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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle