According to a group of experts, a Covid-19-style pandemic was predictable and preventable. The fact that it has caused a global disaster that killed 3.3 million people was largely due to a failure of governance and a lack of a coordinated international response, they say.
“World political leadership was absent,” conclude the two main authors, Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia, in the report released this week.
As historian Niall Ferguson writes in his latest book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the distinction drawn between “natural” and “man-made” disasters is often misleading. The important thing is how humans anticipate and react to these events, which are predictable in their frequency if not in their particularity. And while it may be tempting to blame these disasters on incompetent leaders, they also reflect a broader social inability to prepare and respond.
The most disturbing thing about this failure is that humanity will soon face even greater threats. The risks of environmental destruction, nuclear annihilation, cyber warfare, bioterrorism, and rogue artificial intelligence are easy to predict and horrible to contemplate. But trying to prevent these dangers is becoming increasingly difficult as access to powerful technologies becomes easier and cheaper.
Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, believes that an alarmingly different type of Moore’s Law is being worked on today: the minimum IQ needed to destroy the world. one point falls every 18 months.
It may be a mountainous challenge, but at least some smart researchers are in the case of humanity. In an article for the Institute for the Future of Humanity in Oxford, Waqar Zaidi and Allan Dafoe discuss the first attempts to control the atomic bomb, highlighting some resonant lessons. In short, we should have little hope that political leaders will address these risks on their own initiative. We must rely on scientific experts and civil society to provide the necessary knowledge and political impetus, as has been the case with the environmental movement.
Zaidi said in an interview that he was surprised by the radicalism that some early reflections on nuclear weapons control had and the relevance it had for our times. The devastation of World War II and the threat of a nuclear cataclysm had driven support for the creation of the UN. As early as 1944, Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, had urged the leaders of the war in Britain and the United States to put nuclear weapons under international control.
Later, prominent scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” and Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, argued that nuclear power should only be used for peaceful purposes. Their campaign garnered some public support, but also the hostility of the military establishment, which called them politically naive and classified them as security risks.
For a time, the United States played with such radical “idealistic” thinking, reflected in the Baruch plan presented to the newly created United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. But in a “realistic” statement to the U.S. Congress in 1946, Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan project that built the atomic bomb, proposed a surprising option. “Either we must have an enforceable and realistic global agreement that guarantees the ban on atomic weapons or we and our reliable allies must have exclusive supremacy in the field,” he said.
Stalin’s determination to build his own bomb and growing distrust of the Soviet Union pushed the United States to choose the second path, leading to the start of a decades-long cold war.
Zaidi said that if scientists wanted to influence public debate, they must learn to mobilize political support. “Technology experts are essential because they have credibility and sometimes celebrity. Politicians never want to get ahead of public opinion, but sometimes they respond to it. ”
Interestingly, as I spoke of a new Cold War between the United States and China filling the air, I heard this week one of the top AI researchers expressing the alarm that a new arms race would only foster poor results and would call for international oversight. “What I would like is to approach a version of the UN that works with a set of guiding principles to which all the major actors would sign up and hand over power,” he said.
It is likely that distracted politicians will always linger and linger on “realistic” arguments unless “idealistic” scientific experts trained by civil society can convince them otherwise.