​Image: United States Department of Energy

Researchers take a holistic approach to threats to humanity

​What risks threaten the entire future of humanity within the next hundred years? And what should we do to protect against them? A group of researchers will take on these questions in the autumn as part of the research programme "Existential risk to humanity" at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
​According to a growing body of researchers, it is not enough for us to focus on the serious risks currently laid on the table – nuclear war and climate change. There are many other dangers that must also be addressed, such as synthetic viruses, artificial intelligence that humans lose control over, or dramatic declines in global food production due to collapses in agriculture.

According to Olle Häggström, Professor of Mathematical Statistics at Chalmers University of Technology, it is unusual for anyone to take a holistic approach to the issues, and researchers have an important responsibility to do that. Häggström serves as host of the research programme Existential risk to humanity, which is being conducted by Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg from 1 September to 31 October. Over thirty researchers from universities around the world will participate.

“Several of them are world leaders in existential risk research, which is a growing field,” says Olle Häggström. “It is highly interdisciplinary, and those of us working with this field have expert knowledge in many different areas.”

“Through the research programme, we will work together to advance the state of knowledge regarding existential risks. We shall try to make a comprehensive assessment of all threats, and propose strategies to deal with them.”

According to Olle Häggström, existential risks – risks that threaten the entire future of humanity – are greater today than 50 years ago. Mainly, this is a side effect of our incredibly rapid technological development and global dissemination of knowledge in recent decades.

“Synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are examples of areas that can create the most serious new risks. Thus; the very same areas that are some of the most promising for solving many of humanity's problems and increasing prosperity in the world.”

An important element of the research programme will therefore be discussions on how to reduce the risks of the new technologies without blocking the enormous possibilities they provide.

The research programme will be opened on 4 September by Stefan Bengtsson, President at Chalmers University of Technology, and Mattias Goksör, First Vice President at the University of Gothenburg. The opening ceremony is open to everyone and offers a popular science lecture entitled Existential risk: how threatened is humanity? The lecture will be given by Anders Sandberg, researcher at the Future of the Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, who has been invited to serve as scientific leader of the programme.

On 7 and 8 September, a workshop will be held at Chalmers with about 80 participants from universities, organisations and companies around the world. Thirteen of the researchers in the programme will be holding lectures, and registration for the workshop has been kept open to anyone.

“We want to develop cutting-edge knowledge, but it is equally important to communicate the knowledge already available to a broader audience,” says Olle Häggström.

Facts about the research programme
Existential risk to humanity is being organised by Gothenburg Chair Programme for Advanced Studies, a joint endeavour between Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg, aiming to strengthen fundamental research and stimulate interactions between scientists from different fields.

The researchers participating in the programme will spend at least one week in Gothenburg between 1 September and 31 October. In addition to daily activities, the programme includes a public workshop on 7–8 September and a full-day activity on 6 September with a disaster planning exercise. During the exercise, representatives from academia, government and companies will work with a scenario where global food production drops drastically due to a collapse in agriculture.

Text: Johanna Wilde

Page manager Published: Tue 05 Sep 2017.