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Apocalypse soon: the scientists preparing for the end times

A growing community of scientists, philosophers and tech billionaires believe we need to start thinking seriously about the threat of human extinction.

Illustration: Darrel Rees/Heart

The men were too absorbed in their work to notice my arrival at first. Three walls of the conference room held whiteboards densely filled with algebra and scribbled diagrams. One man jumped up to sketch another graph, and three colleagues crowded around to examine it more closely. Their urgency surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have. These academics were debating what they believe could be one of the greatest threats to mankind – could superintelligent computers wipe us all out?

I was visiting the Future of Humanity Institute, a research department at Oxford University founded in 2005 to study the “big-picture questions” of human life. One of its main areas of research is existential risk. The physicists, philosophers, biologists, economists, computer scientists and mathematicians of the institute are students of the apocalypse.

Predictions of the end of history are as old as history itself, but the 21st century poses new threats. The development of nuclear weapons marked the first time that we had the technology to end all human life. Since then, advances in synthetic biology and nanotechnology have increased the potential for human beings to do catastrophic harm by accident or through deliberate, criminal intent.

In July this year, long-forgotten vials of smallpox – a virus believed to be “dead” – were discovered at a research centre near Washington, DC. Now imagine some similar incident in the future, but involving an artificially generated killer virus or nanoweapons. Some of these dangers are closer than we might care to imagine. When Syrian hackers sent a message from the Associated Press Twitter account that there had been an attack on the White House, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market briefly fell by $136bn. What unthinkable chaos would be unleashed if someone found a way to empty people’s bank accounts?

While previous doomsayers have relied on religion or superstition, the researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute want to apply scientific rigour to understanding apocalyptic outcomes. How likely are they? Can the risks be mitigated? And how should we weigh up the needs of future generations against our own?

The FHI was founded nine years ago by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher, when he was 32. Bostrom is one of the leading figures in this small but expanding field of study. It was the first organisation of its kind in the UK, and Bostrom is also an adviser on the country’s second: the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, which was launched in 2012. There are a few similar research bodies in the US, too: in May, the Future of Life Institute opened in Boston at MIT, joining the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, California.

“We’re getting these more and more powerful technologies that we can use to have more and more wide-ranging impacts on the world and ourselves, and our level of wisdom seems to be growing more slowly. It’s a bit like a child who’s getting their hands on a loaded pistol – they should be playing with rattles or toy soldiers,” Bostrom tells me when we meet in his sunlit office at the FHI, surrounded by yet more whiteboards. “As a species, we’re giving ourselves access to technologies that should really have a higher maturity level. We don’t have an option – we’re going to get these technologies. So we just have to mature more rapidly.”

I’d first met Bostrom in London a month earlier, at the launch of his most recent book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. He had arrived late. “Our speaker on superintelligence has got lost,” the chair joked. It was a Thursday lunchtime but the auditorium at the RSA on the Strand was full. I was sitting next to a man in his early twenties with a thick beard who had lent in to ask, “Have you seen him argue that we’re almost certainly brains in vats? It sounds so out-there, but when he does it it’s so cool!” He looked star-struck when Bostrom eventually bounded on stage.

Dressed in a checked shirt, stripy socks and tortoiseshell glasses, Bostrom rushed through his presentation, guided by some incongruously retro-looking PowerPoint slides. The consensus among experts in artificial intelligence (AI) is that they will develop a computer with human-level intelligence in the next 50 years, he said. Once they have succeeded in doing this, it might not take so long to develop machines smarter than we are. This new superintelligence would be extremely powerful, and may be hard to control. It would, for instance, be better at computer programming than human beings, and so could improve its own capabilities faster than scientists could. We may witness a “superintelligence explosion”
as computers begin improving themselves at an alarming rate.

If we handle it well, the development of superintelligence might be one of the best things ever to happen to humanity. These smart machines could tackle all the problems we are too stupid to solve. But it could also go horribly wrong. Computers may not share our values and social understanding. Few human beings set out to harm gorillas deliberately, Bostrom pointed out, but because we are cleverer, society is organised around our needs, not those of gorillas. In a future controlled by ultra-smart machines, we could well be the gorillas.

After the book launch, the publishers invited me to join them and Bostrom for a drink. We drank white wine, and Bostrom asked for green tea. Over a bowl of wasabi peanuts, he mentioned casually that he likes to download lectures and listen to them at three times the normal speed while he exercises. “I have an app that adjusts the pitch so it’s not like a Mickey Mouse voice,” he explained, assuming perhaps that this was the reason for my surprised expression. I sensed that he was quite keen to leave us to our wine. “Nick is the most focused person I know,” a colleague later told me.

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Bostrom hated school when he was growing up in Helsingborg, a coastal town in Sweden. Then, when he was 15, he stumbled on the philosophy section of his local library and began reading the great German philosophers: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant. “I discovered there was this wider life of the mind I had been oblivious to before then, and those big gates flung open and I had this sense of having lost time, because I had lost the first 15 years of my life,” he told me. “I had this sense of urgency that meant I knew I couldn’t lose more years, or it could be too late to amount to anything.”

