June 26, 2016
What Is The Likelihood Of Human Extinction?

How could they possibly know?

A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash, says a new report.

We obviously have a much better measure of our risks of dying in a car crash than in an extinction event. Since 1985 motor vehicle death rates in America have dropped by more than half. Cars have gotten a lot safer with better airbags, crumple zone design, and computers that assist driving. The death rate in cars will drop by an order of magnitude or more when autonomous driving technologies hit the market. Improvements in aircraft technologies have similarly made air travel much safer as well. Also, automated equipment is taking over many dangerous jobs. So your risk of death from normal accidents in an industrial civilization is going down. Your risk of death from, say, a star going supernova near Sol system isn't going down, at least not much.

Many factors make calculation of extinction risks hard to do. For really really low frequency events we do not have many data points. We can look back in Earth planetary history at the big extinction events of the past. But some of those causes are probably becoming less frequent due to natural geological processes (e.g. fewer asteroids flying around compared to 1 billion years ago). Plus, the big 5 historical extinctions are just 5 data points. We do not yet know for certain what caused the biggest one, the Permian extinction about 250 million years ago. The Siberian Traps volcanic eruption seems the likely cause. What are the odds of an eruption on the scale of the Siberian Traps happening again?

Suppose we could somehow know that something equivalent to the Siberian Traps was going to erupt Suppose we even had a 50 year warning. Could we prepare for it? Perhaps not save all the human race but save hundreds of millions with massive underground cities? Seems possible, especially if the cities are constructed far from the expected eruption location.

An eruption that fits the pattern of the Permian extinction would likely give us a lot of time (many lifetimes) to prepare. The Permian eruptions built up for 300,000 years before causing mass extinctions. Surely a super-advanced transhumans could come up with lots of strategies in a few hundred thousand years. Suppose at some point in the future we go thru a period of gradually rising amount of eruptions. Could we develop atmospheric cleaning tech to take massive quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere? If we could it would prevent ocean acidity from rising too high and therefore prevent massive ocean die-offs that make our current rising CO2 problem look like small potatoes in comparison.

Obviously we aren't being prudent about avoiding another mass extinction. If we wanted to be prudent then for starters a highly excellent asteroid detection and deflection defense system would be pretty easy, smaller than the Apollo program (which ate 1% of US GDP for years). Also, if we wanted to be prudent we'd stop overfishing the oceans, take steps to reduce fertility in the most rapidly growing countries, and reduce habitat destruction such as massive deforestation.

What about threats from our technology? Some people think nuclear war could make the human race become extinct. I'm pretty skeptical. Kill hundreds of millions of people? Possibly. Wipe out everyone? Way way less likely. An engineered pathogen seems within the realm of possibility. Ditto AI. Maybe nanotech goo.

If the human race goes extinct in 100 years what will cause it? Genetically engineered 200 IQ scientists who create AIs they can't control? Nanotech replicators that mutate into forms that let them wipe out all life? Or a gamma ray burst? Are we at greater risk from ourselves or from nature?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 June 26 07:30 PM 

Crocodile Chuck said at June 26, 2016 9:20 PM:

The history of human civilisation is the history of one thing:

Climate change.

Think about it.

PeterL said at June 28, 2016 7:40 AM:

If we have multiple generations of warning, we will procrastinate and say "Well, in 50 years we can just upload our consciousnesses into spacecraft, so we may as well wait for that and do nothing now." In order for an Ark style crash program to succeed the threat will have to be more urgent.

The other major concern is that if an Ark program can only save some people, it will have to prioritize the leadership of countries that possess nuclear weapons, because if even one of those countries is left out, it will be able to stop all the rest from saving themselves.

David Friedman said at July 4, 2016 12:51 PM:

"take steps to reduce fertility in the most rapidly growing countries"

Thus preventing the existence of the genius who would have found the solution to the problems posed by an extinction event.

Or in other words, holding down population isn't an unambiguous good. It has both good and bad effects and we don't know which are larger. I made that point in print more than forty years ago, when the conventional wisdom was that population growth was going to have something between very bad and catastrophic effects in the reasonably near term.

It's still true. Of global warming too.


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