There’s no Planet B for us – cosmologist
The 21st century: an era of mind-boggling breakthroughs … but among all the solutions are there dangers lurking in the unknown? How can we grasp all that science has to offer – and still stay safe? We’ve talked to Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Martin Rees it's such a pleasure having you on our programme. So we've got all the questions. Many of your colleagues are actually warning that technology may help the human race advance and thrive and prosper. But it can also hinder many things and hurt humanity in many horrible ways. So is it because we're evil, or technologies evil, or we're just too dumb to be entrusted with it?
Martin Rees: There is a huge and growing gap between the way the world could be and the way the world is. We depend very much on technology, indeed the world population which has doubled in the last 50 years couldn't all be fed. Without the technology that has been achieved and the longer life expectancy, much better health, etc. all these things are due to technology, and of course we have a connected world due to the Internet and technologies. But of course what worries many of us is that these technologies are getting more powerful, and therefore not only can they provide more benefit, but they open up new dangers. And I am worried also about the downsides. To take an example: we know already that cyber attacks are new kind of terrorism, which can be very dangerous. And biological advances, they lead not only to exciting health benefits but also ethically dubious ways of changing the human genome and also, of course, potential dangers from creating more transmissible and more virulent viruses. The more dangerous technologies are those which unlike nuclear energy require just fairly small facilities: access to a computer for cyber attacks or access to an ordinary laboratory to do biological issues. So that is why it's very very hard to regulate. And even if we have agreed international regulations, as already are being developed for Genetics, and similar technologies, enforcing those regulations globally, is going to be very hard. Just as hard as enforcing the drug laws globally or the tax laws globally. We haven’t had much success in doing either of those. And that's why I do worry that we will have a bumpy ride through this century because we can't really avoid having just a few people somewhere in the world who will by intention or by misadventure create some event which could cascade globally and be a very serious setback.
SS:So I feel like a lot of the problems and mishandling of the new technological progress is probably due to the pace of the progress, because like before it would take one big breakthrough in technology. But it will take a whole generation to digest and now these breakthroughs happen every day every five minutes. So it's like we can't really catch up with them. We're not fully...
MR: That is indeed the worry that these changes are happening faster than we can accommodate them and regulate against them. That is a worry. There's been a huge surge of developments in both biotechnology and in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and these are the ones that are hard to deal with. But, of course, not all technologies advanced fast all the time, and it was only 50 years between the first transatlantic flight like Alcock and Brown in 1919, the first man on the moon in 1969. It was 50 years. But in the 50 years since then in terms of spaceflight and aviation things haven't changed. No one has been back to the Moon. The jumbo jet first flew in 1969. We still have though…. so it could be that we're going through a sort of a sudden burst and it will level off again. So we can't assume that the fastest evolving technologies now will continue to evolve at this breakneck speed.
SS:You once wrote a book with a very optimistic title: “Our Last Century”. Sixteen years on, do you feel like your bleak predictions are coming true or maybe you see the reverse processes?
MR: Yes. Well, I think I was among the first to highlight the issues that the empowerment of small groups of individuals by bio and cyber is going to lead to new tensions, new threats to governance and the growing tension between three things we want to preserve, namely liberty, security and privacy. And I think that prediction has been borne out. We are confronted by these concerns, in my opinion. But, although, I think we will have a bumpy ride through the century, it's obviously very unlikely that we wipe ourselves out. I am not suggesting that. But I think we do need to worry about the control of these technologies insofar as we can. It's hard to regulate them, but also it is rather depressing that the gap between the way things could be and the way things actually are is so wide and possibly getting wider. And the thing I worry about…
SS: But what exactly do you mean? Like the way things could be and the way things are. You mean like humans could be more in tune with the technology and more responsible with it, and we're not. What exactly do you mean?
MR: No, I mean that we could have a world that provides a decent life for all the seven and a half billion people in it. And at the moment, we have a couple of billion in abject poverty, and some people immensely wealthy. And the fact that the richest two thousand people in the world have the resources to double the income of the bottom billion in the world, and this is not happening, is an ethical indictment. And that's just one example...
SS:Because no technological evolution, turns out, can change a factor of human greed.
