Martin Rees: “Advances in technology will render us vulnerable in new ways”

The Astronomer Royal takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The silicon chip and the discovery of the double helix, both dating from the mid-20th century, are transformative and will be more so.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?
Scientists have a rotten record as forecasters. One of my predecessors as astronomer royal said, as late as the 1950s, that space travel was utter bilge. The iPhone would have seemed magical even 20 years ago. So, looking 50-plus years ahead, we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to what may now seem science fiction. But here are a few thoughts.

Before long, novel cognition-enhancing drugs, genetics and “cyborg” techniques may alter human beings themselves. That is something qualitatively new – and disquieting, because it could portend more fundamental forms of inequality if these options were open only to a privileged few.

And what about robots? I think they have two very different roles. The first is to operate in locations that human beings can’t reach, such as mines, oil rigs, nuclear power stations – and pursuing construction projects in space. The second role, deeply unglamorous, is to help old or disabled people with everyday life: tying shoelaces, cutting toenails and suchlike. Moreover, if robots can be miniaturised, they can perhaps be used inside our bodies for monitoring our health, undertaking surgery, and so on.

What is your greatest concern for the future?
Advances in technology – bio, cyber and nano – will render us vulnerable in new ways, living as we will in an ever more interconnected and crowded world. We depend on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air-traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery, and so forth. Unless these systems are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system. Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic but burgeoning megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion – rumours and panic – at the speed of light. Malign or foolhardy individuals and small groups have far more power and leverage than in the past.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
Astronomers have learned something that makes the night sky far more interesting than it was to our forebears. Many stars – perhaps even most – are orbited by retinues of planets, just as the sun is. These planets have been inferred indirectly, by detecting their effect on the brightness or motion of the stars they’re orbiting around.

Later in the century we’ll be able to see these planets directly. To understand what we’ll learn, suppose that aliens existed, and that an alien astronomer with a powerful telescope was viewing the earth from (say) 30 light years away – the distance of a nearby star. Our planet would seem, in Carl Sagan’s phrase, a “pale blue dot”, very close to a star (our sun) that outshines it by many billions. The alien astronomers could infer the length of the “day”, the seasons, whether there are oceans, the gross topography and the climate. By analysing the faint light, they could infer that it had a biosphere.

Later this century we will have telescopes that can draw such inferences about earth-like planets orbiting other stars. Will there be life on them? How life began here on earth is still a mystery but I’m confident that it will be understood by the middle of the century. We will then have a better idea of how likely it is to exist on other planets.

But even if simple life were widespread, we can’t assess the odds of its evolving into a complex biosphere. And, even it did, it might anyway be unrecognisably different. Absence of evidence wouldn’t be evidence of absence. I won’t hold my breath for success.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
In politics, the local trumps the global, and policies with longer timescales than the electoral cycle slip down the agenda. Our policies must be international (whether or not a pandemic gets a global grip may hinge, say, on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness). And many of them – energy and climate change, for instance – involve multi-decade timescales, plainly far outside the “comfort zone” of most politicians. We downplay what is happening even now in impoverished, faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for our grandchildren.

We need a change in priorities and perspective if we are to navigate the challenges of the 21st century: to share the benefits of globalisation, to prioritise clean energy and sustainable agriculture, and to handle the Promethean challenge posed by ever more powerful technology.

Martin Rees drawn by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

European People's Party via Creative Commons
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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.