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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Jan > Jan 30

Can Humanity Survive? Want to Bet on It?

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Tue, 30 Jan 2007 13:18:10 -0500
Fwd Date: Tue, 30 Jan 2007 13:18:10 -0500
Subject: Can Humanity Survive? Want to Bet on It?

Source: The New York Times - New York, USA


Published: January 30, 2007

Can Humanity Survive? Want to Bet on It?

By John Tierney

Sixty ago years, a group of physicists concerned about nuclear
weapons created the Doomsday Clock and set its hands at seven
minutes to midnight. Now, the clock=92s keepers, alarmed by new
dangers like climate change, have moved the hands up to 11:55

My first reaction was a sigh of relief. After all, the 1947
doomsday prediction marked the start of a golden age. Never have
so many humans lived so long =97 and maybe never so peacefully =97
as during the past 60 years. The per-capita rate of violence,
particularly in the West, seems remarkably low by historical
standards. If the clock=92s keepers are worried once again, their
track record suggests we=92re in for even happier days.

But there=92s one novel twist that gives me pause. When the
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced two weeks ago in
Washington that it was adjusting the clock, it was joined in a
trans-Atlantic press conference by scientists at the Royal
Society in London. One of them was the society=92s president,
Martin Rees, a new breed of doomsayer.

Dr. Rees, a cosmologist at Cambridge and Britain=92s astronomer
royal, doesn=92t just issue gloomy predictions. He doesn=92t just
move the hands of an imaginary and inscrutable clock. (Its
keepers have never explained what one of their minutes equals on
anyone else=92s clock or calendar.)

No, Dr. Rees is braver. He gives odds on doomsday and offers to
bet on disaster. In his 2003 book, =93Our Final Hour,=94 he gives
civilization no more than a 50 percent chance of surviving until

Dr. Rees is not a knee-jerk technophobe =97 he expects great
advances as researchers around the world link their knowledge =97
but he fears that progress will be undone by what he calls the
new global village idiots. He=92s sure enough of himself to post
an offer on Long Bets, a clever innovation on the Web that
Stewart Brand helped start with money from Jeff Bezos, the
founder of Amazon.com.

Long Bets is a nonprofit foundation that calls itself an =93arena
for competitive, accountable predictions.=94 It lets anyone make a
prediction and take wagers on it, with the proceeds going to a
charity named by the winner. The bets made so far are from $200
to $10,000, on topics ranging from the driving habits of
Americans in 2010 to whether the universe will stop expanding.
Mitchell Kapor, the software guru, is betting that in 2029 no
computer will have passed the Turing test (by conversing so much
like a human that you couldn=92t tell the difference). The
physicist Freeman Dyson=92s money is on the first extraterrestrial
life=92s being found somewhere other than a planet or its

Five years ago, Dr. Rees posted this prediction: =93By 2020,
bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a
single event.=94 He reasoned that =93by 2020 there will be thousands
=97 even millions =97 of people with the capability to cause a
catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only
organized terrorist groups, but individual weirdos with the
mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.=94

He didn=92t get any takers on LongBets.org, which seems to me a
missed opportunity. So I=92ve posted an offer there to bet him
$200 =97 not a huge sum, but enough to put both our reputations on
the line. I realize that betting on disaster may sound ghoulish,
but neither of us will personally profit (if I win, the money
goes to the International Red Cross). And I think bets like this
serve a purpose.

Besides stimulating public debate, they focus the issue and
discipline prophets. No matter how good their intentions,
prophets face strong temptations to hype. In the current issue
of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Rees wryly
describes what happened in 2003 when he turned in a manuscript
titled, =93Our Final Century?=94

=93My British publisher removed the question mark from the book=92s
title,=94 he recalls, =93and the U.S. publisher changed it to =91Our
Final Hour.=92 Pessimism, it seems, makes for better marketing.=94

It doesn=92t make for better public policy though. Heralds of the
bioterror apocalypse have actually worsened the problem of
bioterror, as Milton Leitenberg points out in a 2005 report for
the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War

Mr. Leitenberg is a scholar at the University of Maryland who
has been studying biological weapons for decades =97 and debunking
wild predictions. Dr. Rees is not alone. Senator Bill Frist
called bioterrorism =93the greatest existential threat we have in
the world today=94 and urged a military effort that =93even dwarfs
the Manhattan Project.=94

Such rhetoric, Mr. Leitenberg says, has had the perverse effect
of encouraging terrorists to seek out biological weapons. But
despite the much-publicized attempts of Al Qaeda and a Japanese
group to go biological, terrorists haven=92t had much luck,
because it=92s still quite hard for individuals or nongovernmental
groups to obtain, manufacture or deploy biological weapons of
mass destruction.

Mr. Leitenberg says the biggest threat is of a state deploying
biological weapons, and he notes the encouraging decline in the
number of countries working on this technology. Meanwhile,
though, America has been so spooked by the horror-movie
scenarios that it=92s pouring money into defense against
biological weapons. Dr. Leitenberg says that=92s a mistake, both
because it diverts resources from more serious threats =97 like
natural diseases and epidemics =97 and because it could start a
new biological arms race as other countries understandably fear
that the United States is doing more than just playing defense.

It=92s possible, as Dr. Rees fears, that terrorists will get a lot
more sophisticated at biotech in the next decade, or that
researchers will make some terrible mistake. The technology is
getting cheaper and spreading rapidly. But so are the tools for
preventing and coping with mistakes.

Whatever happens, I don=92t expect biotechnology to pose an
=93existential threat.=94 The disaster predicted by Dr. Rees would
be horrific, but humanity has survived worse, like the flu
epidemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people. I know
there are fears of new microorganisms or nanobots gobbling up
our species, but I=92m confident we=92d somehow stop the Doomsday
Clock from striking midnight.

In fact, the wager I=92d really like to make with Dr. Rees is that
we=92ll make it to 2100. I=92ve posted that prediction on Long Bets,
and I=92d be glad to give him better odds than the 50-50 chance he
gives civilization of surviving the century.

I even think one of us might survive to see the payoff, although
my techno-optimism has its limits. I hope some version of me
will be around in 2100, but I wouldn=92t bet on it.

[Thanks to Stuart Miller of http://uforeview.net/ for the lead]

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