MR: No, that is right. But I think also we're going to have a self-interest in trying to level these inequalities, because if you think about Africa, the population is growing faster in Africa than in any other part of the world. It's going to double between now and 2050. And according to some U.N. projections it may double again between 2050 and 2100 to the extent that Nigeria will have a population of 900 million which is equal to Europe and North America combined. And if that were to happen, and if Africa were stuck in poverty, that would obviously be a recipe for mass disaffection, mass migration and conflict, because the point is that in Africa, unlike a century ago, they may not have sanitation, but they do have mobile phones. They know what they're missing. They're in touch with the rest of the world. And unless we can reduce the gaps between those in the poorest parts of the world and those like us who are fortunate, then I think we will have a massive and continuing disaffection and conflict and powered by these new technologies. So that makes me pessimistic. So I think we have not only an ethical imperative but a self-interest imperative to do what we can: to reduce these inequalities and help the countries especially those of Africa, the Middle East to develop. I'll tell you one other reason why we have to do this, and it is that we know that the countries of East Asia, which benefited by cheap manufacturing, by having wage levels lower than in Europe and North America and that gave a big boost to Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea and countries like that. That ladder has been kicked away, because now with robots... if rich countries can do their own manufacturing, so the countries of Africa and the Middle East won't have the opportunity to surge ahead and catch up, which the so-called Asian tigers had in the past. And that's another reason why I think we need to worry. We need to have international policies which try to level things between the different continents.
SS:A lot of the neuroscientists that I've spoken to and cognitive psychologists, they raise alarm, because they're saying that a good amount of the problems that we're facing as humanity, is this unfiltered huge amount of the information that Internet gives us. And it develops with such a pace that our brains aren't actually fit to digest. Do you think it's true?
MR: Well, there's too much information to digest…
SS: ...and too many and too fast.
MR: Yes, yes. And this is a problem. I mean, I don't agree with those people who say it’s actually affecting the brain very much, but it is making it very hard for people to have clear views about what is important and what isn't. And this is a sort of cultural matter which we need to be concerned about.
SS: So, you were saying that the possible next evolutionary step will be for humans to morph into machines.
MR: Well, this is very, very far future. Not this century.
SS: I know. ...Or just die out and have machines carry on, instead of humans once they are intelligent enough. Why don't you believe humans will carry on? I mean, we've carried on for a twenty first century for the better or for the worse.
MR: I do, I think you've misinterpreted me. I think that we will continue on the Earth, and I hope we can regulate these new technologies. But I do think that by the end of the century there will be a few crazy adventurers who may be living away from the Earth, on Mars, and, of course, they will be ill-adapted to that habitat. And so they will be the people who will have the incentive and the opportunity, because they are away from regulators, to enhance themselves and adapt themselves. So, I think if we imagine some species emerging, which is different from human beings, it will emerge from those crazy people on Mars, not from us. I think we want to preserve the Earth as a habitat for human beings. And we are well adapted to that.
SS:So you don't believe in many of the scientists saying that actually it's inevitable us becoming half-machines, because now we see all those organs that can be replaced by machines, and gradually they say... the human brain upgrade - the chip Elon Musk is working on... And this is all here, this is all real.
MR: Well, we don't know how fast this will happen, but I think it's important that we should realise that we are adapted to living on Earth, and actually we don't want to change very much. I think it's often interesting to look and see what rich people choose to do when they have the choice. And the two things: the first is that they want human beings look after them, not robots. They want carers and all that. And also they often want to live in a country, in nature, in a country estate and things like that. And so, what people aspire to is to be in touch with nature and in touch with other human beings, given the choice. It may be that most people never have the choice. We should try and ensure that human beings can be looked after by other human beings and still have access to nature.
SS:Many people who are actually working on artificial intelligence or self-perfecting robots are telling me that it's just a matter of not even a century or 50 years. We're talking about 10 years, 15 years, maximum 20 years when robots and machines will be doing most of our stuff. And I'm thinking…
MR: Well, they're capable of doing it. The question is: do we want them to do it?
SS:We do very advanced things to protect human race as species but animals do that too. But what defines us as humans are different things that we do: like art, or we love, or we go wow when we see sunshine. I'm just scared, I'm thinking, like, is that all going to die out with evolution? Are robots going to be able to win over Shakespeare?
