Six ways the world could end

Written By komlim puldel on Jumat, 07 November 2014 | 20.01

Actor Tom Cruise and child actress Dakota Fanning on the run from aliens in 2005 film "War of the Worlds." Source: News Limited

IF YOU were to find out what the individuals who actually know things are concerned about, you'd realise how blissful your ignorance really is.

Killer robots, unstoppable disease, deadly discharge from the sun, a distant life form switching us off like a TV set. These are genuine anxieties of the people far brainier than the rest of us. And all could lead to an end of civilisation as we know it.

Jellyfish

All over the world, jellyfish are blooming. Factors such as overfishing, low oxygen in the water and the warming of the seas have conspired to create a world in which be-tentacled sting-sacks are taking over.

In 2012, researchers at the University of British Columbia found jellyfish populations had increased by up to 62 per cent in places as remote as Hawaii and Antarctica. Power stations in Japan and US warships docked off Queensland have been damaged by great clots of them. They've caused electrical blackouts in the Philippines.

Billions of jellyfish washed up on beaches from San Diego to British Columbia in August 2014. Source: Supplied

And there's currently a 77,700km2 mush of stingy death floating off the southern coast of Africa, estimated to weigh more than 13 million tonnes. Yes, the jellification of the seas is underway.

According to Dr Lisa-Ann Gershwin, marine biologist and author of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, they're displacing the penguin populations of Antarctica and have the potential to, "crash the world's fisheries, and starve the whales to extinction."

Jellyfish are able to flourish because they're survivors from an earlier, more hazardous time in the earth's history and are therefore incredibly versatile. They can avoid death by 'de-growing' — shrinking in size.

One variety, turritopsis dohrnii, is immortal. It releases cells which reanimate while the rest of it is decomposing. The smallest are one millimetre, the largest weigh half a ton. One, known as mnemiopsis, develops the ability to effectively impregnate itself (aged 13 days old) and, at its peak, produces 10,000 eggs a day. Cut a mnemiopsis in half and, three days later, it'll have regenerated itself.

According to Gershwin, "We're creating a world like the late Precambrian … where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn't exist. We are creating a world where humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to."

We might not need gravestones in years to come. Source: News Limited

The end of death

Scientists such as Dr Aubrey de Grey and molecular biologist Dr Bill Andrews have predicted we'll cure death within the decade. Already researchers at Harvard have actually reversed the ageing process in mice. Magnificent, you think.

But wait …"We haven't thought through the knock-on effects of messing around with these processes," says Professor Kate Jeffery, a neuroscientist at University College London. "I never see this discussed anywhere. Humans have all this machinery in place that means we die. We haven't evolved a protection against it. No species has."

That suggests, says Jeffery, our lives end for sound reasons. "It's not good for individuals to live too long because they'll compete with their offspring," she says. "If previous generations haven't shuffled off, things will get difficult for the rising generation. We see it already — we've extended lifespans and now people can't get jobs, can't get houses. There doesn't seem to be room because parents are still inhabiting all those niches." They're also sitting on inheritances. "If they live too long, they'll have consumed all their valuable resources themselves."

There would be wider consequences too. Think about the prison population; the healthcare costs of keeping millions, and then billions, of extra people alive for centuries or more. Consider the strain on energy and food resources. And who would have access to this immortality elixir? The wealthy nations?

Only the wealthiest strata of people in the wealthiest nations? Imagine the one per cent never dying. "We'd have this duel system where some live very long lives and others short miserable ones," says Jeffery. And if you were one of the so-called lucky, would you even want to live beyond, say, 150? "When you're eight years old, everything's surprising," she says. "But it's less and less so as you get older. I can imagine that if you got to 500, life could get very boring."

'I see green people'. Picture: Video game Alien Isolation. Source: Supplied

Alien attack

Writing in the recently published book What Should We Be Worried About?, senior astronomer Dr Seth Shostak admits this, "sounds like shabby science fiction, but even if the probability of disaster is low, the stakes are high."

The problem is that for over 60 years, we've been sending signals, including TV and radio broadcasts, into deep space. Surely, you might think, all those episodes of Broadwalk Empire must fizzle out long before they reach the moon? Actually, no. according to Shostak, if an alien race had an antenna as big as the 305m-tall Arecibo in Puerto Rico, it would be able to pick up Jimmy Fallon or David Attenborough from 4.2 light years away. While it's unlikely intelligent life exists this close, it's generally believed that if other civilisations do exist elsewhere, some will have significantly better technology than ours.

They might not look like Predator from the movie Alien Vs Predator, but then they might! Source: News Corp Australia

Don't believe us? Maybe you'll listen to Stephen Hawking. "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he said in a 2010 Discovery Channel documentary. And they wouldn't even necessarily need to be inhabiting a distant planet. Hawking thinks the risk is that 'aliens' will pick up a broadcast of, say, Nigella's Christmas Special and that could coax them here.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach," he said. "If aliens visit us, it would be like when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans … We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."

