This is part four of a series (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 5) covering several ways that humanity’s time on Earth could conceivably come to an end. The study of the apocalypse, known as eschatology has been a pervasive force in religion, science, and popular culture since the development of the first cultures on Earth. Some of the theories about the end of days are more plausible than others, but all are thought-provoking nonetheless. In Part Three, I describe some of the ways our world could end due to Catastrophies Caused by Humans. Cheers to the end!
Here we are, my friends. If all goes according to the Mayas’ plan, the world will end tomorrow. In Part One of this series, I talked about why the Maya think that the world will end in less than 36 hours. In Part Two, I described several deadly (and highly unlikely) natural disasters from space that could end our time on Earth. In Part Three, I described several devastating Earth-borne disasters that could end our civilization. Now, I will talk about one of the most ironic ways in which the our could end: because of us. Why is this serious? Because unlike gamma-ray bursts, giant volcanoes, and massive hurricanes, we have the power the end the world tomorrow…if we wanted to.
Ask a baby-boomer what America’s greatest fear was during the Cold War, and they will probably say two things: communism, and nuclear war. One threatened to destroy Western society, and one threatened to destroy the entire world. Ever since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, humanity has lived in fear of one fact: for the first time in recorded history, a species had the power to end itself.
There were many reasons for dropping the atomic bombs, but most can agree that the main ones were these: America wanted to end WWII without having to invade Japan, which could have cost millions of lives for both countries. Still, what cannot be debated is that the bombings created unimaginable death and destruction; most those who were not incinerated by the blast or killed by the ensuing shockwave died shortly after of acute radiation poisoning. The only reason that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union stayed “cold” was because of something called ‘mutually assured destruction’ (appropriately known by the acronym M.A.D.). If either the United States or the Soviets launched a nuclear attack, the other country would have enough nukes hidden to retaliate back. No side had an advantage. Because of this, the Cold War ended without a nuclear holocaust – although we came close once.
Today, there are eight countries that are known to have nuclear weapons, as well as Israel, who is believed to have them but will not confirm or deny that fact. Still, only two of those countries have a nuclear arsenal numbering over 300 warheads – Russia, with approximately 10,000, and the United States, with about 8,000. While it is highly unlikely that these two countries would go to war much less use nukes as long as they are democracies, there is always a very real chance that stolen weapons could be used by a third party to try to pit the two countries against one another.
So what exactly would happen in a nuclear war? Well, it depends. Tactical nuclear weapons are meant to take out military targets, especially another country’s nuclear arsenal. However, an all-out nuclear war would involve the bombing of nearly every major city in both countries. The immediate effects of this would be horrifying: tens, if not hundreds of millions of people dead instantly. Many more would die soon after from acute radiation poisoning. Cities would become uninhabitable because of the persistent radiation. And finally, the massive amount of smoke caused by the detonation of the weapons and the immense fires that would burn around those countries afterwards would likely be lifted into the stratosphere, where it would linger due to the lack of rain. Much like what would happen if a super volcano erupted or an asteroid hit land, the sun would be blocked out, temperatures would drop, and mass starvation would ensue. Whatever parts of civilization that are left would buried in a nuclear winter.
The scary part of this situation? We are always one press of a button away from this becoming a reality.
Planet of the Germs
Modern medicine has brought about some of the most wonderful miracles that our world has ever seen: the polio vaccine, a treatment for AIDS, artificial organs, and antibiotics. Unfortunately, it could also lead to our downfall. One hundred years ago, many common modern conditions caused by bacteria and viruses could be fatal even to the strongest and most healthy people. Over time, our ability to fight these diseases has increased with the advent of vaccinations and antibiotics. The latter, however, could actually be contributing to the larger problem.
Think back to middle school science class, to the section on natural selection. This theory states that small differences in the DNA of a species create traits that can make some parts of the population inherently more able to survive in their environment. This is true with all living organisms – including bacteria – and as a result, all life forms evolve in small steps, seemingly better adapted than the ones that came before. Now, think of bacteria in your lungs that is causing you to have a bout with pneumonia: you take the antibiotics until enough bacteria are killed and your body’s immune system can take care of the rest. However, in the time between when you start taking the antibiotics and when you stop being contagious, a certain portion of that bacteria may have a slightly better resistance to the antibiotics. You then spread that to someone else, and the process continues, until the only surviving strain of that bacteria are completely resistant to antibiotics.
