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In 1973, an MIT computer predicted when civilization will end

An MIT model predicted when and how human civilization would end. Hint: it's soon.

MIT computer model that predicted when and how human civilization would end.
Credit: ABC.
  • In 1973, a computer program was developed at MIT to model global sustainability. Instead, it predicted that by 2040 our civilization would end.
  • Many in history have made apocalyptic predictions that have so far failed to materialize.
  • But what the computer envisioned in the 1970s has by and large been coming true. Could the machine be right?

Why the program was created

The prediction, which recently re-appeared in Australian media, was made by a program dubbed World One. It was originally created by the computer pioneer Jay Forrester, who was commissioned by the Club of Rome to model how well the world could sustain its growth. The Club of Rome is an organization comprised of thinkers, former world heads of states, scientists, and UN bureaucrats with the mission to “promote understanding of the global challenges facing humanity and to propose solutions through scientific analysis, communication, and advocacy."

The predictions

What World One showed was that by 2040 there would be a global collapse if the expansion of the population and industry was to continue at the current levels.

As reported by the Australian broadcaster ABC, the model's calculations took into account trends in pollution levels, population growth, the amount of natural resources and the overall quality of life on Earth. The model's predictions for the worsening quality of life and the dwindling natural resources have so far been unnervingly on target.

In fact, 2020 is the first milestone envisioned by World One. That's when the quality of life is supposed to drop dramatically. The broadcaster presented this scenario that will lead to the demise of large numbers of people:

"At around 2020, the condition of the planet becomes highly critical. If we do nothing about it, the quality of life goes down to zero. Pollution becomes so seriously it will start to kill people, which in turn will cause the population to diminish, lower than it was in the 1900. At this stage, around 2040 to 2050, civilised life as we know it on this planet will cease to exist."

Alexander King, the then-leader of the Club of Rome, evaluated the program's results to also mean that nation-states will lose their sovereignty, forecasting a New World Order with corporations managing everything.

“Sovereignty of nations is no longer absolute," King told ABC. “There is a gradual diminishing of sovereignty, little bit by little bit. Even in the big nations, this will happen."

How did the program work?

World One, the computer program, looked at the world as one system. The report called it “an electronic guided tour of our behavior since 1900 and where that behavior will lead us." The program produced graphs that showed what would happen to the planet decades into the future. It plotted statistics and forecasts for such variables as population, quality of life, the supply of natural resources, pollution, and more. Following the trend lines, one could see where the crises might take place.

Can we stave off disaster?

As one measure to prevent catastrophe, the Club of Rome predicted some nations like the U.S. would have to cut back on their appetites for gobbling up the world's resources. It hoped that in the future world, prestige would stem from “low consumption"—one fact that has so far not materialized. Currently, nine in ten people around the world breathe air that has high levels of pollution, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). The agency estimates that 7 million deaths each year can be attributed to pollution.

Here, Parag Khanna gets into the specifics of what the world may be like in the near future, if we don't change course:

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Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

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Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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