MR: Here on Earth, I think we got to realise that we do have distinctive human qualities. And incidentally, I think we can use AI, artificial intelligence, to find a better life, because lots of people, who have really mind-numbing jobs working in warehouses or telephone call centres and things like that. And if those jobs can be replaced by dignified well-paid publicly funded jobs as carers for old people, assistance to teachers in schools, custodians and public parks gardeners and things like that, which machines can't do as well. That'll be a plus. So there are huge positives, if the deployment of robots and technology is guided by human values.
SS:You've mentioned a couple of times crazy people, who are going to colonise Mars.
MR: Not crazy... I admire them. Just like we admire those who climb mountains and do other dangerous sports.
SS:But at the end of the day, I'm thinking they may not even have a choice because we see that humanity exploding in numbers and efforts to contain climate change dismissed by politicians…
MR: That is such a dangerous delusion. It's a very dangerous delusion to think we can escape the Earth's problems by terraforming Mars. It's simple compared... it's simple to deal with climate change as compared to making Mars habitable and terraforming it. So it's a dangerous delusion to think that we've got a planet B for all we risk-averse people. You've got to deal with those problems here and the population problem - we can deal with it. In fact the population is going down in two thirds of the world's countries. It's not going down in Africa. But there are ways in which we can change their lifestyles so it does go down as they become more prosperous. So the problems that confront us on Earth are far easier than anything we confront if we tried to live away from the Earth.
SS: Do you know this Serbian director Emir Kusturica? He's a very famous artist, and I was actually speaking to him because I also wonder how artists perceive the script of the future. And he said to me that the generation of people who will first go to Mars will be the generation that will create the new sets of values for humanity. Do you agree with that?
MR: Well, they might create a new set of values for themselves because they're going to be living in a very different environment from what any of us, humans, have lived in. But it's not clear how much relevant stuff will have to us, who stay here on Earth. But I mean having said that I think we should admire these people because we admire anyone who goes to the limits of human capabilities: extreme sports and all the rest of it. So we should admire these people, and also we can learn from them just as we can learn from science fiction. I mean, I tell my students, it's better to read first-rate science fiction and second-rate science, because it's more exciting and no more likely to be wrong. So I think we want to encourage the artists to explore these and there will be ideas that will be more relevant perhaps to future generations away from the Earth than to us. I think the human exploration of space, of course, is just an adventure because the robots get better, the practical need for sending people into space is almost eliminated. So we need them. We can have robotic fabricators building huge structures in space or on the Moon. The only reason for sending people is an adventure. And for that reason I would not support any public funding being spent on space, whether I was in Russia, Europe or the United States. It should be left to private enterprise,people like Elon Musk, SpaceX and Bezos’s Blue Origin, it should be left to them. But I think we should cheer them on, because they can take higher risks than any Western nation could impose on publicly funded civilians, so they could do cut-price high-risk ventures. And my prediction is that by the end of the century there will be small communities living on Mars, sent there by these private adventures. And Elon Musk himself says that he wants to die on Mars but not on impact. And I think he's 47 years old now. So, of course, he might make that. So I think there will be small communities there. But what I don't think is that there will be mass emigration. And I think it's a dangerous delusion to talk about that and even more foolish to think of it as desirable.
SS: I want to talk to you about climate change. I mean it is so real. I don't know what else should it take for everyone to realise it's here and that we should be taking care of it not tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but we should have done it like 10 years ago, 20 years ago. But not much is being done, to be quite honest. What is it going to take for people to wake up, especially heads of states?