But what can we do about it? The prognosis from Shostak isn't good. "It's too late to be worried about alerting the aliens to our presence," he writes. "That information is en route at the speed of light, and alien societies only slightly more accomplished than ours will easily notice. By the 2200s, these alerts to our existence will have washed across a million star systems. There's no point in fretting about telling aliens we're here. The deed has been done, and the letter's in the mail."

In the future pills may cease to have any effect. Source: Getty Images

No more antibiotics

For decades we've relied on antibiotics to cure us of deadly sicknesses. They work by killing the microscopic organisms that cause ill health. But what happens when antibiotics work too well and kill them all off? The only pathogens left behind are the tough ones that are resistant to those antibiotics. No problem — we'll just use new antibiotics to kill those ones too.

This strategy has worked well for years. But we're running out of new antibiotics. Because pharmaceutical companies don't find them sufficiently profitable, the conveyor belt is slowing. As a result, drug-resistant strains of TB, syphilis, gonorrhoea and diphtheria are beginning to swarm. How much of a problem is this? The World Health Organisation says this threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it's happening right now and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.

Meanwhile, the UK's chief medical officer has described an upcoming "apocalyptic scenario", in which people die of infection following routine operations, telling The Guardian, "There are few public health issues of potentially greater importance for society."

Teoder, the bomb disposal robot, helping police out at this year's G20. Source: News Corp Australia

Humanoid robot KOBIAN displays an emotion of sadness during a demonstration at Waseda University in Tokyo. Source: Supplied

Robot wars

If you're conjuring up visions of Transformers stamping on traffic and lasering each other's grinning electric faces, this might be a hard one to take seriously. "One of the mistakes people make about robots is they think of them as big metal men," says Noel Sharkey, former professor of Robotics at the University of Sheffield.

"In actual fact, they're things like combine harvesters and milking machines." And they're among us now. "Service robots have only been around this millennium and there's already eight million on the planet," says Sharkey.

Perhaps the greatest risk for the future is in how governments will adapt and develop these technologies for war. "I was talking about Predator drones and the Reaper drones five years ago, and everybody thought I was crazy. Those are robots. They're supervised by someone looking at a screen, selecting and pointing a laser designator at the target and releasing a missile. The next step is taking the human supervision out of that loop."

Might this happen? "There have been road maps in the US since 2003 for fully autonomous robots," he says. "Once one's been launched, it'll select its own targets and kill without further human intervention. So: robots deciding to kill."

An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan in 2010. Source: AP

Sharkey, who heads up The International Committee for Robot Arms Control, describes a research platform for a fully autonomous battlefield robot that's been developed by DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon's research wing. "It's called The Crusher," he says, "and is a 7.5 tonne truck with no driver's seat. It has six wheels and is articulated to go over pits and troughs. It's an incredible thing."

Another, the X-47B, "looks like a small Stealth bomber, something Batman would have. It's subsonic, so really fast, and can take off from aircraft carriers. That's in an advance state of testing. The idea is to replace all the jet fighters in Pacific aircraft carriers by 2019. That will have weapons. And be autonomous."

But what's the problem? Won't killer robots mean we can fight the bad guys without risking our own lives? "The issue is no computer system can distinguish between a combatant and a civilian," says Sharkey. "The best they can do at the moment is tell between human and car. When a human gets it wrong, they're accountable. You can't hold a robot accountable."

A "prominence eruption" recorded by NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory. A small, hovering mass of twisted strands of plasma shifted back and forth before erupting into space. Source: Supplied

Solar ejections

On February 4, this year, a vast eruption of plasma exploded from the sun. Astronomer Tony Phillips estimated the X4.9-class solar flare was travelling at 7 million km/h. Emerging from a sunspot known as AR1990, it blasted into deep space.

That it did so was simply a matter of luck. What would happen if a massive solar flare ejected in the direction of earth? A clue can be found in the great burst of August 31, 1859 which took 18 hours to reach us and, when it did — rained down a light so bright birds began to chirp at 1:00am and miners started cooking breakfast, convinced it was morning. There was huge damage, too — electric currents whipped through telegraph systems crippling communication networks across Europe and the US.

In this x-ray photo provided by NASA, the sun is shown early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. The dark arc near the top right edge of the image is a filament of plasma blasting off the surface _ part of the coronal mass ejection. Source: AP

A similar storm today would set off a domino-fall of catastrophic collapse. Astronomer Dr Sten Odenwald has written of national electricity grids failing, low-orbiting satellites burning up, GPS systems being disrupted and aircraft communication services going haywire. Mobile phones would stop working and people might have to survive without power for months.

A 2008 US report by the National Academy of Sciences predicted "extensive social and economic disruption" in this eventuality, while Professor Randolph Nesse at Michigan University has written that, "power stations will shut down, air and train travel will stop, hospitals and schools will be paralysed and more commerce will cease. 'Social chaos' is a pallid phrase for the likely scenarios."

This is an edited extract from "The End", an article in this month's GQ Magazine.

This story appears in November 2014 edition of GQ Australia. Source: Supplied


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