remain between the developing and developed world, but long-term historical trends suggest that, broadly speaking, technological progress has benefited humanity. In this context, fears that this or that near-term political risk is making the world a more dangerous place miss the forest for the trees. That’s the good news.
In his 2003 book, “Our Final Hour,” noted Cambridge University professor Martin Rees described a fascinating series of experiments that began in 2000 at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Scientists there used an advanced particle accelerator to replicate in miniature the conditions that prevailed immediately after the big bang, when all matter in the universe was squeezed into the subatomic level. Today’s scientists can do extraordinary things.
The bad news is that Mr. Rees, a widely respected astrophysicist, has argued that simply by running their experiment, the scientists could conceivably have created a concentration of energy large enough to literally destroy the entire planet. One estimate puts the chances of such a cataclysm at one in 50 million. Those are long odds, and the scientists went ahead with their work ― without the consent or supervision of any governing body. According to Mr. Rees, they simply decided their gamble with the Earth was a reasonable one.
This brings us to a second trend in the effects of science and technology on humanity. Mr. Rees’ argument has been much debated (and maligned in some quarters), but concerns that scientific and technological advances generate new threats cannot be disputed. Technological development empowers individuals and small groups to change the world for the better. But it also enables other individuals and small groups to inflict harm on millions of people and the global economy ― by accident or by design.
If Mr. Rees is correct, a small group of unsupervised scientists could have inadvertently destroyed all life on earth. However infinitesimal, the risk is unprecedented. Compare the Brookhaven experiment with the Manhattan Project ― a considerably less sophisticated project developed six decades ago that could not have been completed without several years of subsidy from the world’s wealthiest government.
Mr. Rees has offered a $1,000 wager that by 2020, “bioterror or bioerror will lead to 1 million casualties in a single event.” Whether he wins or loses his bet, there’s little question that the intensifying diffusion of dangerous technologies will substantially increase the risk of a large-scale political and economic catastrophe.
Most of us can live with a one in 50 million chance of apocalypse. The greater worry is that rogue states, or even organizations or individuals, can now access tools capable of killing enormous numbers of people and disrupting the global system.
Some will reassure us that destructive technologies tend to breed concerted efforts to counter them. In a political context, international counterterrorist coordination has grown at an unprecedented rate. Though the non-proliferation regime is badly broken, new awareness of the dangers posed by nuclear rogue states has lifted the issue toward the top of the international agenda.
The same holds true for technology. Ray Kurzweil, one of the world’s most visionary techno-optimists, reminds us that anti-virus technology allows the Internet to grow and flourish. The dangers of gene manipulation, new biosecurity hazards and nanotechnology gone awry will surely be countered by strenuous efforts from far-better funded sources to keep these threats at bay. But the massively redundant World Wide Web is not a good analog for the global economy, a system in which the interdependence of economic nodes allows a sudden malfunction in one to produce increasingly rapid system-wide effects.
In short, the near-term risks still matter. Political and social conflicts give rise to attempts by a few to attack the entire international system. A few is all it takes to do previously unimagined damage. Science and technology will continue to improve lives around the world. But the political risks that dominate today’s headlines ― transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the social unrest produced by widening opportunity gaps ― generate unprecedented threats as the process of technological innovation gathers new momentum.
* The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His forthcoming book, “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,” will be published by Simon & Schuster this month. He can be reached via e-mail at
by Ian Bremmer
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