Existential Risk

Definition: The possibility of an event or series of events that could drastically curtail humanity’s potential. A hypothetical global catastrophe could be anthropogenic, non-anthropogenic, internal and/or external in nature. 

For example, nuclear war is an internal anthropogenic risk. That is, should nuclear war arise, it would be both self destructive, and relatively self contained on a cosmic scale. One internal non-anthropogenic risk is that of a super-volcanic eruption, provided it wasn’t humans who brought about the eruption. 

A catastrophic collision with an astronomical object, such as an asteroid impact would be an external non-anthropogenic risk. This has already occurred here several times. During the Permian Triassic period (ending 250 million years ago) an astronomical impact killed 90 percent of the species on Earth. It took tens of millions of years for life on Earth to repopulate and Earth’s intelligence potential to recover. 66 Million years ago the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event extinguished the life and intelligence potential of the non-avian dinosaurs. This series of events was external, and broadly non-anthropogenic in the sense that no form of life on Earth at the time contributed to its own demise, but more specifically, at the time of those astronomical impacts the first humans hadn’t split from chimpanzee lineages. This split is thought to have occurred between between 4 and 8 million years ago. 

An external anthropogenic risk has the least probability of occurring. This is a problem of reach. Imagine human intelligence being sent into the cosmos and causing an external intelligence or astronomical object to extinguish us. The most distant human made object from the earth is the Voyager 1, which is over 13 billion miles away. (For perspective, Apha Centuri, the nearest star system to Earth, is 25 trillion miles away.) An external anthropogenic risk does not include Earth’s reflected light measured by an external intelligence. 

It does, however, include the reach of our radio waves. Human radio signals have announced our presence and our intelligence to the cosmos since around 1900. The first human radio signals have all ready traveled 114 light years, that is 681,920,540,000,000 miles. Although the reach of our radio signals is very great, the probability of us being heard and subsequently extinguished is negligible.

External anthropogenic risks are not a threat to us at the moment. As advances in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are made, this risk will become more relevant to human intelligence. External non-anthropogenic risks are similarly out of our hands for the time being. That is, at the moment there is nothing we can do to prevent the Sun from becoming a red giant star and subsuming the Earth. 

We have the potential as humans to prevent internal global catastrophes, both those set on by us and not. Survival and longevity is arguably our greatest task as a species. We should proceed with diligence and a long eye toward the future in all of our political and scientific affairs. The existential risks of living are great, though it is human nature for our ambitions to out pace our current abilities. The only evidence of life is change. 

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