During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation weighed heavily on the minds of Americans, Soviets, and people of other nations.
Although the threat of nuclear war seems more distant now, other threats have arisen from the very technologies responsible for human progress, such as computing and energy production.
There may be very little time left in which to head off pandemics, abrupt climate shifts, and computer attacks. Understanding these threats — and possible solutions — is critical.
The world lived for half a century with the constant specter of nuclear war and its potentially devastating consequences. The end of the Cold War took the potency out of this Armageddon scenario, yet the existential dangers have only multiplied.
Today the technologies that pose some of the biggest problems are not so much military as commercial. They come from biology, energy production, and the information sciences — and are the very technologies that have fueled our prodigious growth as a species. They are far more seductive than nuclear weapons, and more difficult to extricate ourselves from. The technologies we worry about today form the basis of our global civilization and are essential to our survival.
The mistake many of us make about the darker aspects of our high-tech civilization is in thinking that we have plenty of time to address them. We may, if we’re lucky. But it’s more likely that we have less time than we think. There may be a limited window of opportunity for preventing catastrophes such as pandemics, runaway climate change, and cyber attacks on national power grids.