Detail from book cover.
Detail from book cover.

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, with Martin Rees

Sep 28, 2018

Cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees discusses the future of humanity on Earth and beyond, foreseeing a time when space pioneers may use gene splicing and AI to adapt to living on Mars, thus becoming "post-human." What concerns him most? "My worry, particularly about bio and cyber, is that whatever can be done will be done somewhere by someone. That is a scary prospect and is going to be a big challenge to governance, in my opinion."

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

In a few minutes I'll be speaking with a celebrated English cosmologist and astrophysicist, Martin Rees. Lord Rees has spent most of his life tackling some of the biggest questions in science. He is the author of a provocative new book entitled On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. In it he provides fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology and addresses the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Lord Rees is Astronomer Royal and science advisor to the queen of England. He has been master of Trinity College and director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK's House of Lords and former president of the Royal Society, he is very much involved in international science and issues of technological risk.

If you are curious about the future—and who isn't?—I hope you'll spend the next 15-20 minutes listening to this podcast as one of the world's most eminent scientists takes us on a journey into the future.

Thank you for joining us.

MARTIN REES: It's very good to be with you.

JOANNE MYERS: You argue in your book that humanity's future is bound to the future of science. Do you think humanity has reached a critical moment?

MARTIN REES: I think this is a critical century. It's the first century where one species, the human species, can determine the future of the planet. This is because we are more and more numerous, the population of the world is going up, and also because we are more empowered by technology and more demanding of resources. These are the issues which are the main themes of my new book.

JOANNE MYERS: If our prospects then hinge on how successfully we harness technological advances, could you give us some examples of the technological advances you see coming?

MARTIN REES: It's clear that we are advancing in biological knowledge, and this has huge benefits for medicine, but of course it does have the prospect of new dangers and new ethical challenges. I'm thinking of genetic modification and being able to modify viruses, etc.

As with all science there are both benefits and downsides, and the challenge is to harness the benefits while minimizing the risks, and the stakes are getting higher because the technologies are more powerful. That's true of biotech. It's true because it only takes one person or a small group in a standard laboratory to do something that could be dangerous. It's not like making a nuclear weapon, which takes huge, special facilities.

In the same way we have to worry about cyber, which is a new technology which empowers a few people already to cause great damage. These technologies have the new feature that they allow a few people by error or by design to cause global catastrophe.

JOANNE MYERS: Are these the most unnerving, or is there a specific example that you could cite for us?

MARTIN REES: These are emerging technologies which are getting worse. There have been particular issues. For instance, a few years ago some scientists in Wisconsin showed you could make the influenza virus both more virulent and more transmissible, and that seemed a rather scary prospect. The U.S. federal government stopped funding that kind of research for a few years. Biotech, will of course, have long-term developments which will raise ethical questions.

I ought to mention perhaps the second class of predictions, which are the effects that we are having not as individuals but collectively on the planet. One of these, of course, is that we are affecting the climate by enhanced use of fossil fuels, etc., and that coupled with the fact that population is now 7.6 billion and is almost certain to rise to 9 billion by mid-century gives the concern about pressure on the environment and the risk of ecological "tipping points," as it were. So those are a separate class of issues, the pressures we're posing collectively on the planet.

JOANNE MYERS: You write in your book that our entire future depends on making wise choices about how to apply science, yet you say that the scientific method should be laid to rest. If so, what would be the best way then to go forward?

MARTIN REES: When I said the scientific method should be laid to rest, I meant that there was nothing so special about the scientific method. Scientists really think in the same logical and reasoning way as a detective or a lawyer. All I meant by that remark was that there is nothing all that special about what scientists do compared to other kinds of intellectual people making decisions in the face of evidence.

But the scientific process is, of course, crucial, and one important point I'd want to make is that although science involves a lot of specialist expertise it's very important that the way science is applied should be decided not just by the few experts but by the wider public, and that's why it's important that the public in general, although they can't be experts obviously, should have enough feel for science to be able to assess the evidence and not be bamboozled by slogans. This is ever more important because as I discuss in my book, so many of the issues which we are going to have to address involve science, be they about energy, about the environment, or about health.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you have any suggestions about how to educate the public so that they will be more informed?

