risks

Emergence’s devil haunts the moral enhancer’s kingdom come

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose “the X factor”, not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

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Old threats never die, they fade away from our minds: nuclear winter

In 1983, scientists published a paper on nuclear winter. This boosted the death toll of all-out nuclear war from ‘only’ 200-500 million to the very real possibility of the complete extinction of the human race*. But some argued the report was alarmist, and there did seem to be some issues with the assumptions. So – a military phenomena that might cause megadeaths, possibly true but requiring further study, and a huge research defense budget that could be used to look into this critical phenomena and that was already spending millions on all aspects of nuclear weapons – can you guess what happened next?

Correct – the issue was ignored for decades. For over twenty years, there were but a tiny handful of papers on the most likely way we could end our own existence, and a vague and persistent sense that nuclear winter had been ‘disproved’. But in 2007, we finally had a proper followup – with the help of modern computers, better models and better observations, what can we now say? Well, that nuclear winter is still a major threat; the initial fear was right. Their most likely scenario was:

A global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C […]. Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about –5°C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land […] Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

Also, precipitation would be cut in half and we’d lose most of the ozone layer. But there was a more worrying development: it also seems that a small-scale nuclear war could generate its own mini nuclear winter.

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