How Would Humanity Survive A Sci-Fi Disaster?

23:47 minutes

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Self-driving car technology is getting closer to hitting the highway, but what will happen when these automated cars rule the road? There have been debates about the costs and benefits of the ‘Internet of Things,’ when all of our devices will be seamlessly connected… but how would society function if our online network was completely wiped out? And how far off are we from, say, a real-life Jurassic Park?

In The Day It Finally Happens: Alien Contact, Dinosaur Parks, Immortal Humans—and Other Possible Phenomena, journalist Mike Pearl joins Ira to talk about the science behind these not-too-distant disaster scenarios, and imagines what the world and society might look like in the apocalypses. Read an excerpt from The Day it Finally Happens.

Further Reading:

Segment Guests

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl is a journalist and author of The Day It Finally Happens: Alien Contact, Dinosaur Parks, Immortal Humans―and Other Possible Phenomena.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Imagine this– one day your phone rings. Your friend is calling you through FaceTime. When you pick it up, your friend pops up on the screen telling you that you’ve been robbed while on vacation.

And can you transfer them a few hundred bucks till they get home? Well, you go online. You transfer the money to the account info that they sent you. But when you scroll through Instagram, you’ve discovered you’ve just been deep faked.

Someone impersonated your friend’s image and scammed you. So you sent the money to somebody you don’t know. Now, that’s not a real story. But it doesn’t sound too far off.

For example, how far off her self-driving cars, or possibly the death of the oceans, or antibiotics that no longer work? These are all topics we talk about today that could lead to a disaster scenario if they aren’t kept in check.

We asked what sci-fi disaster keeps you up at night on our Science Friday Box Pop app. We heard from Mike in Louisville, Bob in Jupiter, Florida, and a listener in Buffalo, New York.

MIKE: You know what plausible sci-fi scenario keeps me up at night? AI, if the machines gain sentience, and it sounds far-fetched, but some of the captains of industry say, like Elon Musk, and even guys like Joe Rogan, that’s their big fear.

BOB: It’s not really a sci-fi scenario. But hurricanes do seem to be getting stronger. I was born and raised in Miami. And we never had any hurricanes like we’ve had since the last 20 years. So I believe that it’s going to be time for us to all evacuate when it comes to all of these more powerful hurricanes.

LISTENER: I would have to say a zombie apocalypse. We’re pretty much at each other’s throats all the time anyway. So it doesn’t seem that far out of the realm of possibilities for us to take it one step further with the addition of some sort of super rabies, or something to that effect.

IRA FLATOW: Pretty scary stuff. We have some imaginative listeners. But we want to hear from you. What sci-fi disaster scenario from today’s headlines keeps you up at night? Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us @scifri.

My next guest has turned the knob all the way up to 11 in panic mode. And he talked to scientists to imagine what the future might look like under some of these scenarios. And he says, it’s going to be all right, mostly.

Mike pearl is a journalist and author of the book “The Day it Finally Happens,” alien contact, dinosaur parks, immortal humans, and other possible phenomena. And you can read an excerpt of his book on our website, ScienceFriday.com/deepfakes. Welcome, Mike, to the show.

MIKE PEARL: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you looked at a lot of scary scenarios. Did researching them make you more or less anxious about the future?

MIKE PEARL: Well, definitely less anxious. It’s a habit of mine to research the things that scare me the most. So, for me, this is– you might say it’s therapy.

IRA FLATOW: OK. It was pretty scary for me when I was reading it. Let’s go into some of them. I mentioned deep fakes, where people can impersonate you. How close are we to that technology?

MIKE PEARL: Well, I’m not in the business of giving an exact timeline. I find that when forecasters give exact timelines, that’s kind of when they get in trouble. But I think within my lifetime, you know, I think we should definitely worry. Next few decades, I would say, is a pretty safe bet.

IRA FLATOW: Because we’ve seen already on YouTube channels or videos, of people imitating, or putting words into the mouths of famous people. And you can’t tell the difference.

MIKE PEARL: Right. And they’ve done a lot worse. You know, they’ve made some nonconsensual sex tapes of celebrities and things like that. And it all started– it’s funny how it all started in 2016 with this demonstration out of the Max Planck Institute, called face to face, where it all looked very innocent. They were just replacing one person’s face with another face.

And I think a lot of people thought, oh, this could be used for movies. Or this could be used in therapy, creating suppressed memories, or something like that. And then it just went– it went as dark as it could go very, very quickly, which is definitely a theme of the book.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, if the pendulum really swings so far where people are communicating with each other, and you can’t– you don’t really know if that’s an avatar, or a deep fake, maybe it goes backwards. Maybe then we have to resort to real face to face talking to one another again, like in the old days.

MIKE PEARL: That sounds good to me. That definitely sounds good to me. I mean, you know, I talked to Peter Eckersley, who at the time was working at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And I said, surely there must be some kind of security protocol that you can put in place that will make sure that we’re authentically talking to people that we know. And he was just like, no, absolutely not.

But he said, you could just ask them a question that nobody else would know. And I was like, oh, yeah, right. That’s a very low tech solution. But it seems like it would work pretty well.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a CAPTCHA for talking to someone.

MIKE PEARL: Yeah, sort of analog CAPTCHA, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go through some of the stuff you have in your book. And I think, speaking relatively about what we were just talking about, you have something called, the day the entire internet goes down. Can anybody think of a more horrifying thing than the entire internet going down?

MIKE PEARL: For me, it’s pretty horrifying. I mean, sometimes I fantasize about it too. Like people have an internet– people want to do an internet cleanse, as they call it, which I can’t bring myself to do. But if the whole thing went down, as scary as that would be, I sometimes go, oh, maybe I kind of want it.

IRA FLATOW: And you also put the probability of these things happening. You say the plausibility rating is four out of five, which seems pretty high.

MIKE PEARL: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t go with things when the– when the plausibility rating I found to be too low. One of your people who called in suggested a zombie apocalypse. The plausibility of that is zombies aren’t real. So I just thought, well, I don’t want to go down that low.

But with something like this, I think the plausibility, not necessarily the probability, but the plausibility I would put at about 4 out of 5.

IRA FLATOW: That’s pretty good. Well tell me. Give me the scenario under which this happens.

MIKE PEARL: So my editor was a little bit worried about this, because I kind of– because what you see in the chapter is almost a bit like a roadmap. It’s not going to happen because of like a solar flare, or because somebody trips over the wrong wire and the internet goes down. It’s more like there would have to be a concerted effort by something with a lot of money, like a state actor, a network of cells around the world, really trying very hard to damage the internet infrastructure, because it is so widespread.

And there are a number of places where it’s particularly vulnerable. I don’t think a lot of people think about the fact, for instance, that the internet is the world wide web, because we run cables under the ocean just like we did in the Telegraph days. And that if you strategically cut a bunch of those cables, which by the way I don’t endorse, you would kind of– you would lose that worldwide aspect of the worldwide web.

It would take several other measures along those lines for these terrible terrorists who I, again don’t approve of, to completely knock out the functionality of the internet. And it would only last for a short time, because the effort to bring it back on would be so– a global effort to bring the internet back would be very quick.

IRA FLATOW: Lot of interest in getting that back.


IRA FLATOW: Let me go to some of our listeners and the people tweeting in some of their doomsday things. Let me go to Steve in Gainesville, Florida. Hi, Steve, welcome to Science Friday.

STEVE: Hi, Ira, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

STEVE: Yeah, so my doomsday scenario has to do with the new CRISPR gene editing tool. I’m thinking about way back toward World War Two, where the Nazis were trying to do the final solution. And I could see that becoming a thing, where you can take the genes and, say for instance even like people with blue eyes, you can design a disease, or a virus, or whatever to attack only people with blue eyes. I see that as probably one of the most dangerous things we could have.

IRA FLATOW: All right, what do you think about that, Mike?

MIKE PEARL: So, I mean, the designer baby, that was definitely a tempting chapter to write. There is that movie Gattaca, that kind of goes into that a bit, that describes, to my mind, a really sort of plausible and interesting version of that scenario, where you have a stratified society where there are the altered people up top, and then the sort of more natural people at the bottom layers of society. But I’m still trying to understand.

So in this scenario, there are– if you have the blue-eyed genes, somebody sends out some kind of technology to kill those people. What was it exactly?

IRA FLATOW: He’s gone. But he’s just worried about the ability with CRISPR. Well, just, you know, peripherally, what about the day when humans are cloned? We can clone dogs, animals. Does that worry you at all?

MIKE PEARL: I mean, I’m pretty sure we could probably clone humans now. I mean, as it stands, if you clone– when they’ve gone through and cloned extinct mammals, usually they don’t– they have not lasted very long. There was an extinct goat that was cloned that died very quickly of a lung defect.

Cloning a person, was there not just a Chinese scientist who cloned some fetuses? Yeah, so–

IRA FLATOW: He was not welcomed with open arms.

MIKE PEARL: Right, exactly. If it were a chapter in my book, I think my approach to writing about that might be to focus on the reaction, rather than the technology itself. I think that mass hysteria is always a big part of these big, newsworthy events. And kind of underrated aspect of any kind of sci-fi scenario is sometimes an overreaction.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s some tweets that are coming in. Candice tweets that she’s afraid of going out like the dinosaurs because of a near-Earth object striking us. Isn’t that likely?

MIKE PEARL: That’s very likely. In fact, a large near-Earth, a one mile or more near-Earth object striking us some time while the Earth still exists, so in the next few trillion years, I think is viewed as something that’s 100% certain. So I hope you take comfort in that.

IRA FLATOW: Why don’t we go to another tweet before we go to the phones? How about a mass migration by desperate people escaping climates that are too hot for human habitation, where crops can no longer be raised? And it goes on to say these, in capital letters, will happen.

MIKE PEARL: I mean, some might argue that that already is happening, as a matter of fact.

IRA FLATOW: What about the– do you see that we’re going to have absolutely self-driving cars?

MIKE PEARL: Well, the expert that I spoke to, Vivek Wadhwa, was very, very certain when I spoke to him. But he helped me kind of– he gave me a little bit of focus. When we think about self-driving cars, you know, we tend to think about them– you know, I think about them in LA. And I think about how our roads work.

He helped me think about how self-driving cars would work if they were universal in someplace like India. And it becomes sort of much more discouraging to think about self-driving– those streets in India being full of sort of like self-driving robocars, these sort of like golf carts replacing the vibrant streets that they have now, things like tuk tuks that they have. When you think about that all over the world when self-driving cars become universal, it’s sort of– it sounds a bit more dreary.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Mike Perl, author of The Day it Finally Happens. And we’re talking on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Let me go to the phones now. Let’s go to Brian in Yuma, Arizona. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hey, good afternoon. How are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

BRIAN: The thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that we keep advertising our location in the universe. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence kind of scares me. Can you imagine how far down the food chain we are compared to somebody who would have the ability to travel here?

IRA FLATOW: You have thought about that Mike, haven’t you?

MIKE PEARL: I sure have, yeah. The way that I approached aliens in the book was I tried to imagine what it’s going to be like on the day– when you flip open Twitter, and read it when aliens have been absolutely, 100% confirmed. The situation I propose is one where the city authorities say, hey, can everybody with the ability to transmit radio signals please not send them to this area, because we have just confirmed that aliens are there.

And we have no idea if they’re friendly. But it’s too late. A billionaire with access to radio has already sent his little hello, because there actually is no international law that says there’s any kind of penalty for contacting aliens, and summoning them here to turn us into their breakfast.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, and how can we ever forget that Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man. google that one, if you know what we’re talking about, because we don’t know. Did people send you– or let me put it the other way. How did you filter out all the different things that could happen?

MIKE PEARL: Well, I mean, I wrote about everything that I thought I could add something to the conversation about. There’s an infinity of potential events out in the future. And I think a lot of them cause us a lot of anxiety when we think about them. We think about, for instance, you know, a nuclear war as something that absolutely ends the world.

And as terrible of a catastrophe as a nuclear war can be, when you actually break down the day that it occurs, say the day that 100 nuclear weapons are used, as disastrous as that obviously is, and as much as we don’t want it, when you get right down to it, humanity survives. We don’t think about what comes next. That’s why I kind of wanted to focus on each individual day. Rather than treating each one like an ending, treating it treating it more like a beginning.

IRA FLATOW: So the horror comes after the apocalypse.

MIKE PEARL: Right, exactly. I mean, we have that term post-apocalypse, you know? I didn’t want to go to post-apocalypse. I’m trying to focus on that one day, what you’ll feel, and see, and smell on that one day. But, yeah, I mean it’s good to think about what happens next? And in realistic terms. For me, that really makes me feel better, not worse.

IRA FLATOW: Well, how did you leave out zombies in all of this? Since it’s so– you know, it’s all over culture.

MIKE PEARL: Sure, and I knew I would be facing these questions everywhere I went, having written the book and not done a chapter on zombies. And it really is just because zombies are this– you know, they’re this, correct me if I’m wrong, traditional Caribbean, a sort of like a local urban myth. And if I were to write– I could. I probably could write a chapter on them.

I would focus on what it’s like to be bitten by a humanoid. If anybody’s been attacked by somebody, if anybody used their teeth to attack another person, I would want to talk to the victim for the book. That’s the story I would like to hear, because that’s what it would be like to be attacked by a zombie.

You know, I try to capture those kinds of feelings. I would want to talk to people who’d been in villages that were ripped apart by Ebola. What’s it like to fear your neighbors because they might have the disease? I think a zombie outbreak would be something like that. Even in these terrible sci-fi stories, there are human stories with real emotion that can kind of give us insight into the present, and can tell us more about who we are.

