Worst-case Technological Scenarios for 2016: from A.I. Disaster to First DIY Pathogen

 

The futurist Ian Pearson, in his fascinating blog The More Accurate Guide to the Future, has recently directed my attention to a new report by Bloomberg Business. Just two days ago, Bloomberg Business published a wonderful short report that identifies ten of the worst-case scenarios for 2016. In order to write the report, Bloomberg’s staff has asked –

“…dozens of former and current diplomats, geopolitical strategists, security consultants, and economists to identify the possible worst-case scenarios, based on current global conflicts, that concern them most heading into 2016.”

I really love this approach, since currently many futurists – particularly the technology-oriented ones – are focusing mainly on all the good that will come to us soon enough. Ray Kurzweil and Tony Seba (in his book Clean Disruption) are forecasting a future with abundant energy; Peter Diamandis believes we are about to experience a new consumerism wave by “the rising billion” from the developing world; Aubrey De-Grey forecasts that we’ll uncover means to stop aging in the foreseeable future. And I tend to agree with them all, at least generally: humanity is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced and more efficient. If these upward trends will continue, we will experience an abundance of resources and a life quality that far surpasses that of our ancestors.

But what if it all goes wrong?

When analyzing the trends of the present, we often tend to ignore the potential catastrophes, the disasters, and the irregularities and ‘breaking points’ that could occur. Or rather, we acknowledge that such irregularities could happen, but we often attempt to focus on the good instead of the bad. If there’s one thing that human beings love, after all, it’s feeling in control – and unexpected events show us the truth about reality: that much of it is out of our hands.

Bloomberg is taking the opposite approach with the current report (more of a short article, really): they have collected ten of the worst-case scenarios that could still conceivably happen, and have tried to understand how they could come about, and what their consequences would be.

The scenarios range widely in the areas they cover, from Putin sidelining America, to Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and down to Trump winning the presidential elections in the United States. There’s even mention of climate change heating up, and the impact harsh winters and deadly summers would have on the world.

Strangely enough, the list includes only one scenario dealing with technologies: namely, banks being hit by a massive cyber-attack. In that aspect, I think Bloomberg are shining a light on a very large hole in geopolitical and social forecasting: the fact that technology-oriented futurists are almost never included in such discussions. Their ideas are usually far too bizarre and alienating for the silver-haired generals, retired diplomats and senior consultants who are involved in those discussions. And yet, technologies are a major driving force changing the world. How could we keep them aside?

 

Technological Worse-Case Scenarios

Here are a few of my own worse-case scenarios for 2016, revolving around technological breakthroughs. I’ve tried to stick to the present as much as possible, so there are no scientific breakthroughs in this list (it’s impossible to forecast those), and no “cure to aging” or “abundant energy” in 2016. That said, quite a lot of horrible stuff could happen with technologies. Such as –

  • Proliferation of 3D-printed firearms: a single proficient designer could come up with a new design for 3D-printed firearms that will reach efficiency level comparable to that of mass-manufactured weapons. The design will spread like wildfire through peer-to-peer services, and will lead to complete overhaul of the firearm registration protocols in many countries.
  • First pathogen created by CRISPR technology: biology enthusiasts are now using CRISPR technology – a genetic engineering method so efficient and powerful that ten years ago it would’ve been considered the stuff of science fiction. It’s incredibly easy – at least compared to the past – to genetically manipulate bacteria and viruses using this technology. My worst case scenario in this case is that one bright teenager with the right tools at his hands will create a new pathogen, release it to the environment and worse – brag about it online. Even if that pathogen will prove to be relatively harmless, the mass scare that will follow will stop research in genetic engineering laboratories around the world, and create panic about Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts.
  • A major, globe-spanning A. disaster: whether it’s due to hacking or to simple programming mistake, an important A.I. will malfunction. Maybe it will be one – or several – of the algorithms currently trading at stock markets, largely autonomously since they’re conducting a new deal every 740 nanoseconds. No human being can follow their deals on the spot. A previous disaster in that front has already led in 2012 to one algorithm operated by Knight Capital, purchasing stocks at inflated costs totaling $7 billion – in just 45 minutes. The stock market survived (even if Knight Capital’s stock did not), but what would happen if a few algorithms go out of order at the same time, or in response to one another? That could easily happen in 2016.
  • First implant virus: implants like cardiac pacemakers, or external implants like insulin pumps, can be hacked relatively easily. They do not pack much in the way of security, since they need to be as small and energy efficient as possible. In many cases they are also relying on wireless connection with the external environment. In my worst-case scenario for 2016, a terrorist would manage to hack a pacemaker and create a virus that would spread from one pacemaker to another by relying on wireless communication between the devices. Finally, at a certain date – maybe September 11? – the virus would disable all pacemakers at the same time, or make them send a burst of electricity through the patient’s heart, essentially sending them into a cardiac arrest.

 

This blog post is not meant to create panic or mass hysteria, but to highlight some of the worst-case scenarios in the technological arena. There are many other possible worst-case scenarios, and Ian Perarson details a few others in his blog post. My purpose in detailing these is simple: we can’t ignore such scenarios, or keep on living our lives with the assumption that “everything is gonna be alright”. We need to plan ahead and consider worst-case scenarios to be better prepared for the future.

Do you have ideas for your own technological worst-case scenarios for the year 2016? Write them down in the comments section!

 

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