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Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture "The world in 2050 - and beyond"

Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture “The world in 2050 – and beyond”

Lord Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, Master of Trinity College 2004-2012

Lord Martin Rees: “The world in 2050 – and beyond”

Lord Martin Rees, Master of Trinity College 2004-2012, gave a public lecture at the Japan Academy in Tokyo on the topic “The world in 2050 – and beyond” on Wednesday 4 October 2017 at 14:30.

Details here:


notes written by Gerhard Fasol, based on Lord Martin Rees’ lecture notes and Gerhard Fasol’s notes taken during the lecture

This century is special – a new geological era, the Anthropocene

Earth existed for 45 million centuries, humans a few thousand centuries. This century is special: we are in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, its the first century where the future of earth depends on humans.

Humans could degrade the biosphere, or cause misdirected technology to destroy or diminish civilisation.

Martin Rees has written a book on these issues, the same book is entitled “Our final century” in the UK, and “Our final hour” in the USA, reflecting the contrast of British understatement and American emphasis on urgency.

Martin Rees did not think that humanity would extinguish itself, but feared that humans would be lucky to avoid serious setbacks, and nuclear armageddon was closely avoided during the cold war.

Nuclear weapons are based on 20th century science, in the 21th century we have created new existential risks based on bio, cyber and AI.

Population growth, urbanization and food

World population was about 3 billion in 1960, now exceeds 7 billion, and is forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Urbanization continues, predictions are that 70% of people will live in cities by 2050, requiring excellence of governance.

Discussing population growth has become taboo, as predictions in the 1970s by the Club of Rome and others have proven wrong. Food shortages were predicted, improvements in food production technology prevented disasters.

Can 9 billion people be fed? Yes they can, using improved and sustainable agriculture.

Famines do occur, but they are the result of wars and political causes, there is no overall food shortage on earth.

Projections of population growth out to the year 2100 vary between 6 billion and 16 billion depending on model assumptions, see Jeff Tollefson : “Seven billion and counting” Nature 478 300 (19 October 2011) doi:10.1038/478300a

Bio diversity: “mass extinction is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”

Conserving our variety of species is not only about conserving food production and agriculture, there is also an ethical aspect. E O Wilson said: “mass extinction is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”.

E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation:

Johan Rockström argues that humanity must stay within “planetary boundaries” to avoid catastrophic environmental damage: Nature special on planetary boundaries (23 September 2009)

Climate change and the Keeling curve

Charles David Keeling measured atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory starting in 1958 and showed that atmospheric CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory rose from around 320 ppm in 1960 to around 400 ppm around 2015, with oscillations due to plant growth cycles around the year.

For an overview discussion see: American Chemical Society ACS “The Keeling Curve: Carbon Dioxide Measurements at Mauna Loa”.

There are some uncertainties in our knowledge of global warming, eg our uncertainty about future fossile fuel usage, or the impact of water vapor and clouds (see: the fifth Assessment Report AR5 by the Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC).

Most agree on two messages:

  1. Regional disruptions to weather patterns within the next 20-30 years will aggravate pressures on food and water and engender migration
  2. Under “business as usual” scenarios we can’t rule out, later in the century, really catastrophic warming, and tipping points triggering long-term trends like the melting of the Greenland’s icecap

Science, economics, ethics, and our responsibility for future generations should we discriminate on the grounds of date of birth?

Some economists apply quasi-commercial discounting of the future, and essentially write off anything beyond 2050, see Bjørn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus:

Economists Stern and Weizman argue that it is worth paying an insurance premium to protect future generations against worst-case scenarios, see the Stern Review.

Note that there are psychological factors: people generally don’t accept discounting the future where radioactivity is concerned: radioactive waste disposal is required to prevent leakage for 10,000 years.

The ethical question is: should we discriminate based on the date of birth?

Global warming: do we have a plan B?

CO2 levels will continue to rise, despite the Paris agreement. Pressure for panic measures might rise.

Geo-engineering measures (injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the climate, carbon capture etc) are discussed, but are likely to lead to political nightmares: e.g. some cold areas in the world might actually want the climate to be warmer in their areas.

