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Stephen Hawking says a planetary disaster on Earth is a "near certainty"

It's just a matter of when.

PETER DOCKRILL
20 JAN 2016
 

Famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warns a disaster on Earth is a "near certainty", owing to the growing risks posed by humanity's own scientific progress.

Speaking in the lead-up to his eagerly expected public lecture on new research in relation to black holes, Hawking said the prospect of a planetary disaster is virtually inevitable, due to a number of ongoing threats for which we as a species are basically single-handedly responsible.

 

"We face a number of threats: nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered viruses," he told Radio Times, as reported by Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. "Although the chance of a disaster on planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, becoming a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years."

Nonetheless, while the prospects Hawking describes are certainly bleak, he says in the short-term, humanity should be able to climb out of this hole – provided we live long enough to realise our interplanetary ambitions, that is.

"By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so it would not mean the end of the human race," he said. "However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period."

The ironic (but very believable) logic in Hawking's arguments is that it's humanity's past advancements that have gotten us into this mess – but it's also only through continuing research and discoveries that we will be able to get out of it.

"Most of the threats we face come from the progress we've made in science and technology," he said. "We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognise the dangers and control them. I'm an optimist, and I believe we can."

Hawking's fears over the risks humanity faces before it can leave the planet are not new. For much of this century he's spoken critically about where developments such as nuclear weapons and genetically engineered viruses may be leading us.

Last year, he joined a high-profile coalition of scientists and experts protesting against the development of autonomous weaponry controlled solely by artificial intelligence. His view is that political involvement is crucial, and that it's everybody's responsibility to keep progress steered where we need it to go.

"Science and technology are changing our world dramatically, so it's important to ensure that these changes are heading in the right directions," said Hawking. "In a democratic society, this means that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of science, to make informed decisions about the future."

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