Other Risks

While the five categories of risk presented on this website 1 represent the most pressing current sources of existential risk, it is by no means an extensive list. Other, more speculative risks have been documented, but are currently not thought to significantly contribute to the total risk that we face.

The most widely discussed other potential source of risk is that of nanotechnology. Broadly speaking, nanotechnology is discipline of engineering and researching structures on the atomic and molecular scales. When arranged in molecularly precise structures, materials can take on enhanced properties, such as extreme strength, that far surpass the capabilities of the same material in its common state.
Having been brought into the public eye by engineer Eric Drexler in the ’80s, nanotechnology caused significant concern, as it was thought that the potentially fantastic capabilities of nanoengineered products could open the door to incredible new destructive powers. The effects of nanomaterials on ecosystems and the natural environment were, and still are, also causes for concern if the production and use of such materials were to dramatically increase and spread to the wider environment.
However, progress in nanotechnology research proceeded slower than expected and, while concerns still remain, it is not expected to pose an imminent threat 2.

Unknown Risks

If, 100 years ago, you had asked a scientist what they thought the biggest threats to humanity were, what would they reply? The discovery of nuclear fission was still almost two decades away, so nuclear weapons would certainly not have been mentioned; nor would the prospect of artificial intelligence, which would first be discussed in 1956. Climate change would only start to enter the debate half a century later, and so it is unlikely that this would be of concern to our scientist. Therefore, it is probable that of the four risk sources predicted to contribute the most to the total existential risk that we face, our scientist would only be aware of (or consider plausible) the risk of pandemics 3.

Given this observation, what should we think of the answers that a scientist would give to the same question now? It would seem na├»ve to expect our current scientists to be able to foresee the scientific and technological developments that will occur in the coming century in the same way that it would be unreasonable to expect our 1920’s scientist to be able to predict the development of the Hydrogen Bomb.

This poses the question: What potential risk sources are yet to be developed, or are we otherwise unaware of? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, apart from ‘wait and see’. This poses immense difficulty for the field of existential risk research as it provides a fundamentally limited time constraint on how long we have to address the issues of an emerging technology. On the other hand, whilst there is not a great deal we can do to ensure the safety of technologies or phenomena that we have no knowledge of, we can still strive to ensure that when we do become aware of them, we are in a position from which we are able to adequately address them. This is why many researchers suggest developing and building institutions and frameworks that enhance our ability to respond to the threats that we face.

Image: CSIRO
  1. Unaligned AI, Nuclear Weapons, Pandemics, Climate Change, Natural Risks
  2. Though this could conceivably change in the future.
  3. The possibility of severe pandemics would have been particularly salient given the recent occurrence of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.