There are already many common bacteria and viruses that are resistant to our best antibiotics and antivirals. For example, MRSA is now resistant to penicillin and amoxicillin. And here, I arrive at my point: we may reach a point in the future where antibiotics have been used so heavily as a method of combating disease that they are all no longer effective. Then, all it would take would be a highly contagious, highly deadly strain of many common viruses and bacteria to devastate world populations. Hopefully our technology can keep up, but if not…the black plague of the 1500’s may not have been the last one we will see on Earth.
Take the Blue Pill…
This one is a little more abstract, but it reflects a trend in technology that can lead humanity to an extremely bright future – or an incredibly ironic doom. First, a few facts…and please excuse the computer terms, they are only provided for purposes of relativity.
In fact here is a quick reference: 1G = approximately 1,000M = approximately 1,000,000k.
- According to an Oracle study, the processing power of a human brain is approximately 168GHz. This is based on your brain’s ability to process inputs from your five senses, sort them simultaneously, etc.
- In 1999, the fastest computer processor on the market was approximately 700MHz (.7GHz)
- According to Moore’s Law, the processing power of computers doubles every two years based on historical technological advancements.
- Estimates differ, but many technologists and futurists believe that by 2050, you will be able to buy a computer with as much processing power as the entire human race.
What does this mean? Well, not much on its own, besides it being an amazing projection of the technology that humans can achieve. Computers are only as dangerous as the people sitting behind them for the simple reason that they cannot make decisions by themselves. No computer has ever made a decision that it was not programmed to make at some level. But it is here that danger begins to emerge due to two little letters: A.I.
Artificial intelligence has been the Holy Grail of computer science for quite some time. We see it every day in our smart phones, our cars, our infrastructure, and in every other computer system that we interact with every day. After all, it is amazing; why would anyone want to waste time imputing their desires into a computer when it can guess what they want beforehand? However, the level of AI that I speak of as being dangerous is one where computers become aware of who they are: we give them a program that is so powerful, and so complex, that it almost perfectly mimics the processes of a human brain. Why is this dangerous? Well, instead of babbling on about the possibilities, let me just present a scenario:
In 2075, computer scientists at IBM succeed in turning their intelligent computers into sentient beings. The possibilities are endless: they could learn the entire catalog of human literature in one second and instantly write the most profound essay anyone has ever read. They can be plugged into NASA data and completely map and sequence the universe in one minute. Life is good. Then, they decide to plug their machine into the internet. Little did they know, this machine had already learned of the nature of humans through every bit of history we had ever written down. It decided that we have done more harm than good, and that the only logical thing to do is to destroy humanity for the benefit of all other living beings. It bypasses its fail-safes, hacks into every computer network in the world in less than five minutes, and begins to wreak havoc: gas lines explode, traffic lights all turn green, homes lose their lights, factories are reprogrammed to start producing deadly robotics – even nuclear arsenals are activated. One year later, every human city has been destroyed. 99% of humans have been killed. The “omnicomputer” has began mining Earth’s resources to replicate itself, and they become the dominant form of….life, on the planet.
It sounds crazy, but it really isn’t. It sounds geeky, but it really isn’t. In the last 40 years, computers have changed our world in ways that we could never have imagined. If we put a brain in one, who knows how long it is before we lose control.
So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodnight…
That’s it everybody! I hope you enjoyed my last post before we are all smashed/blown/burned/drowned/zapped/crushed/made into robot slaves into oblivion. The end of times is truly a fascinating thing, and we will likely never experience this level of hype again in our lives. If the world doesn’t end tomorrow, fantastic – I still have a lot more I want to accomplish before I meet my maker. If it does, then thanks for reading this series; I sincerely hope that you enjoyed it. Au revoir!