On the 9th July 1955, at a press conference at Caxton Hall in London, Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s most prominent philosophers, presented a landmark manifesto, written in collaboration with Albert Einstein, warning of the existential dangers posed by the use of nuclear weapons, and pressing for peaceful resolutions to international conflicts in order to avoid them. Now known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, it represents one of the first academic considerations of anthropic threat to humanity’s continued existence.
While Russell and Einstein understandably focused on the most visible threat of their day, the manifesto’s arguments can be applied to many of the technological advancements since its publication. Indeed, Russell himself was aware of the potential powers of emerging technologies, writing in a letter to Einstein dated the 11th February 1955, that ‘although the H-bomb at the moment occupies the centre of attention, it does not exhaust the destructive possibilities of science, and it is probable that the dangers of bacteriological warfare may before long become just as great.’
Knowledge of the novel technologies that would emerge in the following decades would have been of little comfort to Russell and Einstein, with the risks posed by unaligned artificial general intelligence and engineered pandemics predicted to outweigh that from nuclear-armed conflict by at least a factor of 100 each. (Toby Ord, ‘The Precipice’, 2020)
The case remains that, 75 years ago our species entered a new era; one characterised by the capacity for self-inflicted annihilation of ourselves and our potential. While the Russell-Einstein manifesto was one of the first publications addressing this power, it remains scarily relevant in the 21st century. One of the concluding paragraphs of the manifesto offers a chilling warning, and a reminder that we have an important choice to make; one between continual flourishing or a premature end to the human story.
‘There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.’
Read the manifesto in full at: https://www.atomicheritage.org/key-documents/russell-einstein-manifesto