There is no doubt that humanity has made big leaps of progress in many areas of life. This is manifested in the life expectancy, which has doubled in less than a century, in the exponential increase in literacy rates across the globe, in the steep drop in the number of people who live in extreme poverty, and many other such indicators.
But with this huge progress has come a plethora of dangers, some already affecting humanity and planet Earth, and some looming and threatening to explode soon. It is important to be aware of these dangers and to take immediate steps to defuse them.
These threats can be divided into two large domains: Technological and ecological/environment-related.
Let’s start with the area of ecology/environment, which affects every one of us every day, but each of us can do something about it. There are two main big and growing problems in this area: Climate change and the plastic waste calamity.
Climate change, as I hope everyone will have learned by now, is already affecting at least some areas of Earth, with droughts, floods, and other extreme weather conditions occurring more frequently, and with populations beginning to be forced to move to greener and more clement regions. In fact, if things continue to worsen at the current pace, we will be seeing more and more diseases and social instability. But while climate change is a serious and harder problem to solve, I would like to highlight the plastic waste flood issue, which most people are barely aware of. To give just a few telling statistics: Over the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than during the last century; only 10 per cent of it is recycled; some 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide each year (about 1 million bags every minute); Americans throw away $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) of plastic bottles each year; etc.
The problem is that it takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade. Moreover, most of it ends up in oceans and seas or in huge dumps, where poor people spend their days sifting through it for resale or for the recycle factories.
Plastic has a devastating effect on our ecosystem. One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year, and many sea animals (seabirds, sea turtles, various fish) have been found to carry plastic in or on their bodies. That plastic sometimes ends up in our own bodies, as indeed 93 per cent of Americans older than six years have tested positive for BPA (Bisphenol A) — a synthetic compound on which many plastics are based. Other compounds associated with plastic have been found to alter hormones or otherwise harm human health.
Needless to say, we all need to drastically cut down our usage and waste of plastic products.
The second big area of danger looming on humanity is the technology of robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
Robots have become a part of our lives, even private lives, especially in countries (such as Japan) where the elderly constitute a significant fraction of the population and thus require constant assistance and companionship. Robots are now given greater and greater powers and access to personal information: They can make financial decisions (who gets a bank loan, what investments to make, etc), what medical treatment to give to a patient, whom to date, and so on ...
In fact, robots have now become androids, i.e. human-like, and some have predicted marriages between humans and robots by 2050. This overreliance on robots and the blurring of the distinction between humans and machines is worrisome, to say the least.
AI is an even bigger threat, at least potentially. Indeed, advances in AI bring new security risks (machines can be hacked and programmed to become malicious), and very smart and self-learning programs can take things into unknown and potentially disastrous directions.
We are already witnessing some (basic) versions of these dangers. Automated virtual “bots” have infested social media accounts, stealing information, creating fake news and websites, doctoring images and editing videos, sending emails from accounts that bear the name and address of administrators and officials, etc. There are bigger risks and threats looming in this realm: Full-fledged surveillance and control of citizens by monitoring their entire digital activity; targeted and personalised “persuasion” programmes conducted to brainwash subjects; “automated” terrorism, using commercial drones or autonomous vehicles as weapons; and other devious uses of highly intelligent software.
In an article published a few weeks ago in the Atlantic, Henry Kissinger (the former United States secretary of state and master strategist) summed up the threat of AI by titling his essay ‘How the Enlightenment Ends’. Why? Because AI will set its own goals from its self-learning. Giving an advanced computer a set of rules (in a game or a field of human life) does not guarantee that it will abide by our own ethics and civilisational goals. We need to be extremely cautious in how we program machines and monitor their development very carefully.
Let us hope humanity proves itself up to the challenges that it is now facing. Our future is at stake.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum.