The thing with Stephen Hawking is that the world tends to listen when he discusses big ideas.
Not content with informing us that God does not exist or that we could be wiped out by an alien invasion, the British physics superstar has now gone on the record to say humanity will score the mother of all “own goals" in the future. And that, he argues, is an excellent reason for getting humanity off the planet.
“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years," Hawking said during his first BBC Reith Lecture, that will be aired on Jan. 26. “By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.
“However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period."
Hawking argues that this statistical near-certainty of doom over the next few centuries will most likely be self inflicted. Of the most likely candidates he singles out are the usual suspects: nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered superviruses.
Previously, Hawking has also warned about advances in artificial intelligence turning against humanity — a fear that is shared by other prominent figures, including SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk.
But there is hope, fortunately.
“We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognize the dangers and control them," he said. “I'm an optimist, and I believe we can."
It may not sound very optimistic to be identifying all the weird and wonderful ways we'll likely be made extinct, but with this knowledge perhaps we can avert the worst cataclysms we could inflict on ourselves in the future. Failing that, argues Hawking, we should really focus our efforts on space exploration and spreading humanity to the solar system and (possibly) beyond. The Earth may be doomed, but humanity needn't be.
I can really get behind Hawking's recurring message, urging us to explore space and I share some of his optimism for humanity. Space exploration, particularly the opportunities private rocket companies are showing us, getting stuff into space is getting easier and more affordable. Elon Musk even has long-term plans to set up a SpaceX-driven colony on Mars. A decade ago that would have been pure fantasy, but with the uptick in amazing rocket technology breakthroughs in recent years, it no longer sounds like an impossibility — though there's still a very long way to go.
That said, Hawking's warnings shouldn't be seen as “just another" doomsday theory. Identifying the biggest threats, particularly the ones we could inflict on ourselves, will be key to helping us avoid them in the future.
I'm actually more pessimistic than Hawking about humanity's ability of avoiding or fixing damage caused to our planet. Only now are we making serious moves to slow our emissions of greenhouse gases, when it's already too late for many island nations that are being swamped by sea level rise. Irreversible damage has been caused to our planet by our persistent nature to grow and exploit its natural resources. It's going to take the biggest ideas from the world's brightest minds to think up geoengineering projects that could safeguard our future.
But in the meantime, why keep all our eggs in one basket? For better or worse, it's never been a better time to push into space, possibly seeding new worlds — starting with Mars — with life.