November 07, 2010

Catastrophe Scenarios from Willard Wells and my responses

Willard Wells listed several extinction and catastrophe scenarios on the Lifeboat Foundation list. I responded to them and he replied to my response. Below are the scenarios and the discussion. Willards website is

We do not get into a discussion of likelihood. The Lifeboat foundation threat discussions are usually about extremely rare and unlikely developments which were to somehow happen and cause extinction.

1. Mutant Phytoplankton Some man-made discharge contaminates seawater and produces mutant phytoplankton (or perhaps kelp or some other seaweed). This mutant releases a toxic gas that evaporates from the sea surface. This might happen accidentally from an industrial effluent or deliberately by a “mad scientist.” If the source is detected very quickly, we might exterminate it with herbicide or a deliberate oil spill. Otherwise, the mutant organism reproduces freely and propagates through­out the oceans until our whole atmosphere becomes toxic.

Precedents: (1) Earth's plants have already changed our atmosphere in a big way: they gave us oxygen. (2) Trace gases in the atmosphere can have a big effect as demonstrated by chlorofluorocarbons decomposing the ozone layer. (3) Red tides are toxic. Actually they are algal blooms in shallow seawater. The water turns reddish-brown with plankton, typically dinoflagellates (terrifying flagellates). The red tide poisons shellfish, which in turn poison people who eat them. Occasionally victims die.

Survivors: none.

BW (Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture). Already addressed the mutant plankton, which you included with the deliberate oil spill or herbacide

WW (Willard Wells). Yes, think you should edit this scenario to include statements in our previous exchange and add to my part that I acknowledge the oil spill was your idea.

2. Contraception A genetically engineered virus makes women permanently infertile. When they have all the children they want, they deliberately infect themselves. This is perfect for many because wives need not tell their husbands nor use devices or pills that he might discover. Organizations that promote family planning make the virus available worldwide. About the same time the virus mutates and becomes contagious. Nobody suspects anything until midwives and maternity wards notice a sudden decline in birthrate. By then, it is too late.

Precedent: Researchers at Washington University used genetically modified salmonella bacteria to produce harmless, temporary infections able to act as contraceptives. They rendered recipient women infertile for months. [John Leslie, Risking Human Extinction,]

Survivors: inhabitants of the remotest islands and perhaps a few communal religious groups with minimal outside contact, e.g. Hutterites.

BW. It takes over 50 years for this to possibly run its course. If you can genetically engineer a sterilization then you have the tech to genetically engineer a re-fertilization. Plus it assumes nearly 100% infection and no natural immunity. People are freezing eggs and ovaries. So that is another work around.

WW. How do you figure 50 years? It's far easier to break something than to rebuild it. Since this hazard appears as a surprise, I doubt you could re-fertilize in time. Probably would be some natural immunity. Frozen eggs may or may not work depending on which part of the reproductive system the virus attacks. If it works, that would be great because most future humanity would descend from those few who care enough to plan ahead.

BW: 50 years because the babies and children who are already born before the scenario hit have 50 years to become changed to being re-fertile and able to restart having children.

Here is a link to a table about the effectiveness of contraception. Even the most effective (the pill) with perfect use is at most 99.5 to 99.9% over the course of one year of sexual activity. Without contraception it there is a 10-20% expectation of pregnancy among healthy fertile adults. Therefore, the hypothetical sterilization would have to be more effective than perfect delivery of the pill.

3. Latent Killer This fatal contagion has a very long incubation period, as do BSE and AIDS. By the time its symptoms appear, air/sea travel already will have carried it to tiny populated islands and remote outposts. Wherever the epidemic strikes, it infects everybody before any symptoms appear, and by then it is too late for quarantine. Incidentally, if a microbe kills too quickly, its victims have little time to infect others. Thus, latency enhances the microbe’s reproduction, and so natural selection reinforces this trait. Although diseases kill individuals, they rarely kill their host species. That would detract from the microbe’s reproduction. Therefore, the killer probably will not evolve naturally. But genetic engineers can make it happen either by accident or on purpose. A lone mad scientist is not out of the question.

Precedent: BSE has been known to lie dormant for decades.

Survivors: possibly the remotest islanders

BW. If the latency is longer than a generation then infected people can still have children. It decreases lifespan but does not kill humanity. In the news there is a report of a ten year old girl in Spain having a child.

WW. Agree.

4. Outrageous private wealth Forbes magazine publishes an annual report on the 400 richest Americans. In 2006 for the first time, all 400 were billionaires. In 2004 there were 313 billionaires, compared to 262 in 2003. At the rate private fortunes are accruing, there will be trillionaires before long. Will all of them be sane? What about their heirs? Does the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or any intelligence agency keep tabs on them?

Crazies have committed horrendous, senseless crimes and claimed that they acted on orders from God. Trillionaires are not immune to such delusions. If and when a trillionaire imagines God’s command to end the human race, he may have the will and the power to succeed. Any one trillionaire would be able to buy weapons of mass destruction. He could purchase a nation, rewrite its laws, and take its seat in the United Nations, perhaps the Security Council. He can build secret laboratories and hire scientists and technicians most of whom would work under some pretext and be unaware of their leader’s true motives.

Precedent: Today’s private wealth has no precedent.

Survivors: Depends on method.

.BW. Money is not absolute power. Putin took down uppity billionaire by tossing him in jail and confiscating a lot of the money. The very wealthy only have their power within certain bounds and up to certain limits. This is the same for politicians. There are many paths to rogue nations, which is the scenario proposed. Does not have to be the wealthy can be religious fanatics (Iran), can be a military coup, can be elections (hitler) etc... Once the nut is in charge then it is the usual tyranny and rogue state actions.

WW. I wasn't thinking of a rogue nation unless you use that term to include one whose leaders accept bribes. No nation or its leaders would be privy to this self-extinction scheme. If they knew the trillionaire's goal, they would surely put him away. I just meant that the trillionaire can buy (bribe) all the privacy he needs thus avoiding any sort of surveillance. Don't think you can generalize to any sort of group leadership because somebody would blow the whistle. Extinction-philes are very rare.

BW: I was indicating that the resources and actions of the rogue billionaire/trillionaire are similar to a rogue nation that might cause an extinction scenario. Also, the methodology that could be used for extinction overlaps all of the usual analysis of what could be technological paths to extinction. So then the differences are motivation leading to the scenario initiating. Plus in the stated scenario it is said that the trillionaire buys a country, thus initiaing the rogue nation scenario.

5. Geoengineering A multibillionaire undertakes his own solution to global warming. After minimal research and maximal hunch, he decides to seed the stratosphere with an aerosol that he alone has formulated. He buys a huge fleet of high-altitude jets and proceeds without any consensus among scientists or approval of any form. Unfortunately, this is all perfectly legal. You may continue this story as you wish.

Of course geoengineering is also hazardous when designed by the most qualified scientists in the field. Earth is too complex to be fully predictable.

Precedent: none

BW Geoengineering. If it is cheap and easy to alter climate one way then others can afford and launch countermeasures. It becomes a climate change arms race. If it is planes that are the vector there are fighter jets for taking them down and the airfields.

5.WW We don't know enough climate science to design a countermeasure. Any hurried guessing would more or less double the risk.

By the time a cease-and-desist order can be issued and other legal wrangling: due process, human rights, environmental disputes, and so on, it may well be too late.

BW: The world response to unilaterial geoengineering might not be a legal response. It could be like the Israeli response to Gerard Bull making launch guns for Iraq. Gerard Bull was killed. Plus this scenario 5 is very similar to scenario 4, with the difference being not directly intending extinction and adding a different specific method.

