ZEIT ONLINE: Of all the great transformations we are experiencing, from climate change to artificial intelligence (A.I.) to gene editing, what is the most consequential change we are about to see?
Sir Martin Rees: In the next 10 or 20 years, it’s the rapid development in biotechnology. Already we are seeing that it’s becoming easier to modify the genome, and we've heard about experiments on the influenza virus to make it more virulent and transmissible (so as to counter such mutations). These techniques have huge potential benefits, but unfortunately also downsides. They are easily accessible and handled. Bio-hacking has almost become a competitive sport for students.
The risk of error or terror in these areas is quite substantial, while regulation is very hard. And even if we do have regulations for safety, how can we enforce them globally? My pessimism stems from a feeling that what can be done, will be done somewhere by someone, whatever the regulations say.
ZEIT ONLINE: That brings recent Hollywood blockbusters like "Inferno" to mind, in which a lunatic tries to sterilize half of mankind by way of a virus.
Rees: It is a realistic scenario. We are moving into an age where small groups can have a global impact, as I highlighted in my book "Our Final Century" 13 years ago. We have had traditional dissidents and terrorists, but there were always certain limits to how much devastation they could cause. That limit has risen hugely with the new bio- and cyber-technologies. The threat is going to increase the tension between freedom, security and privacy.
ZEIT ONLINE: Is A.I. a field where you are a bit more optimistic?
Rees: In the long term, we do need to worry about A.I. and about machines learning too much. In the short term, we have the issue of the disruption of the labour market due to robotics taking over – not just factory work but also many skilled occupations like medical diagnostics and possibly even surgery. Indeed, some of the hardest jobs to mechanize are jobs like gardening and plumbing.
We will have to accept a big redistribution in the way the labour market is deployed. And in order to ensure we don’t develop even more inequality, there has got to be a massive redistribution. The money earned by robots can’t only go to a small elite – Silicon Valley people for instance. In my opinion it should rather be used for the funding of dignified, secure jobs, preferably in the public sector – teaching assistants, gardeners in public parks, custodians and things like that.
ZEIT ONLINE: How great will be the mental capacities of robots in the near future?
Rees: It will be a long time before they will have the all-around ability of humans. Maybe that will never happen. But what is called "generalized machine learning", having been made possible by the ever-increasing number-crunching power of computers, is genuinely a big breakthrough. It opens up the possibility that machines can learn a lot about the world. If these computers were to get out of their box one day, they might pose a considerable threat.
ZEIT ONLINE: Will A.I. foster innovation and ideas?
Rees: Big advances in scientific understanding are often triggered by some new observation that in turn was enabled by some new technological advancement. Sometimes that happens just by a combination of people crossing disciplines and bringing new ideas together; sometimes just through luck; sometimes through a special motivation that caused people to focus on some problem; sometimes by people focusing on a new problem that was deemed too difficult previously and therefore didn’t attract attention.