Why not? Robots dancing in Madrid's robot museum. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
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Nuclear armaments? Global warming? All hail our robot overlords!

I, for one, accept our new robot politicians.

hanks to Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Challenges Foundation, we now know the 12 ways in which humanity is most likely to go up in smoke. Their proposals for mitigating the threats (the usual suspects: asteroids, pandemics, and so on) make for interesting reading. The team makes ten recommendations, such as improving early-warning systems, increasing focus on the more extreme scenarios and looking at the possibility of establishing a global risk organisation. But it may have missed a trick.

One threat on the list is artificial intelligence (AI): robot minds capable of rising up and killing us all. Yet the discussion makes clear that politicians are also a big threat. Perhaps we could engineer AI to rise up and implement sensible decisions that will save, rather than threaten, humankind.

The AI threat is a popular notion. Stephen Hawking has pronounced on a few occasions that we should fear AI and be extremely careful about the kind of intelligence we create. The robots, he says, may well turn against us. It is a measure of Hawking’s cultural cachet that he can get away with this kind of speculation. There is very little evidence – perhaps none, outside science fiction – to support his claim.

AI isn’t very good at anything yet, let alone taking over the world. A brief conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s “knowledge navigator”, will allay all fears of a robot uprising.
And although the capabilities of Google’s self-driving cars are impressive, let’s remember how good we are at driving. Every day, human beings make millions of journeys that rely on complex decision-making algorithms operating at lightning speed in the brain.

Not only are our brains agile enough to do this, but they have ensured that the computers and AI that we invent are placed in control of cars only within an extremely tight regulatory framework. So we’re not stupid, after all.

Yet our minds are also naive and easily panicked. That is why we can be persuaded, with very little evidence, that a silicon-based creation of our making could become an existential threat.

This hair-trigger facility for suspicion and peril-spotting is part of our evolutionary heritage. It is the mental equipment that enabled us to survive in environments full of predators. But it is also what makes lasting international agreements so hard to reach, creating threats that are far more dangerous than AI.

We can focus on Ukraine, to take a topical example, but zoom out and we’ll see that the overall threat from politicians is huge. That’s why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its “Doomsday Clock”, a measure of the imminence of our demise as a species. In January, the time on it was moved forward: we are now at “three minutes to midnight”. The Bulletin warns that, with the governments of the US and Russia racing to modernise their nuclear arsenals, “International leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilisation.”

And it’s not just nuclear Armageddon. There are slow deaths on the horizon, too. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were identified as a possible threat to humanity decades ago, yet little of consequence has been done about this.

It doesn’t seem to be within our capabilities to find a lasting solution to these kinds of problems. Perhaps we should encourage AI researchers to forget self-driving cars and focus on self-driving nations: a political intelligence that can steer us through dangerous times. When you consider the situation we have now, would robot overlords really be so scary? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Why did Julian Assange lose his internet connection?

Rumours of paedophilia have obscured the real reason the WikiLeaks founder has been cut off from the internet. 

In the most newsworthy example of "My house, my rules" this year, Julian Assange's dad (the Ecuadorian embassy in London) has cut off his internet because he's been a bad boy. 

Rumours that the WikiLeaks' founder was WiFi-less were confirmed by Ecuador's foreign ministry late last night, which released a statement saying it has "temporarily restricted access to part of its communications systems in its UK Embassy" where Assange has been granted asylum for the last four years. 

Claims that the embassy disconnected Assange because he had sent sexually explicit messages to an eight-year-old girl —first reported by the US political blog Daily Kos — have been quashed. Wikileaks responded by denying the claims on Twitter, as Ecuador explained the move was taken to prevent Assange's interference with the US election. The decision follows the publication of leaked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign adviser John Podesta, as well as emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), by WikiLeaks.

Ecuador "respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states," read the statement, though the embassy have confirmed they will continue to grant Assange asylum. 

Assange first arrived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012, after being sought for questioning in Sweden over an allegation of rape, which he denies. WikiLeaks claims this new accusation is a further attempt to frame Assange.  "An unknown entity posing as an internet dating agency prepared an elaborate plot to falsely claim that Julian Assange received US$1M from the Russian government and a second plot to frame him sexually molesting an eight year old girl," reads a news story on the official site.

It is unclear when Assange will be reconnected, although it will presumably be after the US presidential election on 8 November.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.