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The Clock Ticks
Doomsday or future heaven? Who knows?
Oh noes, the Doomsday Clock is moving forward!
The clock referred to is the one that appears on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a venerable publication that was founded by actual atomic scientists. In the years since then, the clock has moved forward and backward, and generally generates news coverage whenever it does so.
Back in January I mocked it a bit, when it was moved “closer to doomsday than ever.” My comment: “If they were honest, then the clock, which was introduced back during the Cold War when things were vastly more dangerous, would now be set at something like 9AM. But it’s just a PR gadget and has no actual connection with reality.”
Back when I was in law school in the Reagan era, my girlfriend was worried because the “Doomsday Clock” had been advanced. When I pointed out that it was just the opinion of some people at a magazine she was dumbfounded. She was plenty smart — her IQ was like 165, she became a big-deal tax lawyer later — but she had never considered that there was no objective, quantifiable component to this famous metric. And of course there isn’t.
Back during the Cold War the world came frighteningly close to accidental global thermonuclear war on several occasions. In one case, Stanislav Petrov, sometimes called “the man who saved the world,” disobeyed orderswhen a malfunctioning early warning system indicated a missile attack from the United States. He concluded that it was a sensor malfunction and refused to report it to superiors who would have launched a retaliatory strike, and of course that turned out to be the right decision. He received no recognition for this (but did get a reprimand for improper paperwork). On such small things hung the survival of humanity. (And this was only one of several nuclear close calls.)
Yet now the Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight, at 90 seconds to midnight, than it was when Petrov saved the world from doom, at which time it was set at 5 minutes before midnight.
And James Pethokoukis notes that the clock will be reset again, probably to 60 seconds before midnight, in January. This is because of concerns about “multiple global threats, including the Israel-Hamas war, Ukraine-Russia war, the continued climate crisis, AI, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, disruptive technologies, biothreats, and the intensification of nuclear weapons programs worldwide.”
Meh. Not to disparage these threats, at least some of which might matter – we’ve already seen the world brought low by a government-sponsored “biothreat,” after all – but really, even in the aggregate, I don’t think they put us 80% worse off than a time when global thermonuclear war could be triggered by a mistake. (And there were lots of biological weapons floating around the old Soviet Union, too.)
At any rate, Pethokoukis wants us to take a more cheerful approach. He wants to see a clock counting down to a future age of human flourishing and abundance, which he calls the “Genesis Clock.” (I’m not sure about that name, which some might see as blasphemous, and which might remind others of Star Trek’s “Genesis Project,” which had destructive as well as creative aspects). But Pethokoukis has the Star Trek angle specifically in mind:
I call it the Genesis Clock. The name is inspired by the Genesis Device from 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. When initiated on an uninhabited planet, the device would begin a process of rapid terraforming, preparing the planet for human colonization. As one character in the film puts it, “What exactly is Genesis? Well, put simply, Genesis is life from lifelessness.” The Genesis Clock would attempt to tell humanity how close or distant it might be to a period so different from modern life that it would qualify as a new beginning for our civilization, a new human epoch. “New life,” one might even say.
One can quibble: The “Genesis” Pethokoukis is talking about wouldn’t happen on an uninhabited planet, but rather on ours, and to us. Would it, like the one in the movie, destroy everything that was there before in the process of remaking things? Some fear exactly such an outcome from the oncoming technological Singularity. I don’t think that’s what Pethokoukis meant, but I saw that as an implication.
Anyway, as he notes:
The Doomsday Clock is pretty subjective in how it determines how close we are to destroying ourselves. But the factors driving the Genesis Clock would be more objective. Among those that might determine how close we are to Dawn:
How close are we to achieving artificial general intelligence?
How close are we to extending the average human lifespan to 120?
Do we have self-sustaining colonies off planet?
Do we have a cancer vaccine and a cure for Alzheimer’s?
Can we deflect a large asteroid or comet headed toward Earth?
Is carbon in the atmosphere declining?
Is commercial nuclear fusion both technologically and economically viable?
Is less than 1 percent of the world’s population undernourished with a caloric intake below minimum energy requirements?
Are we bringing back extinct species like the Woolly mammoth?
Is even the poorest nation no poorer than the average economy in 2000?
Is even the least free nation as free as the average nation in 2000?
Is productivity growth among rich nations at least 50 percent higher than its postwar average?
I agree that those are (somewhat) less subjective than the Doomsday Clock, whose position seems to be driven by two questions: “How scared of the future are left-leaning establishment type people?” and “How much publicity does the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists need?” The upward creep of the minute hand, even as the world has gotten objectively safer, suggests that the latter plays a big role: Bad news always sells better than good news.
Which is Pethokoukis’ problem, of course. There’s a bigger market for fear of the future than for hope for the future. (And even positive takes get misinterpreted as negative because that suits human predilections better.)
That doesn’t mean that his idea isn’t worthy though. I think he should give it a go. And, judging by the Doomsday Clock, all he needs to make it work is a magazine and a catchy graphic. I say, go for it!