Two mitigation measures are politically realistic:

  1. Energy efficiency (building insulation, lighting etc)
  2. R&D into low carbon energy generation: renewables, grid technology, energy storage…

Bio risks and “gain of function”

“Gain of function”: in 2012 groups in Wisconsin and in Holland showed that it was relatively easy to make the influenza virus more virulent and more contagious, in 2014 the US Government decided to stop funding such “gain of function” experiments.

“Bio-hacking” is hard to control globally. Freeman Dyson asked, when children will be able to create new organisms and “play God on the kitchen table”.

Robotics and artificial intelligence

20 years ago IBM’s Deep Blue beat Kasparov, programmed by the world’s best chess players.

Last year Deep Mind (acquired by Google) beat the world champion of Go, however programed by machine learning.

Will robots and AI create more new employment than they eliminate – the old question of industrial revolutions, or a new paradigm?

Robots and AI machines could act orthogonal to the interests of human.

Are we responsible for the well being of intelligent robots?

Ray Kurzweil’s singularity. Ending your days in an English churchyard vs in a Californian refrigerator

Ray Kurzweil: The singularity is near – when humans transcend biology

Ray Kurzweil thinks that humans could transcend our biological limitations by fusing with machines. Humans could merge with computers.

For worry that this “singularity” transition might not come during his lifetime, Ray Kurzweil wants his body to be frozen to await the singularity to arrive, frozen by the “Society for the abolition of involuntary death”.

Lord Martin Rees prefers to end his days in an English churchyard rather than a Californian refrigerator, and has therefore been labeled an old fashioned “deathist”.

Lord Rees was amused to find out that at least three British academics are subscribing such a body freezing program, although one of these seems to have opted for the discount economy class option, where only the brain, not the whole body, is frozen…

Robots have a big future in space

Flotillas of miniaturized probes will explore the solar system eroding the case for human space flight.

Human space flight will be for adventurers, but there is no escape from earth. Space is too hostile for humans.

Life on other planets – we don’t even know how life started on our planet earth

There is no advanced life anywhere in our solar system. There might be freeze-dried bacteria on Mars, there might be creatures swimming under the ice on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Most stars in the sky are orbited by planets, like our Sun. Could there be “twins” with similar conditions as our planet earth? Some have been found, and there could be millions in our Milky Way.

Could there be life?

We don’t even know how life started on our planet earth, and we don’t know if there are other forms of life beyond our life based on DNA/RNA chemistry.

Searching for signals from life on far away planets is worthwhile. If we can actually identify such signals this would prove that mathematics, logic and physics can be done by others outside our human sculls and brains.

Lord Martin Rees is chairing an intensive search for radio and optical signals from extraterrestrial life funded by Yuri Milner:
Yuri Milner to Fund $100 Million Search for Intelligent Alien Life (Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2015)

Astronomers and the “far future”: “eternity is very long, especially towards the end”

Astronomers have one big difference to most people – they care for the “far future”.

Our Sun was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and has about 6 billion more years to go before the fuel runs out. And the universe will continue to expand.

As Woody Allen says ( eternity is very long, especially towards the end.

We may not even be at the half-way stage of evolution.

Our wet organic brains may have reached close to their limits in evolution, but machines and robots are just at the beginning. Non-biological “brains” may develop beyond any expectation.

Facing global challenges

The most important challenges are global: global warming, energy, food, population.

Scientists can act globally, and can influence politics- if they do it right.

We need to change priorities and perspectives: we need to prioritize clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and need to manage the risks of new technologies.

To know more:

Martin Rees has written

see also the series of articles by Martin Rees in the Huffington Post

  1. There Could Be 11 Billion People on Earth in 2100. That Doesn’t Have to Scare You.
  2. The World Is Getting Warmer — But Here’s What We Can Do Now to Prepare
  3. The Dark Side of World-Changing Technologies
  4. Space Exploration Could Herald the Beginning of the Post-Human Era
  5. Why Science and Philosophy Should Guide Today’s Youth in Creating a More Sustainable World
Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture
Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture “The world in 2050 – and beyond”
Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture
Lord Martin Rees, former Master of Trinity College, Lecture “The world in 2050 – and beyond”


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