The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to better prepare for long-term risks but is “a recipe for global instability” amid growing inequality, according to a cosmologist and futurist who predicted a 50 per cent chance of humanity’s demise in the 21st century.
Speaking to The National, Lord Martin Rees, a member of the UK House of Lords who is also the British Astronomer Royal, shared his views on the fate of the world post-coronavirus, the implications of this century's new technology and why we go to space.
Lord Rees has been adding to our understanding of the universe since the 1960s. He has published more than 500 papers on subjects such as galaxy formation, the possibility of a multiverse, and cosmic peculiarities like dark matter and black holes.
His popular science books ponder the intersections of technology, politics and human nature, with his 2003 book, Our Final Hour, proposing that people and our planet face existential risk amid rapidly evolving technology such as artificial intelligence and a warming Earth. He estimated that the probability of extinction before 2100 is around 50 per cent, due to technology's potential to wreak destruction either by intentional bad actors or by accident.
“I think our society is more vulnerable than previous [generations] because we are so interdependent, and so dependent on technology,” Lord Rees, 77, said from his home in Cambridge, England.
He said research must focus more deeply on the consequences of emerging technology and globalisation, with pandemics leaving individuals particularly vulnerable. Lord Rees co-founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University in 2012 to study the rise of extinction-level events on the planet. He said politicians and the private sector must be given the latitude to make longer-term investments, including in global organisations and stockpiles to limit the vulnerabilities to supply chains, as an insurance policy against future dangers.
“If we look ahead, then I think we should be worried about pandemics for two reasons. First, the kind of natural pandemics are going to become more common because the world's getting more crowded. But also there is the threat of possible evil intent, leading to manufactured pandemics,” he said.
"The global village will have its village idiots, and they will have global range. So this is a serious new concern."
Covid-19 has also accentuated inequality, leading to a “recipe for global instability” if not adequately addressed.
“I worry very much about the inequalities between the North and the South, particularly between the prosperous countries of Europe and the US and Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India,” he said.
“I worry about that partly on humane grounds, because they are the regions that are likely to suffer real poverty and mass fatalities because of lack of medical attention.
"But also I do think that if we want to have a stable world in future, then the richest parts of the world really have to ensure that Africa, in particular, doesn't lag behind.”
To begin addressing growing socioeconomic inequality and the rise of automation and robotics replacing jobs, he advocated for higher wages and a greater push for caretaker roles for the young and old.
“There is unlimited demand. But in most countries, there is not the money, there's not enough of these people and they're rather poorly paid,” he said.
“[Covid-19] will be a jolt. We need to alter our social values to realise that looking after children, assisting in hospitals, looking after the old – those are dignified jobs where we want to have real people, not machines.”
Machines, instead, should be used to do high-risk tasks such as going to space, or repetitive tasks that are not humanly fulfilling.
"The practical case for sending humans into space is getting weaker all the time," he said, as two Nasa astronauts made their way to the International Space Station in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the world's first private spacecraft.
"The Apollo programme was a huge human adventure. But now that robots are much better, robots can do the geology of Mars as well – or better – than a human can."
He said that astronauts should be adventurers, with the science left to machines.
"If I was a taxpayer in the United States, I would not want to pay anything towards Nasa's manned programme. I think it should be left entirely to the private sector, because there's no practical need for it."
Lord Rees disagreed with the entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and his own late colleague, Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist whom he graduated two years behind at Cambridge.
"I think it's a dangerous delusion to think about mass emigration to Mars and to think that we can somehow escape the Earth's problems by going somewhere else," he said. "Dealing with climate change here on Earth is simple compared to terraforming Mars, and the idea of a big colony on Mars is as ridiculous as a big colony at the bottom of the ocean, or at the South Pole."
He hopes that by the end of the century a colony will have been formed on Mars by private citizens.
"Elon Musk himself has said that he would like to die on Mars but not on impact. He is 49 now, so he might manage that. Good luck to him."