Doomsday clock holds steady at five minutes to apocalypseS

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is leaving the big hand of the infamous "Doomsday Clock" at five minutes to midnight, telling the head of the UN there's little reason to pull it back.

The clock — a device symbolizing humanity's temporal proximity to armageddon — was founded in 1947 as a response to the advent of nuclear capacity. Each year, the scientists who manage the clock decide whether to move the hands closer or further away from midnight, a time meant to represent the apocalypse. It's used as a way to assess the various threats confronting humanity.

This year, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, in consultation with its Board of Sponsors (which includes 18 Nobel laureates) decided to keep the clock where it is.

They write:

[In] 2013 the international community dealt with the continuing, potentially civilization-ending threat of nuclear weapons in a business-as-usual manner, meaning that outsized nuclear arsenals remain in the United States and Russia, and the nuclear arsenals of some countries—notably India, Pakistan, and China—appear to be growing. The interim Iranian deal notwithstanding, the international community has not come to grips with an unfortunate reality: The spread of civilian nuclear power around the world—which continues apace, despite the disaster at Fukushima—also spreads the potential for new nuclear weapons states.

But the threat goes beyond nuclear; the Bulletin also described risks posed by the speed and scope of technological change, from synthetic biology to three-dimensional printing to robotics and beyond. They write:

What happens when scientists create a technology with the best of intentions, but society cannot properly control it? Bioengineering, for example, might eradicate some diseases—but it might also put infectious weapons in the hands of terrorists. Sophisticated robots might help governments respond to disaster—or be programmed to hunt and kill humans with ruthless efficiency.

To address these problems, the Bulletin made these four recommendations:

  • Demand that US and Russian leaders return to the negotiating table
  • Support international discussions about the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons
  • Exercise political leadership on climate change
  • Create new rules and institutions to manage emerging technology

On this last point they write:

The revolution in information technology is accelerating, and the consequences of such broad and fast-paced technological change cannot be foreseen. Some of the results of this revolution, such as military robotics and cyber warfare, will challenge international law and the norms of war, much as nuclear weapons do. These scientific advances require serious attention and policy action—before our newest technologies fuel another senseless and dangerous arms race.

Because I was curious, I compiled this graph of clock changes from 1947 to 2014. Looks like someone was asleep at the switch in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so much for that kinder, gentler post Cold War world.

Doomsday clock holds steady at five minutes to apocalypseS

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Top image: Shutterstock.