They are an improbable group of superheroes. But some of Britain’s greatest minds have got together to focus their powers on saving humanity from itself.
Led by the Astronomer Royal and Cambridge don Martin Rees, famous thinkers such as physicist Stephen Hawking and former Government chief scientist Robert May have formed a society to draw up a doomsday list of risks that could wipe out mankind.
From crippling cyber-attacks by terrorists using the internet to cause havoc, to the release of engineered diseases and killer computers, they warn the future is far from rosy.
But the work being done by the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) should one day help the world sleep a little easier at night.
Once the threats have been identified, the group intend to devise ways of ‘ensuring our own species has a long-term future’.
Although nuclear annihilation and a giant asteroid obliterating the planet remain distinct, if unlikely possibilities, Lord Rees now believes ‘the main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature.’
Other scenarios being considered by the 27-strong group, which also involves academics from Oxford, Imperial, Harvard and Berkeley, include extreme weather events, fast spreading pandemics, and war or sabotage resulting in a shortage of food and resources.
Speaking last night at the British Science Festival at the University of Newcastle, Lord Rees said: ‘In future decades, events with low probability but catastrophic consequences may loom high on the political agenda.
‘That’s why some of us in Cambridge – both natural and social scientists – plan, with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere, to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these existential risks, and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones.’
He added: ‘The response we’ve had to our proposal has been remarkably wide and remarkably positive.
‘The project is still embryonic but we are seeking funds via various sources and have strengthened our international advisory network.’
The other two co-founders of CSER are Jann Tallinn, one of the people behind internet phone service Skype, and Cambridge philosopher Professor Huw Price.