Friday, 21 December 2012

End of the world memes

Paranoia about the end of the world is an ancient phenomenon. Everyone wants to warn others about risks - and the end of the world acts as a risk superstimulus. Doomsday cults have capitalized on this effect throughout recorded history to spread their message, recruit new members and reallocate their resources. The result is large numbers of humans running around obsessed with the apocalypse.

In a curiously parallel phenomena, academic institutes have appeared which cater to those who fear the end of the world. The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk Oxford's and Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. No doubt these will add credibility to the end of the world soothsayers and generally escalate the level of paranoia on the topic. There's also a high-tech cult - whose mission is to save the world from the coming apocalypse.

Whether the rise of the end of the world memes is desirable is debatable. Humans are naturally prone to paranoia due to the association between the ancestral environment and dangerous predators. Now we live in a comparatively safe environment, but out brains are still wired up as though we might die tomorrow. Humans are more jumpy and twitchy than makes sense, and feeding their natural paranoia seems unlikely to help them - instead causing them to waste their time and resources on insignificant risks.The last thing they need is large organizations feeding them risk superstimulii.

Indeed to combat such things, the US government now has a page for teaching parents how to reassure their kids in the face of the wave of apocalyptic memes they currently face.

The academics studying the topic suggest that many of the genuine risks facing humanity are caused by technological development. Technological development has in fact made the world a much safer place to live in for individuals. However, it should also be admitted that it has resulted in large nuclear stockpiles that could potentially cause large scale destruction of our planetary ecosystem. No such disaster has ever actually happened - so it is rather challenging to assess its probability.

The potential for technology to destroy the world seems likely to grow. No doubt there will be a parallel evolution of safeguards - to ensure that no such event never arises. However, I expect a corresponding escalation of end of the world memes - as we progress towards the next likely suspect: broad-spectrum superhuman machine intelligence.

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