God, Man, Tech and Climate: Hans Joachim Schellnhuber paints a picture for the Club of Rome

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.

 

12 comments

  1. I work in an EU research project to design industry4 factory for manufacture of zero-energy retrofit kits in high volume and at low cost. But, I dont believe in it. I believe we are doomed in every case, because the competitive system that improved us (survival of the fittest) will destroy us after the quantity of humans passes a certain point. For example, after we reduce use of hydrocarbons the price will fall and undermine renewable energy investments. Hydrocarbons will continue to be extracted until almost none are left. A system could work only if ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’, which never happened in the natural world and will not happen in ours either. There could be a coalition of lions (billionaires) to agree to a world-wide cull of lambs (humans who are not rich), perhaps using cyborgs. That might work to continue humankind. But dont worry, I expect you might be all right.

  2. Nice one Jeremy!
    I was wondering during John’s talk… metaphorically continuing … perhaps its time to feed cyborgs the apple? The garden cannot live w them, but then again, can it live with Man?

  3. Yup, even if its 15 years, give or take, it rings true. Its wisdom that missing, and moderation, in politics and society at large. Thanks again for more essential information, which I believe is power if acted upon?

  4. I was also there and had the same macro sense as Jeremy – my religious takeaway as an atheist was of the incredible validity of the good v evil conflict in humanity. Trump and MBS and Putin exude evil…corruption …but we (collectively) go like lambs to the slaughter. As for the Pope – a rockstar – but his group could help fix the population drama in the stroke of a pen.
    I came away convinced we just have to keep doing the things we feel are decent and can help push in the right direction for survival of our offspring (the basic instinct)
    PS the people who have a vision of radical planetary change kept the air conditioning on throughout.

  5. Jeremy
    Thanks.
    It is not an original thought of mine, but I guess when AI/QC get together we will need new definitions of insanity (not just our own). Thinking a little further on, when resouce depletion and diminishing returns take big enough bites out of efficiency gains in digitised logistics support, whence goes the computerised world?
    Similarly, as we approach the double CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere – end of this century? – lower actual net carbon emissions per annum seem inevtable. Fossil fuels will be mostly gone or ungettable well before then. The huge heat pulse in the world will go on of course for centuries, with probably as of now unknowable risks, the takedown of CO2 being inevitably so slow, but Aladdin’s Lamp will no longer switch on.

  6. I happen to be pretty qualified to comment on the ideas of this lecture. I have studied extensively World3, the famous model with the results that were presented to the Club of Rome that we know so well. I’m also somewhat familiar with AI and robotics. No expert, but I have programmed a few basic robots and trained a few basic AIs. And I’m no expert in theology either, but I have studied comparative religion enough to understand where this lecturer was coming from.

    Robots would not survive climate change better than humans. And that’s the whole point, actually. Most people don’t realize how dependent we’ve become on computers. The whole world would grind to a halt if financial transactions couldn’t be done, and financial transactions nowadays can’t be done without computers. What’s worse, financial transactions require a timestamp, and that timestamp nowadays comes from the GPS system, satellites that surround our planet. If climate change ravages the world, will we be still be able to build computers? What about launching satellites? At what point do we lose enough of our high tech that we enter a death spiral of more and more basic stuff no longer working?

    A big part of religion, traditionally, has come from people looking up at the sky and wondering what it all means. At what point will our religion become something about looking up at the sky and counting how many satellites are left?

  7. Yuval Harari says the same thing and he is travelling the world with this message , kthere are so few of us who seem to care, how do we educate the millions of ordinary people who aren’t aware of the situation or who probably assume Government will sort it, if there is a problem, trouble is for Government read oil lobby. Everyone’s life style needs to change which for so many will hurt.

  8. I wonder. The thing about humans (and other animals) is that all the actions they undertake are motivated by feelings; reason is a handmaiden to feeling. And feelings are all linked to hormones, whether the hormones be activated by internal cues (e.g. diurnal rhythms, reproductive cycles etc.) or by external cues (e.g. threats, opportunities etc.). I can’t imagine where the start to action might be for a cyborg that is not first programmed by a feeling entity.

  9. Nice piece Jeremy. Have a read of a book called Super Intelligence for a catalogue of methods of how to stop AI turning the galaxy into paper clips. One thing that troubles me in all of this saving the climate business, is for who? Are we all working to preserve a system of wealth for the 50 people who own half of the world? The second world war resulted in a major redistribution of wealth and prosperity, I don’t hear the seeds of that discussion in the climate wars.

  10. I fully agree, though I am not so sure that powerful quantum computing is so close around the next corner, in 10 years, I have serious doubts about this.
    However, we have the clear and present danger of catastrophic climate change right on our doorsteps, and we indeed have to do more in this direction. I will spend the coming years to help develop a global voice of all who are concerned about this. I think we should no longer leave it just to the existing, important organizations such as Greenpeace, WWF or Sierra Club, who all are supportive, but they do have their own agendas. These overlap only in part with the issue of climate change, the disruptive, fastest possible transformation of our energy system to a system based on finallly 100%RE. This is why I think we should build up a global membership-based organization for hundreds of thousands of people worried as we are for the future of our planet!

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