University of Bath

The world in 2050 and beyond

In this public lecture, eminent astronomer Lord Rees discusses the future of our planet and the hazards that threaten humanity's continued existence.

9 Feb 20175.15pm
9 Feb 20176.30pm

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 technology, but (even more) biotech, advanced AI, geoengineering 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 and 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 civilisation can survive the worst that the future can bring. It's an important maxim that "the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable".