What ShouldWhat Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night, edited by John Brockman. Harper Perennial, 2014, 497 pp., $15.99

reviewed by Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia

This is a collection of over 150 mini-essays–the longest is five pages–on a very wide variety of topics by a very wide array of authors. Familiar names include science fiction writers Vernor Vinge, Gregory Benford, and Bruce Sterling, SETI Institute head Seth Shostak, anti-aging researcher Aubrey De Grey, physicist Lawrence Krauss, astronomer Martin Rees, and skeptics/”new atheists” Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.

One slight problem with this collection is that its subtitle is not entirely accurate. Many of the pieces have little or nothing to do with science, and many of the authors are not scientists; the authors include Arianna Huffington and, with a two-sentence throwaway piece, Terry Gilliam. But this is a minor matter; most of the pieces deal at least tangentially with science.

Rather than cover only the standard (and mostly very real) threats to civilization and even human existence–nuclear war, nanotechnology, bio-engineered plagues, “the singularity,” climate change, coronal mass ejections and the collapse of the electric grid, etc.–that science and science fiction magazines and web sites endlessly chew over, the pieces in What Should We Be Worried About? go beyond such things (they are covered) to ponder matters such as fundamentalists out breeding rational people (with a consequent new Dark Age as a result), societal incentives toward irresponsible behavior, and the socially isolating effects of social media.

There are even pieces on what not to worry about, notably Shostak’s essay on “The Danger from Aliens” and Sterling’s essay, “‘The Singularity‘: There’s No There There.”

Shostak makes the point that while Earth’s radio/television transmissions would be undetectable at the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, using the largest radio telescope on Earth (the 300-meter Arecibo dish), any civilization capable of interstellar travel would very probably have far more sensitive arrays, that “any extraterrestrials with the hardware necessary to engage in interstellar warfare will be able to heft telescopes to the comparatively piddling distance of their home star’s gravitational focuse,” where their sensitivity would be increased “thousands or millions of times, depending on wavelength.” In other words, there’s no point in trying to limit transmissions now: the cat’s out of the bag.

Sterling is on shakier ground when he argues that because no powerful entities are putting major resources into artificial intelligence development (because there’s no obvious profit in it) and that “We’re no closer to self-aware machines than we were in the remote 1960s,” there’s no danger of a “singularity.” (The point at which machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. The question of whether a “singularity” would be a catastrophe,  as is almost universally assumed, is beyond the scope of this review.) Sterling’s first point is dubious. AI research goes on, unintentional consequences are a given. Also, Moore’s Law (that computer processing power doubles every two years) has proven true since Gordon Moore formulated it in 1970; so, should artificial intelligence ever emerge, it will almost certainly have the hardware to support it.

There are a few standouts among the mini-essays, including Shostak’s “The Danger from Aliens” and musician Brian Eno’s “We Don’t Do Politics” (on the perils of political disengagement). But almost all of the incredibly varied pieces in What Should We Be Worried About? are worth reading.

Highly recommended.

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