MARTIN REES: I think we shouldn't be too depressed. Sometimes scientists bemoan the fact that people are especially ignorant of science, but I'm impressed by how many people are interested in even more obscure kinds of science like that which I do. A number of people are interested in planets around other stars or in the dinosaurs. It's very gratifying.

I think it's a mistake to think that the public is especially ignorant of science. There are just as many people who are ignorant of their nation's history or of geography. There are many people who couldn't find Korea or Syria on a map. I read one survey where two-thirds of Americans couldn't find Britain on the map. That's the kind of ignorance which is just as deplorable as ignorance of science.

But surely, more seriously, it is important that everyone has enough feel for science. Also, on the other side it's important that scientists should feel an obligation to make the implications of their work clear to the public and to inform politicians and those in authority if they see emergent risks.

JOANNE MYERS: No doubt there will be a need for a regulation and guided responsible innovation to make sure things don't go badly wrong, but should nations then give up their sovereignty to a new global organization along the lines of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the World Health Organization (WHO)?

MARTIN REES: I think issues like health and energy and water shortages are going to become more acute. So it may be that those are issues where we will need to have some sort of international authorities along the lines of the ones you mentioned, and of course for climate change to be effective any kind of regulations have to be enforced globally.

But I'll tell you what worries me most, which is that in the case of things like biotech where individuals or small groups of people can have an effect that resonates globally, there are lots of well-intentioned attempts to regulate what can be done both on prudential grounds and on ethical grounds, but I'm not sure how effectively these can be enforced because we know that we completely fail to enforce the drug laws globally or the tax laws globally.

So my worry, particularly about bio and cyber, is that whatever can be done will be done somewhere by someone, and that is a scary prospect and is going to be a big challenge to governance in my opinion. It is going to strengthen the tension between freedom, liberty, and security.

JOANNE MYERS: Just shifting for a moment because you are an astronomer, do you think the future of humanity involves getting out further into the solar system?

MARTIN REES: I don't think so. I'm of course interested, as is my public, in the exploration of our solar system and the rest of the universe. That's something we all want to do out of curiosity and to understand the world we live in and where it came from.

If you ask more specifically about manned space flight, I don't really think this should be a big government program to do this. If I was an American, I wouldn't support the NASA manned space program at all. The reason for that is that as robots get better there is far less need for people, either for exploration or to manufacture things in space. Robotic fabricators and probes can do this far better and far more cheaply. So I don't think there's any practical case.

On the other hand, I do think there will be individuals who want to go into space even if the risks are high. So I'm very positive about these private space ventures like SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are funded by billionaires, and they are planning to send people into space. The reason they have an advantage is that they can take people who are prepared to accept high risks; they can do things cheaply.

NASA can't do that. You will remember the shuttle was launched 135 times. It failed twice. That's less than a 2 percent failure rate, and many test pilots or adventurers are prepared to accept that. But each of those failures was a national trauma in America. So NASA can't do any of these ventures without huge expense, so I think they should be left to the private companies who can cut the costs.

I do hope that there will be a few individuals who will perhaps be living on Mars by the end of the century, but I doubt there will be any mass emigration because nowhere on Mars is as comfortable to live in as the South Pole or the top of Everest, and there's no great wish for people to go and settle there. I think there will be a few individuals who will go with a spirit of adventure.

They will actually be very important in the long run, if you look beyond the end of the century, because they will be ill-adapted, of course, to Mars, and they will therefore want to use all the techniques of genetic modification and cyborg techniques to link to electronic brains to modify themselves and adapt to this hostile environment. Of course, they'd be well away from the clutches of the regulators, who we hope will constrain that sort of thing here on Earth. Out there, these pioneers will have the motive to engineer themselves, and they will have the opportunity without any regulation. I think they will do this, and it could be that they will download themselves into electronic machines. If that happens, then that's a big step in the evolution of life in the cosmos because they will then not particularly want to be on a planet because they might prefer zero G, and they won't need an atmosphere.

That may be the start of really broad exploration spreading beyond our solar system to other stars because if these entities are immortal, they're not daunted by a long voyage taking millions of years. I think that the post-human era will happen first on Mars triggered by these pioneers who will come from the Earth. That's why they're important. That's why I would cheer them on.

JOANNE MYERS: What type of gene editing will be required so that they can adapt in outer space?

