Emerging Risks From Technology

What is Existential Risk?

  • An existential risk is one that threatens the existence of our entire species.

  • Humanity has always faced “risks from nature”: the Toba volcanic super-eruption may have reduced the human population to near-extinction level 70,000 years ago, and a meteor impact is believed to have wiped out many of the planet’s species, including the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.

  • These risks still exist, but they have been joined by a new source of risk: humanity’s technological power. The latter half of the 20th century represents the first point in human history where our technological progress allowed us to develop weapons with potential species-ending capability: nuclear weapons.

Emerging Risks from Technology

  • While the point of greatest danger for all-out nuclear exchange appears to have passed, several other sources of technological risk are emerging. Given humanity’s track record of surviving natural risks to date, it has been strongly argued that the greatest sources of risk over the coming century will be those that emerge from human activity, whether by “terror or error”: by deliberate use of weapons, or from the catastrophic impacts of accidents involving powerful technology.

  • Specific technologies that scientists and writers of great distinction have raised concerns over include artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology (e.g., von Neumann 1958; Sagan 1983; Parfit 1984; Gott 1993; Hawking 2010; Rees 2003; Posner 2004; Matheny 2007). A more general concern relates to our increasing reliance on limited resources and fragile, increasingly interconnected systems.

  • A key concern for CSER will be to identify areas of technology-related risk that have not received sufficient academic and scientific study to date. In doing so, we will aim to identify which concerns need to be taken seriously – which technologies will require very careful thought to be given to appropriate safety protocols and governmental regulation – and which concerns can safely be dismissed as science fiction.