There was no real “concept” of existential risk when Bostrom was a graduate student in London in the mid-1990s. He completed a PhD in philosophy at the London School of Economics while also studying computational neuroscience and astrophysics at King’s College London. “People were talking about human extinction but not about ways of thinking about permanently destroying our future,” he says.

Yet he began to meet people through the mailing lists of early websites who were also drawn to the ideas that were increasingly preoccupying him. They often called themselves “transhumanists” – referring to an intellectual movement interested in the transformation of the human condition through technology – and they were, he concedes, “mainly crackpots”.

In 2000 he became a lecturer in philosophy at Yale and then, two years later, he returned to the UK as a postdoctoral fellow at the British Academy. He planned to pursue his study of existential risk in tandem with a philosophy teaching post, until he met the futurologist and multibillionaire computer scientist James Martin, who was interested in his work. In 2005 Martin donated $150m to the University of Oxford to set up the Oxford Martin School, and the FHI was one of the first research bodies to receive funding through the school. It can be a challenge to be taken seriously in a field that brushes so close to science fiction. “The danger is it can deter serious researchers from the field for fear of being mistaken or associated with crackpots,” Bostrom explained. A “univer­sity with a more marginal reputation” might have been less confident about funding such radical work.

Nevertheless, the FHI has expanded since then to include 18 full-time research staff, drawn from a wide range of disciplines. I spoke to Daniel Dewey, a 27-year-old who last year left his job as a software engineer at Google to join the FHI as a research fellow studying machine superintelligence. A few of his colleagues at Google had introduced him to research on the emerging risks of AI, and he began reading about the subject in his spare time. He came across a problem related to the safety of AIs that he couldn’t solve, and it became the hook. “I was thinking about it all the time,” Dewey recalled.

One of the concerns expressed by those studying artificial intelligence is that machines – because they lack our cultural, emotional and social intuition – might adopt dangerous methods to pursue their goals. Bostrom sometimes uses the example of a superintelligent paper-clip maker which works out that it could create more paper clips by extracting carbon atoms from human bodies. “You at least want to be able to say, ‘I want you to achieve this simple goal and not do anything else that would have a dramatic impact on the world,’ ” Dewey explained.

Unfortunately, it turns out that it is very difficult to meet this simple request in practice. Dewey emailed Toby Ord, an Australian philosopher who also works at the FHI, who replied that he didn’t know the answer, either, but if Dewey came to Oxford they could discuss it. He did, and he soon decided that he might be able to “make a difference” at the institute. So he quit Google.

Many of the FHI researchers seem motivated by a strong sense of moral purpose. Ord is also a founder of Giving What We Can, an organisation whose members pledge 10 per cent of their income to help tackle poverty. Ord gives more than this: anything he earns above £20,000, he donates to charity. Despite his modest salary, he plans to give away £1m over his lifetime.

Ord lives in Oxford with his wife, a medical doctor who has also signed up to the giving pledge, and baby daughter. “I’m living off the median income in the UK, so I can’t complain,” he told me, but they live frugally. The couple dine out no more than once a month, and he treats himself to one coffee a week. Ord sees a natural connection between this and his work at the FHI. “I was focusing on how to think carefully and apply academic scholarship to how I give in my life and helping others to give, too. So when it comes to existential risk I’m interested in the idea that another way of helping people is to figure out how to help future generations,” he said.

Ord is working on a report for the government’s chief scientific adviser on risk and emerging technology. Most researchers at the FHI and at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk hope that such analysis will gradually be integrated into national policymaking. But, for now, both institutions are surviving on donations from individual philanthropists.

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One of the most generous donors to scientists working in the discipline is Jaan Tallinn, the 42-year-old Estonian computer whizz and co-founder of Skype and Kazaa, a file-sharing program. He estimates that he has donated “a couple of million dollars” to five research groups in the US and three in the UK (the FHI, the CSER and 80,000 Hours, an organisation promoting effective philanthropy, which also has a close interest in existential risk). This year he has given away $800,000 (£480,000).

His involvement in the founding of the CSER came after a chance encounter in a taxi in Copenhagen with Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge. Tallinn told Price that he thought the chances of him dying in an artificial-intelligence-related disaster were higher than those of him dying of cancer or a heart attack. Tallinn has since said that he was feeling particularly pessimistic that day, but Price was nevertheless intrigued. The computer whizz reminded him of another professional pessimist: Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal.

In 2003, Rees published Our Final Century, in which he outlined his view that mankind has only a 50/50 chance of surviving to 2100. (In the US the book was published as Our Final Hour – because, Rees likes to joke, “Americans like instant gratification”.) A Ted talk that Rees gave on the same subject in July 2005 has been viewed almost 1.6 million times online. In it, he appears hunched over his lectern, but when he begins to speak, his fluency and energy are electrifying. “If you take 10,000 people at random, 9,999 have something in common: their business and interests lie on or near the earth’s surface. The odd one out is an astronomer and I am one of that strange breed,” he begins.

