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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era