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vendredi 13 septembre 2013

Britain's academics to produce 'doomsday list' of catastrophic events

Britain's finest academic minds are producing a doomsday list of threats to our planet in the hope of saving humanity from itself.

The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees is set to say that he is pessimistic that global carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced to safe levels within the next 20 years

Led by Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, the brain trust includes such luminaries as a former chief scientist, the co-founder of Skype and Prof Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous living scientist.

On the group's agenda are a series of "events with low probability but catastrophic consequences" which they believe mankind could inflict on the planet in future.

They include the risks of cyber attacks on our finance, power and transport networks, of engineered viruses and of networks of computers which could develop a mind of their own and threaten the human race.

While politicians have long been aware of threats like nuclear war, many of the most cataclysmic events which the group forsees stem from new technology, meaning governments could struggle to cope if disaster strikes.

They will also consider other risks such as ecological disasters caused by climate change, and food shortages and pandemics fuelled by the rapidly growing world population.

The aim of the scientists is to determine which risks are most likely to occur, and to come up with a plan to defend the world against them.

Lord Rees announced the formation of the Centre for Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University last November, along with Huw Price, a professor of philisophy, and Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype.

Over the past year the centre has gradually begun to take shape, gaining an official base at Cambridge's new Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and adding advisors including Prof Hawking and Baron Robert May, the former government chief scientist.

The group has also strengthened its international network of consultants and now counts professors of economics, computing, conservation biology, genetics and robotics among its members.

In a wide-ranging speech at the British Science Festival in Newcastle on Thursday night, Lord Rees explained that recent advances in technology "render us vulnerable in new ways."

The modern world is entirely dependent on power grids, air traffic control, international finance and other networks which could be brought down by "catastrophic, albeit rare, breakdowns cascading through the system," he said.

"Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic but burgeoning megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion - rumours and panic - literally at the speed of light."

More intrusion into our private lives will be necessary in a world in which "even one malign or careless act could be too many," he added, although this is unlikely to trouble the Facebook generation, Lord Rees added.

He continued: "Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: after all, societies have survived for millenia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence.

"But these human-induced threats are different: they are newly emergent, so we have a limited timescale for exposure to them and can't be so sanguine about the abilities of governments to cope if disaster strikes.

"That's why some of us in Cambridge, both natural and social scientists, plant with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these existential risks and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones."

Prof David Spiegelhalter, a statistician and member of the group, said: "Asteroids crashing on Earth are an existential threat, but there is not really a lot we can do about preventing such an event.

"The ones that we are not so aware of are the technological threats - our reliance on technology leaves us vulnerable to it. We use interconnected systems for everything from power to food supply and banking, which means there can be real trouble if things go wrong or they are sabotaged."

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