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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.