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

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.