Getting ready for Judgment Day

The late Fred Ikle spent a lifetime working in the field of nuclear weapons policy (including a 7 year stint as Ronald Reagan's Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) and what really scared him was the realization that technology would take on a life of its own.  In his book Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations published by Columbia University Press the year before he died in 2011, he warned that technology has for the last 250 years increasingly escaped political, cultural and religious controls. "What the standard narrative leaves out is the most important part of the saga, namely that the cultural schism is still widening -- and dangerously so."  It is now poised to drag human civilization into mortal peril.

Even though the predicament is unprecedented, it was anticipated ... in 1797 Goethe wrote the Sorcerer's Apprentice ... Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein... Prominent thinkers in the 19th century even anticipated that the influence of religion would vanish ... Several European nations have evolved around this path.  But in other regions religion became more influential and even spawned fiercely militant groups.

Technology has outpaced human values by such a margin it is now essentially out in front by itself.  Yet while the Pax Americana has convinced most that science is inherently beneficent,  technology is actually a blind servant and as ready to destroy as to heal. Ikle cites history and his own experience during the first nuclear age as sad proof that the genie has a mind of its own.  He recounts how nuclear containment failed; how men once aware of power would seek it; and once they possessed it would use it.  He holds out scant hope things will be different in the future.

The drama of the nuclear age teaches painful lessons. The continued spread of nuclear technology is turning into a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

It is moving beyond the control of any national policy or international agreements. It is the quintessential expression of mankind's cultural split -- the inability of institutions to rein in runaway science.

But the drama of the first nuclear age, Ikle argues, will pale compared to what is coming down the pipe. Biotechnology, machine-brain techniques and artificial intelligence pose far greater risks and are impossible to contain. Nor was he alone in apprehending this danger.  At around the same time Annihilation from Within was published other people were reaching the same conclusion. My own the Three Conjectures in 2003; the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at the University of Oxford which suggested a 19% chance of human extinction over the next century from technological risks like molecular nanotechnology, superintelligent AI, engineered pandemic and nuclear war," the 2012 Cambridge Project for Existential Risk that concluded essentially the same thing. Since then Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steven Hawking have added their warnings to the chorus. Noam Chomsky in his old age gloomily echoed biologist Ernst Mayr's belief that "intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation" which allowed a species to expand its capability much faster than their wisdom could control it.