MR: Well, I think it is a problem because, of course, the ways of dealing with it are expensive, and it's very hard to get politicians to prioritise something which benefits people in the remote parts of the world 50 years from now above dealing with immediate problems. And there are two ways in which this will happen, and I think it is going to be happening. One way is, of course, if public concern rises, so voters support a politician who advocates this. In the past, it's not a way of getting votes but losing votes to say they're going to make sacrifices now. If that changes, then I think that will help. And I think it is changing now, because these campaigns by young people are important. And to give another example in my country, the programme is called Blue Planet on a television fronted by David Attenborough which showed the impact of plastics in the ocean of albatrosses returning to their nest and coughing up plastic for their young in the nest and all that - that was an iconic image which influenced millions of people, rather like the polar bear on the melting ice floe. And that led even rather unenlightened British politicians to propose legislation to cut down on the use of non-reusable plastics. So that's an example where politicians will act if they think the public is behind them. So public pressure, public demonstrations, the effect of charismatic figures is very important. I'd like to quote the great anthropologist Margaret Mead who said it takes only a few determined people to change the world, indeed nothing else ever has. And an example of that is going to what we need with climate change. So that's one thing. The other is a win-win strategy in my opinion, which is supported by 20 countries including my country, is to greatly enhance research and development into all kinds of clean energy. And the reason for this is that at the moment of course it's more expensive than coal. And if we can enhance the rate of research then that'll speed up the development of better clean energy and it will also bring down the cost. So the country like India, where at the moment they do not have a proper electric grid, people depend on smoky stoves, burning wood and dung in their homes which is very unhealthy. And they want a grid. And unless they can afford something better, they will build coal-fired power stations which is not going to be good for climate change, is going to increase carbon dioxide emissions. But if the cost of clean energy be so low or something else, and energy storage came down, then the Indians would leapfrog directly to clean technology, just like in the case of phones. They leapfrogged directly to mobile phones and never had landlines.
SS: What do you make of the argument that humanity has survived so many climate changes in eight thousand years, why are we so afraid of this one? And the only reason we're so aware is because of the information access. What do you tell them?
MR: Well, that's just not true, because the one thing that's completely unambiguous is the measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. That's been made for the last 60 years and it's gone up by nearly 50 percent and we have records showing it's never been that high for the last eight hundred thousand years. So the speed of the changes is unprecedented. So it's not true that this is just a fluctuation. There are of course fluctuations, and that makes it hard to discern the trend, because there are other fluctuations on the timescale of a decade, which is why we sometimes get a levelling off and then a rise. But I think there's absolutely no doubt that something is happening now, which hasn't happened in the last million years.
SS: And lastly a lot of people in your field are getting more and more excited about the prospect that there's another Earth-like planet somewhere out there in space. Do you think there could be another planet with water, carbon and all of that? A second set of humans forming already have evolved somewhere?
MR: The exciting thing we've learned in the last 10 or 20 years due to a discovery first made in Switzerland by someone who's now one of my colleagues in Cambridge, who is a pioneer of this, we now know that most of the stars in the sky are orbited by retinues of planets just as the sun is orbited by the Earth and the other familiar planets. And we certainly know that many of those planets are going to be rather like the Earth in terms of temperature and size. And so that potentially bodes for life. What we don't yet know is how life actually began. We understand Darwinian evolution. However, four billion years this simple life evolved into the biosphere around us of which we're a part. But people are often surprised to realise: we don't understand what made the first life, what made the transition from complex chemistry to the first entities which metabolised and reproduced, if you call them a life, we don’t understand how it happened. So we don't yet know was it a rare fluke that only happened here or would it have happened in all these other places all through the galaxy. We don't know. I think in 10 or 20 years we will know the answer to that question in two ways. First, I think we may understand how life began on Earth. And so we know whether it was a rare fluke or not. But secondly we would have observations from the next generation of telescopes, in particular a giant telescope being built by European astronomers in Chile called Extremely Large Telescope. But this will have a 39-meter-diameter mirror and this will be able to analyse the light from some of these Earth-like planets orbiting other stars to the extent it'll be able to tell if there's any kind of life, vegetation or oxygen etc. on them.
SS: What is your intuition telling you? Is there another human race somewhere?
MR: Well, I don't think intuitions have any value in this. I think we've just got to say: “We don't know. It's an exciting question. You've got to try and find out”. It's a biological question now. Astronomers know that there are a lot of these Earth-like planets, that's been a big advance in the last 10 or 20 years. And we'll have more observations and perhaps a better understanding of the biology, and of course this is talking about any kind of life. The second question is, of course, that if there’s life, what are the chances that it develops into something intelligent or technological? And of course there’s a separate project to look for any evidence, for something that is artificial out there. You know, artificial radio transmission, or some artefacts. And, again, I think it's worth a try. Because we’re so fascinated if we found something. But it's even harder to set the betting odds on that.
SS:Martin Rees, thank you so much for this wonderful insight. I hope we get a chance to do this again.
MR: I hope so. Thank you very much.