Friday, 23 December 2016

O Come, All ye Fearful: 12 woes for Christmas future

This month I thought I would try and adopt something of the Yuletide spirit by offering something short and sharp (if not sweet) that bares a passing resemblance to the carol On the Twelve Days of Christmas. However, instead of gifts I'll be attempting to analyse twelve key concerns that humanity may face in the near future, some being more immediate - not to mention inevitable - than others.

I'll start off with the least probable issues then gradually work down to those most likely to have widespread effects during the next few decades. As it is meant to be a season of good cheer I'll even suggest a few solutions or mitigation strategies where these are applicable. The ultimate in low-carb gifts: what more could you ask for?

12: ET phones Earth. With the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen project leading efforts to pick up signals from alien civilisations, what are the chances that we might receive an extra-terrestrial broadcast in the near future? Although many people might deem this just so much science fiction, the contents of a translated message (or autonomous probe) could prove catastrophic. Whether it would spark faith-based wars or aid the development of advanced technology we couldn't control - or be morally fit enough to utilise - there may be as many negative issues as positive ones.

Solution: Keeping such information secret, especially the raw signal data, would be incredibly difficult. Whether an international translation project could be conducted in secret is another matter, with censorship allowing a regular trickle of the less controversial information into the public domain. Whilst this is the antithesis of good scientific practice, it could prove to be the best solution in the long term. Not that most politicians are ever able to see anything that way, however!

11. Acts of God. There is a multitude of naturally-occurring events that are outside of human control, both terrestrial (e.g. super volcano, tsunami) and extra-terrestrial, such as asteroid impacts. Again, until recently few people took much interest in the latter, although Hollywood generated some awareness via several rather poor movies in the late 1990s. The Chelyabinsk meteor of February 2013 (rather than meteorite, as most of the material exploded at altitude led to 1500 injuries, showing that even a small object that doesn't reach the ground intact can cause havoc. Since 2000, there have been over twenty asteroid impacts or atmospheric break-ups ranging from a kiloton up to half a megaton.

Solution: Although there are various projects to assess the orbits of near-Earth objects (NEOs), the development of technologies to deflect or destroy impactors requires much greater funding than is currently in place. Options range from devices that use just their velocity to knock NEOs off-course to the brute force approach of high-powered lasers and hydrogen bombs. However, with the cancellation of NASA's Ares V heavy launch vehicle it's difficult to see how such solutions could be delivered in time. Hopefully in the event something would be cobbled together pretty quickly!

10. Grey goo scenario. As defined by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, what if self-replicating nanobots (developed for example, for medical purposes), break their programming and escape into the world, eating everything in their path? Similar to locust swarms, they would only be limited by the availability of raw materials.

Solution: The Royal Society's 2004 report on nanoscience declared that the possibility of von Neumann machines are some decades away and therefore of little concern to regulators. Since then, other research has suggested there should be limited need to develop such machines anyway. So that's good to know!

9. Silicon-destroying lifeforms. What if natural mutations lead to biological organisms that can seriously damage integrated circuitry? A motherboard-eating microbe would be devastating, especially in the transport and medical sectors, never mind the resulting communication network outages and financial chaos. This might sound as ridiculous as any low-grade science fiction plot, but in 1975 nylon-eating bacteria were discovered. Since then, research into the most efficient methods to recover metals from waste electronics have led to experiments in bioleaching. As well as bacteria, the fungus Aspergillus niger has been shown to breakdown the metals used in circuits.

Solution: As bioleaching is potentially cheaper and less environmentally damaging it could become widespread. Therefore it will be up to the process developers to control their creations. Fingers crossed, then!

8. NCB. Conventional weapons may be more common place, but the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by rogue states and terrorist organisations is definitely something to be worried about. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a difficult time keeping track of all the radioactive material that is stolen or goes missing each year.  As the 1995 fatal release of the nerve agent sarin on the Tokyo subway shows, terrorists are not unwilling to use weapons of mass destruction on the general public.

Solution: There's not much I can suggest here. Let's hope that the intelligence services can keep all the Dr Evils at bay.