MARTIN REES: Of course, that's what we don't know. We understand certain single genes which cause significant diseases, and this new technique called CRISPR-Cas9 has the great virtue that it can actually eliminate those diseases. If we want to make people bigger or more intelligent or something like that, then we would have to alter a whole combination of genes; we don't yet know which.

Before that can be done, before we have to tackle the ethical issues of human enhancement, we will need two things. We will need first to analyze a very large sample of genes maybe using artificial intelligence (AI) in order to decide which combination is optimum for improving a particular quality, and then we need advances in gene synthesis so that you can actually synthesize a genome according to that recipe.

These are two things which are being worked on, and I'm sure we'll have them by 2050 or a bit later.

JOANNE MYERS: When you talk about this, you keep saying "we," but what "we" are creating is something no longer a "we," but as you said a post-human future. We're in essence creating another race.

MARTIN REES: Yes. Of course, in my book I deprecate the use of "we" as denotes humanity because there are some things which do require collective action by all nations. Dealing with climate change is an example which you mentioned already.

But things like space exploration don't have to be done by nations collectively. In fact, it's true that the Apollo program was a national goal for the United States, but space in general is something which can be left to a few individuals, and it should be, I think.

It is true that there will be some individuals who will away from the Earth perhaps undergo drastic enhancement or changes so that they do become a whole different species, but I think here on Earth we are well adapted already, so we have less incentive.

I think we should try to regulate this because it will be a very fundamental kind of inequality if some humans have the advantage of being able to adapt their genome. That's a more fundamental inequality than the ones we have already. So I think we should be very cautious in our acceptance of that possibility.

Another point I make in general in the book is that future evolution of humans is almost certainly going to happen on a much faster time scale than the Darwinian evolution which led to us. It took a million years or more for humans to evolve from other species, but the emergence of post-human species will take place on a technological time scale, which can be centuries or even decades. So, future evolution is going to be very fast.

I mention in my book that this has a game-changing consequence. We can read literature written by Greek and Roman authors 2,000 years ago and feel a resonance, an affinity with the characters because human nature hasn't changed over those 2,000 years. But if we think a few hundred years ahead, then the entities then—whether we call them "human" or not—may not have any empathy with the emotions in present-day literature.

They will be very different. They may have some algorithmic understanding of how we behaved, but they won't understand us in the sense that we understand the ancient Romans and Greeks.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think the human race as we know it now will survive the 21st century?

MARTIN REES: I think these changes I'm talking about are beyond the 21st century, but if we think about the 21st century—and most of my book is about that—then I would describe myself as a technical optimist but a political pessimist.

I think these technologies of bio, cyber, AI, and space offer the possibility of huge progress, enabling us to cope with climate change, feeding 9 billion people, etc., but what is depressing, obviously, is the gap between the way the world could be and the way it actually is, and this is widening. I fear we have a bumpy ride through the century because of political disruptions.

Although in many ways the world is getting better, it's not getting ethically better. I would disagree with an excellent and much-publicized book by Steven Pinker, who is very bullish about how the world is getting better. [Editor's note: For more on this topic, check out Pinker's 2012 Carnegie Council discussion with Robert D. Kaplan, "Is the World Getting More Peaceful?"] He is quite right to point out that as compared to the 19th century and compared to medieval times all indicators of welfare have improved — life expectancy and health, etc., have gone up, and other things have improved. But I don't think this signals any improvement in ethics. It's certainly true that we are all far better off than our forbears in the Middle Ages. But in the Middle Ages, life may be miserable, but there was nothing much they could do about it.

Whereas now, the gap between the way things are and the way they could be is much wider. The bottom billion people in abject poverty, mainly in Africa and East Asia, could have their lot greatly improved by redistributing the wealth of just the richest thousand people in the world, and the fact that that's not happening is an ethical indictment of the present century.

So I think we should be cautious about claiming any ethical progress even while we applaud the scientific and technical progress which has given us better lives than our forbears.

JOANNE MYERS: I think you bring up a very important point, and I also thank you so much for your scientific insights, and most of all for sharing the mystery and wonder of the world that is out there for us. We have a lot to think about, and to think that we can take an active part in our own biological evolution but leave out the ethics is very disconcerting.

Martin, thank you so much for being with us, and I hope that you continue to alert us to all these challenges ahead.

MARTIN REES: Thank you very much, and I hope people will enjoy my book.

JOANNE MYERS: I'm sure they will.

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