/Living with threats

Living with threats

By Jim Poling Sr.

Life is full of contradictions. They are everywhere. Just look at our everyday catchphrases:

“Silence is golden.” Yet, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” But, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Those are lightweight contradictions with little or no impact on our lives. Others, however, are heavier, with implications on how we think about human life.

For instance, there are huge contradictions about human life spans.
On the one hand we have optimism from all the wonderful things done to allow us to live longer.  Advances in science, better medical care, disease control, better education about healthy living all have helped to double global life expectancy in the last 100 years. The global average life expectancy now is 70 years, up from somewhere in the 30s early in the last century.

People who study such things say life expectancy can continue to get longer. They note that there were about 95,000 centenarians in 1990, then a jump to 450,000 in 2015. Some predict that as many as 25 million people could be 100 years old by 2100 – only 79 years from now.

On the other hand are theories and studies pointing to increasing threats to our existence.
Example: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its famous Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. That’s the closest the clock, created in 1947, has been to midnight, the time when supposedly our world will end.
The clock is reset annually, forward or back, based on increased or reduced threats to humanity.

The threat most often cited by the scientists has been a nuclear holocaust. Anger, hatred or simple misunderstanding could have some folks pushing nuclear buttons, reducing the average life span to zero.
New threats are joining the old to contradict optimism about longer life. We now add biological warfare to the nuclear threat.

Besides man-made threats such as nuclear war, there are natural threats that have been with us since the beginning of time. Super volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts, floods and pandemics like the one we are now experiencing have killed hundreds of millions of people.
People who pay attention to these things are more concerned about the dangers we humans are creating for ourselves.

Cambridge University in the United Kingdom has a centre dedicated to studying risks that could lead to human extinction or the collapse of civilization. It says the greatest threats to our world now are man-made. Climate change from global warming is high on its list.
Both the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum agree, listing climate change among their top risks.

We hear about global warming and climate change every day but there is another new threat that gets little attention among the general public – AI, the acronym for artificial intelligence.
Algorithms already can beat humans at complicated games like chess, they can spot some cancerous tumors faster than a medically-trained human can. They can drive cars and translate languages.
The big fear among some scientists is that if AI systems become super-intelligent, they could start to out-compete humans in everything and take unforeseen disastrous actions.

If AI becomes the world’s Big Boss could it start doing bad things to us? Or, could we start doing bad things to each other by using AI?
AI-controlled automation could cause huge job losses. Algorithms with bad data could send you to prison, or take away your driver’s licence.

A major worry is the use of AI systems to manipulate audio and video. Machines that recognize voices and likenesses could produce audio or video clips of a person saying something they did not say.
For instance, a clip could be made of a politician making racist or sexiest statements, which in fact he or she did not make. This type of manipulation could alter elections and change governments.
Misinformation and disinformation already are being used to alter our democracies. The last thing we need is Artificial Intelligence being used to make things worse.

Hopefully we will be smart enough to find ways to control AI so it benefits human life without destroying it. As for all those other man-made threats, we have the power to eliminate, or at least control them. If we act intelligently.