Studying the distant reaches of the universe has not only given Rees an appreciation of humanity’s precious, fleeting existence – if you imagine Planet Earth’s lifetime as a single year, the 21st century would be a quarter of a second, he says – but also allowed him an insight into the “extreme future”. In six billion years the sun will run out of fuel. “There’s an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be there, experiencing the sun’s demise, but any life and intelligence that exists then will be as different from us as we are from bacteria.”

Even when you consider these vast timescales and events that have changed the earth dramatically, such as asteroid impacts and huge volcanic eruptions, something extraordinary has happened in recent decades. Never before have human beings been so able to alter our surroundings – through global warming or nuclear war – or to alter ourselves, as advances in biology and computer science open up possibilities of transforming the way we think and live. So it is understandable that Price immediately saw a connection with Tallinn’s interests.

Price invited him to Cambridge and took Tallinn on a tour of what he describes as the “two birthplaces of existential risk”. First they went for dinner at King’s College, where the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing was a fellow from 1935 to 1945. Then they went for drinks at the Eagle pub, where in 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they had cracked the double-helix structure of DNA. When I came to the city to interview Price, he took me on a mini-existential risk tour to echo Tallinn’s, inviting me for a pint of DNA ale one evening with a few CSER researchers. For the second time in several weeks I found myself drinking with people I sensed would rather be in the library.

Tallinn’s first trip to Cambridge was successful. With Price and Rees, he co-founded the CSER, providing the seed funding. The centre already has several high-profile advisers, including the physicist Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk (the multibillionaire behind PayPal and SpaceX) and the ethicist Peter Singer. They are hoping to find funding for a couple of postdoctoral positions in the next year or so. “I see it as part of our role to act as a kind of virus, spreading interest and concern about this issue [existential risk] into other academic disciplines,” Price explained. He hopes that eventually institutions studying potentially dangerous fields will develop a risk-awareness culture. Tallinn is trying to change mindsets in other ways, too. He says he sometimes invests in tech companies as an excuse to “hang around in the kitchen, just so I get a feel of what they are doing and can try and influence the culture”.

I met Price and Tallinn for a coffee in the senior common room at Trinity College. At one point a man ran up to us to slap Tallinn on the back and say: “Hey, Jaan. Remember me? Remember our crazy Caribbean days?”

Tallinn looked confused, and the man seemed to sway from side to side, as if dancing with an imaginary hula girl. It turned out they had met at a conference in 2013 and the dancer was a renowned mathematician (I will spare him any blushes). Price said that when he first arrived at Cambridge Tallinn was a minor celebrity; several dons approached him to thank him for making it easier to speak to their children and grandchildren overseas.

Most of the large donors funding existen­tial risk research work in finance or technology. Neither the CSER nor the FHI publishes details of individual donors, but the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (Miri) in Berkeley does. The three biggest donors to Miri are Peter Thiel of PayPal ($1.38m), the founder of Mt Gox (once the main exchange platform for bitcoins), Jed McCaleb ($631,137) and Tallinn. Tech billionaires, like bankers, are more likely to have money to spare – but are they also more acutely aware of the dangers emerging in their industry? Tallinn speaks of Silicon Valley’s “culture of heroism”. “The traditional way of having a big impact in the world is taking something that the public thinks is big and trying to back it, like space travel or eradicating diseases,” he said. “Because I don’t have nearly enough resources for backing something like that, I’ve taken an area that’s massively underappreciated and not that well understood by the public.”

I wondered, when I spoke to Price and Tallinn, how big a difference they believed their work can make. It would be naive to imagine that one could ever convince scientists to stop working in a specific field – whether artificial intelligence or the mani­pulation of viruses – simply because it is dangerous. The best you could hope for would be a greater awareness of the risks posed by new technologies, and improved safety measures. You might want to control access to technology (just as we try to limit access to the enriched uranium needed to make nuclear bombs), but couldn’t this turn science into an increasingly elite occupation? Besides, it is hard to control access to technology for ever, and we know that in the modern, interconnected world small hacks can have catastrophic effects. So how great an impact can a few dozen passionate researchers make, spread across a handful of organisations?

“I’m not supremely confident it’s going to make a big difference, but I’m very confident it will make a small difference,” Price said. “And, given that we’re dealing with huge potential costs, I think it’s worth making a small difference because it’s like putting on a seat belt: it’s worth making a small effort because there’s a lot at stake.”

Tallinn was more upbeat. “There’s a saying in the community: ‘Shut up and multiply’ – just do the calculations,” he said. “Sometimes I joke when there’s particularly good news in this ecosystem, like when I’ve had a good phone call with someone, that ‘OK, that’s another billion saved’.

“Being born into a moment when the fate of the universe is at stake is a lot of fun.” 

Sophie McBain is an assistant editor of the New Statesman 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Credit: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.

 

So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.

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Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

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 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?