IRA FLATOW: Mike Pearl, author of The Day it Finally Happens. You can read an excerpt of his book on our website. It’s Sciencefriday.com/deepfakes. He’s going to join us after the break. So we’ll take more of your questions. Stay with us, 844-724-8255. We’ll be right back after this.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’ve been imagining what the world might look like under sci-fi techno environmental disasters. With my guest Mike Pearl, he’s a journalist and author of the book The Day it Finally Happens, alien contact, dinosaur parks, immortal humans, other possible phenomena. We haven’t even mentioned the title of the book because there’s so much else to talk about. So you read the book. And you see what he has to say. And we’ll fill and all the other stuff on the radio here.

A lot of things that people are asking about, I’m just going to sum up a bunch of tweets we’ve had, and people from Box Pop calling. And they’re worried about AI, artificial intelligence, taking over. The singularity is their number one concern. What do you feel about that?

MIKE PEARL: Well, I did the deep fakes chapter. And that was my main AI coverage. When it comes to the judgment day from Terminator 2 scenario, where Skynet comes online, I had done some research about that prior to this, particularly, again, with talking to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. And they cautioned me against talking in too much detail about a certain kind of singularity where the machines turn against us, where the machines decide that we– the matrix singularity, where they decide that we’re worthless, that we’re just nothing but ants so that they need to convert us into energy or something like that.

Not that it’s impossible, I could have easily done a chapter on that. But what they said I found very interesting, and sort of comforting, which was that in philosophy of mind, the concept of intelligence, the concept of sentience, they’re a bit of a black box. We don’t quite understand what those are. And if we ever do put together some kind of neural net that has human intelligence as we understand it, that’ll be a kind of– a spontaneous thing that I think once we build it, we may never understand it.

And it’s not just sort of like snapping enough microchips onto your robot brain to sort of like grow, and grow, and grow, and grow. They said, that’s not really what intelligence is. So they told me, if I were to write a chapter for this book on this, it would be more about algorithms that drive our economy, algorithms that drive our politics, the way that we trust software, at times, to make decisions for us collectively, and sort of like leave– we step aside and let an algorithm decide where our roads should go, or what stores should be there, or what our city should look like.

And before long, maybe we miss something that we didn’t even realize was going away. So that’s sort of how I view the scary singularity. I think mine is a little bit more comforting than most people’s.

IRA FLATOW: All right, speaking of comforting, let’s go to Athens, Georgia. Jackson’s on the line. Hi, Jackson.

JACKSON: Thanks for taking my call. So a scenario that’s always kept me up, is what about Yellowstone National Park, and waking up to a supervolcano exploding somewhere, or some other natural disaster that’s going to displace or potentially kill hundreds of millions of people?

IRA FLATOW: OK. You talked about the asteroid that might hit us, now about the volcano in Yellowstone.

MIKE PEARL: Sure, and this is another one that most likely will happen sometime. But the volcanologists that I spoke to told me something very comforting, which is that we will have some degree of warning, most likely. It could be decades, or centuries, of change at Yellowstone, the ground itself elevating, the different gaseous compounds leaking from the earth that the geologists will understand./ signals move toward a super volcanic event.

The scary part is that they said that as volcanism increases around the Yellowstone area, people will start to become accustomed to things like earthquakes and eruptions. And that when you look at, at times, and I want to blame victims, but people who don’t evacuate from disasters, It’s because, you know, they look at their situation. And they say, I’m a survivor.

I made it through the last one. I’ll make it through this one. But if you’re in Billings, Montana, for instance, and the Yellowstone caldera goes it actually super erupts, you’re not going to survive. There’s pretty much going to be no survivors in that area. In fact, it’s going to be a near extinction event for humanity, if not an extinction event, when that actually does occur.

IRA FLATOW: Let me– last question, another natural disaster, Anne tweets, what keeps me up at night is a Carrington level solar flare that has the potential to damage our electrical system so that it takes months or years to recover.

MIKE PEARL: Yeah, I mean, they’re pretty scary, right? Because there’s just absolutely no way to know when one is going to happen. There was one in the ’80s that knocked out the electrical grid in Quebec. What I find really interesting about solar flares– and for the most part, if you’re out sunbathing and there’s a solar flare, there even the really strong ones aren’t powerful enough to like even give you a bad sunburn.

But as we move more and more of our communications infrastructure into orbit, as we have more satellites out there, and maybe other technology orbiting us that we haven’t thought of yet, we’re making ourselves more and more vulnerable to solar flares. But the fallout is stuff where we do not yet understand how it’s going to impact us when a solar flare knocks that stuff out.

IRA FLATOW: It’s something to worry about some more. Thank you, Mike.


IRA FLATOW: It’s a great book. It’s a great book. Mike Pearl is an author of the book The Day it Finally Happens, alien contact, dinosaur parks, immortal humans, and other possible phenomena. And we have an excerpt on our website, Sciencefriday.com/deepfakes. Thanks for joining us, Mike. Have a great weekend.

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