6. Coincidence: greenhouse mixed with politics Two climate monitoring stations suffer simultaneous failures that mask an Orange Alert. By the time the trouble is fixed, it has become a Red Alert. Coincidentally there is protracted tension between industrial nations and the underdeveloped world. Leaders in four populous nations assert themselves by refusing to respond to the Red Alert because that would be seen as cooperation with the industrial world. They claim the alert is a political ruse and refuse to shut down their national consumption of fossil fuel. Before the United Nations can enforce the Climate Treaty, it is too late. Earth follows the path of her sister Venus.

Precedent: none

Survivors: none

BW. I think it is clear that geoengineering is not that tough. We are doing it as a byproduct of industry now.

WW. Not clear to me. I don't know any geoengineering scheme that is reliable, in place, and ready to execute.

BW. Similar to the previous scenario with national actors instead of rich individual.

7. Conspiracy Some decades in the future, embryo selection is available worldwide. Each implanted embryo is selected for its genetic perfection from a batch of a half dozen. Most nations offer embryo selection free of charge to all disadvantaged prospective parents. Besides the humanitarian aspect, this policy makes sense financially. The cost of selection is more than offset by the reduced need for medical care and social services later in life.

In this scenario a clandestine organization arises, the Secret Eugenics Society (SES). Most of its members began life as designer babies. Many are second-generation selectees. They observe that the majority of people worldwide reject genetic services and reproduce the old-fashioned way. SES members view this behavior as child abuse on a grand scale. Why would anybody want their children to have inferior health and intelligence? How can people justify using their mediocre eggs and sperm when selection is readily available? As members interact, they reinforce these views and develop growing contempt for the majority of humankind.

Eventually, the SES regards most of humanity as hopeless. Despite generations of aid, underdeveloped countries remain underdeveloped. Overpopulated countries remain overpopulated despite efforts to promote family planning. Subsistence farmers continue to strip the land, and kill off species. "And for what?" the eugenicists ask each other. If impoverished lives had a modicum of quality or any useful purpose in the big picture, then many SES members would feel a moral compunction to help them, or at least to let them live. But now the Secret Eugenics Society has grown weary of it. They now regard the masses not as real people but rather an infestation to be exterminated.

By a majority vote, the SES decides that the most merciful solution and the only hope for global happiness is to cull humanity. "And why not?" they ask one another. People cull herds of goats, elephants and other animals when their numbers threaten their habitat or well-being. Why shouldn't excess humanity fall in the same category? All those people must someday die anyhow, so to SES members it seems reasonable to hasten the inevitable if that is what it takes to make a better world.

Is this scenario too far-fetched? Maybe not. Attitudes and morality change; what was outrageous a few decades ago is routine now. Why should this trend stop? Before 1973 abortion was illegal throughout the United States. During the 1950s college dormitories for women had curfews and were guarded like fortresses against sexually aroused men. Go back a few more decades and alcoholic drinks were forbidden in the United States, a period known as Prohibition, 1920 to 1933. Well into the 19th century slavery was common, and men fought duels. No one can predict the next change in morality.

The SES devises a scheme. Cost is not a problem since most members are wealthy, often a result of their superior genetic health and intelligence. The SES has skilled research biologists and genetic engineers among its members, plus money to hire many more, who would be kept unaware of the project's true goal. They develop a fatal pathogen that has a very long latency period before symptoms appear. As “philanthropy” they offer free vaccinations against the latest diseases to poor people throughout the world. Applicants fill out questionnaires. Based on their answers, each gets one of two vaccines, either the good one, or the good one laced with the pathogen. All goes according to plan until the pathogen mutates and becomes contagious.

Precedent: Nazism

Survivors: none

BW Same defences as any super disease scenario. Develop rapid diagnosis, rapid treatment and immunity boosting.

WW Easier said than done. Good luck!

BW DARPAs Blue Angel and related research is progressing to one day response to new viruses. Being able identify make a counter vaccine and then produce enough vaccine for doses for everyone in one day

8. Another conspiracy The Society for Human Destiny consists of people who believe that our ultimate destiny is to go forth and colonize the galaxy. Their big concern is that by the time we are capable of building the giant space ships, we will have consumed so much of earth’s natural resources that the remainder is insufficient for the job. Or, even if there is enough, shortages will have driven the price so high that there is no hope of funding the adventure. In other words humankind will be stranded on Earth.

