The Club of Rome, an organisation of experts on the state of the planet long concerned about that state, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a conference. Some four hundred souls gather in muggy Rome, in an airless auditorium in the shadow of the Vatican. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the world’s greatest climate scientists, has been asked to discuss the future in a keynote lecture.
He does so in a contained tone with a hint of sadness. He is devoid of any shred of the pomposity that men who have led great research institutions often tend to. I have heard him deliver meta-analyses of the climate problem before, most memorably at a German-British gathering of experts in Berlin, to mark the Queen’s state visit to Germany in November 2004. He didn’t pull his punches then, and he doesn’t today. He gives an overview of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent landmark report, wherein the world’s climate scientists summarised the clear and abundant evidence for intolerable risk above a global-warming ceiling of 1.5˚C. But he takes it further than they did, with an account of the many amplifying feedbacks that so many climate scientists have worried about for so long. These the IPCC has underplayed, he implies. He has detailed 14 of them, in a recent paper co-authored with a star chamber of peers from around the world.
We have to cut emissions very deeply, very fast, he says, if we are not to risk the creation of hell on Earth.
Today, he goes further still. As he talks, it becomes clear he is worried about many of the issues that have grown to preoccupy me this last year or so, and which I have endeavoured to chronicle on my website. It won’t be enough to control the climate risk, Schellnhuber says, even if we can ultimately summon the collective political will to do that. As a physicist, he wants to highlight the parallel and related risks arising fast in the world of tech. He is particularly worried about quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI). We are maybe ten years away from developing quantum computers that will be vastly more powerful than the already very powerful computers of today. When quantum computers are married with AI, Man will have developed a truly God-like tool.
That tool can in principle be used to help human development and progress in many ways, not least in the abatement of climate change, the feeding of the world, and the elimination of poverty. But when quantum computing and AI are married up, and if that marriage is allowed to unfold without control by global society, an awful prospect lurks around the corner. The deadly duo will become a trio via robotics. Man will have created cyborgs of literally unimaginable power.
Schellnhuber closes with a image that makes his point in the context he and his audience find themselves. Most of the screen is filled with a photo of Michaelangelo’s painting of Man and God his creator, each with a finger extended to each other. This masterpiece adorns the roof of the Sistine Chapel, not a few hundred metres from here. Schellnhuber has augmented it. In the bottom left of the screen, a cyborg extends a finger towards his creator, Man, who in turn extends a finger from his other hand towards the cyborg.
In a world that fails to contain global warming, Schellnhuber observes calmly, these machines will be able to survive. And even if Man can survive alongside them, they won’t need him.
He finishes his lecture there, leaving further elaboration to the imaginations of his listeners.
It seems to me, as I look at the image, that Man gives the impression of extending his finger to the Cyborg carelessly. Certainly all his attention is on God, who he is looking at with a devoted expression. What will God be making of the cyborg, I wonder? What is he making of Man’s failure, to date, to protect his wider creation, planet Earth, from the ravages of climate chaos?
Will he be bothered if the cyborgs take over the protection of what remains of his wider creation, and the engineering of its rehabilitation?
Will he be bothered if the cyborgs decide the inevitable? That they need to rid the planet of the vector that spread the hothouse-Earth disease in the first place?
If God exists (I am unsure), I prefer to believe that he is rooting for Man, his creation, to lift his game in protecting Earth, his wider creation. Certainly that is what Pope Francis – no doubt sitting in a room not far from here – is thinking. That much is very clear in his historic papal encyclical on the environment and human ecology, Laudato Si. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber was among the experts who advised him in the writing of it.
In that scenario, God’s hope must be that Man will prove to have the wisdom to control the powerful forces he can create via tech, and harness them in the task of environmental and economic renaissance on planet Earth.
Maybe we can. Let us please try harder than we are today, collectively.
For failure may mean the total eradication of our species from the planet even quicker than global overheating can reduce our numbers.