7. Jurassic Park for real. At Harvard last year a chicken embryo's genes were tweaked in such a way as to create a distinctly dinosaurian snout rather than a beak. Although it may be sometime before pseudo-velociraptors are prowling (high-fenced) reserves, what if genome engineering was used to develop Homo superior? A 2014 paper from Michigan State University suggests both intellectual and physical improvements via CRISPR-cas9 technology is just around the corner.

Solution: If the tabloids are to be believed (as if) China will soon be editing human genomes, to fix genetic diseases as well as generating enhanced humans. Short of war, what's to stop them?

Planet Earth wrapped as a Christmas present

6. DIY weaponry. The explosion in 3D printers for the domestic market means that you can now make your own handguns. Although current designs wear out after a few firings, bullets are also being developed that will work without limiting their lifespan. Since many nations have far more stringent gun laws than the USA, an increase in weaponry among the general public is just what we don't need.

Solution: how about smart locking systems on printers so they cannot produce components that could be used to build a weapon? Alternatively, there are now 3D printer models that can manufacture prototype bulletproof clothing. Not that I'd deem that a perfect solution!

5. Chemical catastrophe. There are plenty of chemicals no longer in production that might affect humanity or our agriculture. These range from the legacy effects of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a known carcinogen, to the ozone depletion causing by CFCs, which could be hanging around the stratosphere for another century; this doesn't just result in increased human skin cancer - crops are also affected by the increased UVB.

Solution: we can only hope that current chemical development now has more rigorous testing and government regulation than that accorded to PCBs, CFCs, DDTs, et al. Let's hope all that health and safety legislation pays off.

4. The energy crisis. Apart from the obvious environmental issues around fossil fuels, the use of fracking generates a whole host of problems on its own, such as the release of methane and contamination of groundwater by toxic chemicals, including radioactive materials.

Solution: more funding is required for alternatives, especially nuclear fusion (a notoriously expensive area to research). Iceland generated 100% of its electricity from renewables whilst Portugal managed 4 consecutive days in May this year via wind, hydro, biomass and solar energy sources. Greater recycling and more incentives for buying electric and hybrid vehicles wouldn't hurt either!

3. Forced migration. The rise in sea levels due to melt water means that it won't just be Venice and small Pacific nations that are likely to become submerged by the end of the century. Predictions vary widely, but all in the same direction: even an increase of 150mm would be likely to affect over ten million people in the USA alone, with probably five times that number in China facing similar issues.

Solution: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would seem to be the thing. This requires more electric vehicles and less methane-generating livestock. Arnold Schwarzenegger's non-fossil fuel Hummers and ‘Less meat, less heat, more life' campaign would appear to be good promotion for the shape of things to come - if he can be that progressive, there's hope for everyone. Then of course there's the potential for far more insect-based foodstuffs.

2. Food and water. A regional change in temperature of only a few degrees can seriously affect crop production and the amount of water used by agriculture. Over 700 million people are already without clean water, with shortages affecting agriculture even in developed regions - Australia and California spring to mind. Apparently, it takes a thousand litres of water to generate a single litre of milk!

Solution: A few far-sighted Australian farmers are among those developing methods to minimise water usage, including a few low-tech schemes that could be implemented anywhere. However, really obvious solutions would be to reduce the human population and eat food that requires less water. Again, bug farming seems a sensible idea.

1. Preventing vegegeddon. A former professor at Oxford University told me that some of his undergraduates have problems relating directly to others, having grown up in an environment with commonplace communication via electronic interfaces. If that's the problem facing the intellectual elite, what hope for the rest of our species? Physical problems such as poor eyesight are just the tip of the iceberg: the human race is in severe danger of degenerating into low-attention ‘sheeple' (as they say on Twitter). Children are losing touch with the real world, being enticed into virtual environments that on the surface are so much more appealing. Without knowledge or experience of reality, even stable democracies are in danger of being ruled by opportunistic megalomaniacs, possibly in orange wigs.

Solution: Richard Louv, author of  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder suggests children require unstructured time out of doors in order to gain an (occasionally painful) understanding of  the real world; tree-climbing, fossicking, etc. Restricting time on electronic devices would seem to go hand in hand with this.

Well, that about wraps it up from me. And if the above seems somewhat scary, then why not do something about it: wouldn't working for a better future be the best Christmas present anyone could ever give?