The SHD figures that a population of 200 million people would suffice to support the job. The other 7 billion are not only superfluous but a liability draining the required resources. Eventually SHD realizes that the problem has no humane solution; mass murder is the only viable way to achieve humanity’s destiny.

You may choose a murder weapon and complete the story. Plans go awry like the preceding story, and our species goes extinct.

Precedent: The Rapa Nui of Easter Island were stranded after their ecology collapsed. They had no trees or other material to make seaworthy canoes.

BW. Super-Al Qeada. The world is no longer completely passive to this type of threat. We have the spying on citizenry and monitoring of financial transactions. Evil geniuses will have to be pretty damn amazing to get all the way to near extinction level plans unless they can get supertech (super advanced space capability, molecular nanotech, AGI or super synthetic biology). Supertech is proving hard to get and needing more than a few people.

WW. This is an overoptimistic assessment of safeguards working as planned. Where was FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Where was the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) when Bernard Madoff was running a $50G Ponzi scheme? Of course we more often hear of the failures than the sucesses, but the record is not good enough.

What does often succeed is dedicated alert individuals when they are not hamstrung by an organization: a guard on the Canadian border nailed a terrorist entering the US; an airline stewardess didn't like what a passenger was doing with his shoe; and so on.

Attackers have an enourmous advantage: they pick the weapon, time and place, and they are prepared and alert. Meanwhile the defense is off-guard, calmly following their daily routine.

9. Zombies Among our most primitive instincts are those that cause us to join gangs (armies, tribes) and go on a murderous rampage. A mind-altering drug or microbe may activate these instincts and cause us to go berserk roaming the land looking for victims to kill. Lurid fiction has zombies turning into murderous cannibals. Fantastic as it seems, we cannot rule out the possibility of something similar in the age of designer drugs and genetic engineering. How zombies make more zombies is left to your imagination.

Precedent: the Viking berserkers, mind-altering narcotics

BW. Zombies are not that dangerous in reality. The human swarm technique used by Russians in WW2 had limited effectiveness. Modern army with tanks and planes and napalm can take out any number of human swarms.

WW. My story is incomplete. Maybe they are not swarming. Maybe the army is infested with them. I don't know; just finish the scenario.

10. Alien Humanoids Astronomers discover hundreds of exoplanets that appear to have intelligent life. Rebels among them secretly send powerful signals on laser and microwave beams, thereby inviting invasion.

BW. Yes, if aliens come to us and they are hostile...we are toast

11. Hostile Androids Computer code for hostility is so complex that it cannot happen by accident. Besides, designers of artificial intelligence will build in safeguards at every layer of androidal cognition. The serious threat is human hackers. They may deliberately breed a hostile strain, which then infects normal androids with its virus. To do this, the hackers must obtain a genetic algorithm and pervert it, probably early in the age of AI before safeguards become sophisticated. And their efforts may be sponsored by a crazed billionaire who thinks he hears orders from God.

BW. There are not that many robots. 1.3 million industrial robots (arms - not mobile), 10 million service robots (roombas, and toys, no big deal)

A few thousand to ten thousands UAVs and ground based military etc...
Not independent enough to be a true threat to human military of the US and the other militaries that use them. Even in 20-40 years when there are as many or more than the human operated, you would have to not only get all of the robot war machines, you have to capture the factories. The militaries are actively working against hacking. It is an active area of ongoing attaks and defence.

WW I said 'android' not 'robot'. The definitions overlap, but I and many others interpret 'robot' as something rather dumb obeying simple orders. Here I have in mind a future time when androidal servants are about as commonplace as PCs are today. They will likely connect to one another in electronic networks and talk in machine language, just as PCs do today. That's an opportunity for an infected android to hack the others and infect them

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