A Doomsday Clock reading guide

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Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adds hacking and AI for the first time to its list of worries

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight, setting it two minutes forward. Its main reasons for the change: inaction on climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Doomsday Clock revision also includes the risks posed by hacking and artificial intelligence. It is the first time IT issues have been considered in the group's clock-setting deliberations, according Janice Sinclair, the Bulletin's spokesperson.

The clock was established in 1947, and the furthest it has ever been from midnight was in 1991, when it was set at 17 minutes. The closest was in 1953, when it was set at two minutes to midnight in response to U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear tests.

Fallout shelter U.S. National Archives

A Cold War-era fallout shelter.

In its latest update, the group says carbon emissions are "profoundly transforming earth's climate," and efforts to reduce nuclear arms "has ground to a halt."

These problems, climate change and nuclear proliferation, are related, the group warned. The effort to reduce carbon emissions is fueling interest in nuclear power generation, which will lead to the spread of dual-use nuclear technology -- and, thus, increase the odds of a nuclear war, Kennette Benedict, the bulletin's executive director, said at a news conference Thursday.

"Stunning government failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale," said Benedict, in explaining the Doomsday Clock adjustment, the first in three years.

This organization sees a threat in cyber-attacks "with the potential to destabilize governmental and financial institutions," and "to serve as a medium for new escalations of international tensions."

Artificial intelligence is also raising concerns "about human command and control capabilities in the field, on national and international scales, over coming decades."

The Bulletin is not alone in warning about doomsday. For more on this subject, here are some things to read:

  • Game Over for the Climate, by James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who put climate change on the front page of newspapers with his 1988 testimony in Congress about a warming planet. In 2012, Hansen wrote a piece for the New York Times about Canada's tar sands, which are at the heart of the Keystone pipeline debate now going on in Congress. The tar sands, wrote Hansen, "contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history" and he warned that if oil in the sands is fully exploited, the carbon dioxide level will reach that of the Pliocene era of 2.5 million years ago. Temperatures would be intolerable, rising seas will destroy coastal cities, and "civilization would be at risk."
  • Why the future doesn't need us, by Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, which was acquired by Oracle. This essay appeared in Wired in 2000 and is still a powerful read. Joy looks at all the things that could go wrong with technology, including robotics and artificial intelligence. Joy worried as a scientist that he could be working on tools "that may replace our species." The idea made him very uncomfortable. "It seems to me more than likely that this future will not work out as well as some people may imagine," he wrote. Joy went through a list of technology developments that could prove man's undoing, including the "gray goo problem," where self-replicating nano-technology spirals out of the control.
  • The Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), is a forecast put out every five years. It is a very readable report that considers what the world may look like over the next two decades. It imagines all kind of trends, including advances in synthetic biology that may "become a source of lethal weaponry accessible to do-it-yourself biologist or biohackers." This report examines how "cyber power" may evolve and how countries with nuclear weapons "could be tempted to explode a nuclear device to wipe out their opponent's ability to maintain connectivity." Many current systems "cannot operate in a hostile electromagnetic or radiated environment."
  • Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community by the Director of National Intelligence. Each year, top intelligence officials describe the threats facing the U.S. The next report is due as early as next week, but the 2014 report remains very relevant. This is more about the world's busy preparations leading up to doomsday, than doomsday itself. This report, which was made in advance of North Korea's attack on Sony late last year, made clear that the nation might use its cyber capabilities "in an attempt to either provoke or destabilize the United States or its partners."
  • How It All Ends, by Scientific American, is a collection of essays that have appeared in the magazine. Topics include the odds of an apocalypse, the potential of a pandemic to unravel civilization, the climate effects of nuclear war, asteroid collisions, the impact of super volcanoes and many other lights-out topics. It's available for download on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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