STS Program » News & Events » Science and Democracy Lecture Series

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Catastrophic Risks: The Downsides of Advancing Technology

Martin Rees

With panel discussion by Sven Beckert, George Daley, Jennifer Hochschild, and Daniel Schrag. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
November 6, 2014, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Jefferson Hall, Room 250, Harvard University

Our Earth is 45 million centuries old. But this century is the first when one species ours can determine the biosphere’s fate. Threats from the collective “footprint” of 9 billion people seeking food, resources and energy are widely discussed. But less well studied is the potential vulnerability of our globally-linked society to the unintended consequences of powerful technologies not only nuclear, but (even more) biotech, advanced AI, geo-engineering and so forth. These are advancing fast, and bring with them great hopes, but also great fears. They will present new threats more diverse and more intractable than nuclear weapons have done. More expertise is needed to assess which long-term threats are credible, versus which will stay science fiction, and to explore how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones. We need to formulate guidelines that achieve optimal balance between precautionary policies, and the benign exploitation of new technologies. We shouldn’t be complacent that the probabilities of catastrophe are miniscule. Humans have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes, and pestilence. But we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that the future can bring. It’s an important maxim that “the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Global Climate Change
Environment Ethics
Environment Justice

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