One of the most alarming books I ever read was Kurt Vonnegut Junior’s Cat’s Cradle, which features, as central plot device, Ice-Nine, a chemical variant of water that freezes at room temperature and that also freezes any adjacent molecule of liquid water (thus rendering it Ice-Nine as well). Ingesting Ice-Nine is fatal and dropping it in a river would freeze the Earth’s oceans solid — utter biocide. Vonnegut presents Ice-Nine’s catastrophic power as a metaphor for the atomic holocaust looming at the time of the book’s writing.
Despite Vonnegut’s cautions, we’ve not heeded the lessons of Cat’s Cradle. We live in a world with multiple Ice-Nines being pursued at ever-faster rates on ever-cheaper platforms by ever-more people. My alarm on this matter was greatly exacerbated by Sam Harris’ lucid interview (Episode 151) with Nick Bostrom about his work “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis”. It’s written earnestly and clearly. I’d urge you to spend a half-hour reading the document and the rest of the day cowering with its implications.
The upshot is that since we continue to make it easier to produce Ice-Nine level technology (Bostrom calls these “black balls from the urn of invention”), we need institutions that can respond to them. Bostrom’s only feasible solution is a global surveillance state and push-button totalitarianism. For most people, unsurprisingly enough, this is a non-starter. As such, concludes Bostrom, it’s inevitable that an Ice-Nine catastrophe will come to pass.
We, as the guardian species of life on this planet, accept and recognize that the world is vulnerable, it does need our help, and that no one is going to fix this for us.
While it’s certainly comfortable to write off both yours truly and Bostrom as Chicken Littles catastrophizing as prophets of doom have always done, I do think that now is different. The crucial factors making it so are:
- non-localized collapse is more steadily the default (an engineered superbug gone loose will travel the globe in hours; debased coinage in Rome had no impact on the Chinese empire, etc.)
- emergent failure i.e. local actions show no damage, but in toto globally those actions culminate to catastrophe (e.g. climate change)
- Today, Australia is literally burning due to climate change. An area the size of Belgium has burned (emergent failure)
- Yesterday, the foolhardy and reckless president of my country politically assassinated a general of another sovereign country. If overt political assassination is back on the table, we are unwinding the general progress of civilized society. Can anyone predict what the outcome or martial conflict model of the world looks like once political state-based assassination is back on the table? The assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, had it followed previous models, should have remained local in the Hapsburg empire, but it didn’t and thus the utter surprise of WWI
- Furthermore, today in Iraq, Iraqis are showing solidarity with Iranians (with whom they fought a dirty chemical war!). Amazingly, Donald Trump has found a way to create common ground between Iraq and Iran. This is a blunder of historic proportions
- In consideration of a new common-ground in Sunni/Shia relations, North Korea’s enrichment campaign, Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program (and sympathy for al Qaeda living in its borders), etc., it’s hard to imagine dirty-bomb, fissile material, or know-how won’t wind up weaponized in the hands of the enraged and motivated in my lifetime
- Localized pursuit of individual wealth maximization can lead to destabilized society (“The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes”)
And those are real, current threats, at play today. Tack on emerging technologies:
- Developments in the fields of bio-engineering such that designer drugs, bugs, and humans become possible
- The prospect of generalized AI and concomitant social unrest, mass unemployment, etc.
- Deep fake media spreading false information that stimulates damaging action
It’s harder to imagine that some destabilizing invention isn’t on the horizon.
Homo sapiens’ poor reasoning facility with numbers, tribalism, and concrete-individual over abstraction-collective bias describe a nature that’s not optimized for peaceful, global prosperity. Our nature seems to be toxic at scale — and it threatens to take all other life down with it.
The inter-connection of the world means that e.g. biocidal germs can have their source code uploaded and shared around the world in a few heartbeats. The mentally unwell, the fundamentalists aligned in common cause, the greedy can all find global-level tools for violence at their fingerprints.
Our institutions are not designed to deal with problems on this level. The UN and other Eisenhower-era institutions barely prevented atomic biocide (some estimate 3-6 “near misses”) during the 60s’ atomic era. Can we think of an institution that could effectively handle generalized AI optimally manning drone squadrons? Will the UN demand mobile bioengineering technology inspections at a scale large enough to prevent designer diseases or human cloning? Unlikely.
I don’t have a positive call to action here. What I do know is that we have to stop thinking that the Earth can continue to absorb the damage we’re dishing it and we can’t assume that the next great invention won’t be civilization-crumbling if not biocidal.