One in six chance of a ‘species-ending event’ in next century, Labor MP Andrew Leigh warns

The Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh says there is a one in six chance of a “species-ending event” in the next century, warning the rise of extreme politics increases the chance that humanity will imperil its own survival.

Leigh will borrow the estimate of Oxford philosopher Toby Ord in a speech on Friday exploring the intersection between catastrophic risk and extreme politics – a topic the former economics professor and assistant minister for competition has examined in a new book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Like Ord, who warned in his 2020 book, The Precipice, that humans are now less adept at anticipating potential catastrophes that have no precedent in living memory, Leigh says he has come to believe that grappling with catastrophic risk assessment is a “vital issue”.

The Australian MP will argue the biggest dangers facing humanity “are the ones that our technologies” have wreaked. Leigh says those dangers – often depicted in popular culture – “have had us on the edge of our movie seats, but they haven’t gotten most people off the couch to act”.

Leigh will note that humans are “playing” with technological innovations that pose tangible extinction risk.

These include tens of thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at major cities; the risk of runaway global heating creating “unstoppable feedback loops”; biotechnology allowing the creation of deadly pathogens; and computer technology that could “create a machine that is smarter than us and doesn’t share our goals”.

“A one in six chance of going the way of dodos and dinosaurs effectively means we are playing a game of Russian roulette with humanity’s future,” Leigh will say in Friday’s speech.

“In considering extinction risk, we’re contemplating not one death but rather the death of billions or possibly trillions of people – not to mention countless animals – and that’s just the danger over the coming century.

“If we keep it up for another millennium, there’s a five in six chance that humans never make it to the year 3000.”

Leigh will note that rapidly evolving technological innovation is coinciding with the resurgence of populism – “the philosophy that politics is a conflict between the pure mass of people and a vile elite”.

He says the number of populist leaders holding office around the world has quintupled since 1990 and notes that “most are rightwing populists, who demonise intellectuals, immigrants and the international order”.

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Leigh will urge people to view resurgent populism as a “cross-cutting danger” to the future of humanity.

“As Covid-19 demonstrated, populists’ angry approach to politics, scorn towards experts and disdain for institutions made the pandemic much worse,” Leigh will say in the speech.

“The same goes for other catastrophic risks. If major nations withdraw from international health bodies and climate agreements, the danger rises. Forging an international agreement on artificial intelligence safety will likely prove impossible if the populists run the show.”

He will argue the antidote to rising post-truth isolationism is ensuring people have access to opportunity in a changing world. Governments need to ensure well-paid jobs are sustained in communities “hit by technological change”. Education systems need to be accessible to everyone, “not just the fortunate few”, and citizens need to be given reasons to have faith in their democracy.

Leigh says there are sensible practical solutions for each existential peril. Cutting carbon emissions and assisting developing economies to do the same tackles climate risk; lowering the risk of “atomic catastrophe” involves taking missiles off hair-trigger alert and adopting a universal principle of no first use; adopting programming principles that mandate advanced computers to be “observant, humble and altruistic” increases the likelihood that supercomputers serve the goals of humankind.

As well as ventilating practical solutions, Leigh also makes a case to preserve “the cardinal stoic virtues” in angry times.

“Courage, prudence, justice and moderation can guide a more principled politics and ultimately shape a better world,” he will say.

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