3 Dire Warnings That Could Stop Global Catastrophe

Career global security expert Richard Clarke identifies three potential game changing events that could adversely affect the wellbeing of humanity itself.

RICHARD CLARKE: The subtitle of our book is Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Cassandra in Greek mythology was someone cursed by the gods, who could accurately see the future but would never be believed. When we say “Cassandras” throughout the book, we’re talking about people who can accurately see the future. People who are right—Cassandra was right—people who are right about the future but are being ignored.

Having derived what we think are the lessons learned from past Cassandra events, we then looked at people today who were predicting things and being ignored.

And we looked at issues first and then tried to see if there was someone warning about them. So the book is about people, 14 people: Seven who we known were Cassandras, and seven who we are examining to find out if they are.

Usually Cassandras are people who are not directly involved in the thing that they worry about. There are people who observe it. Then there are people who study it. But in the case of Jennifer Doudna at the University of California Berkeley, she’s the person who created it and she’s also our Cassandra.

The “it” in this case is CRISPR-Cas9, a method that she invented—and I’m sure someday will get a Nobel prize for—a method of doing gene editing that allows for removal of genetic defects in the strain or addition into a strain of new capabilities. Now this is going to revolutionize human life. It’s already beginning. It’s going to mean that all of the genetic defects that have caused so much pain and suffering for people for millions of years, all of that could potentially be removed.
So why does the great woman who invented this wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it? What she told us was she’s afraid that she might have become Dr. Frankenstein. That the technique that she developed could be misused in horrible ways. It could be misused, for example, to create biological weapons, to create new forms of threat to human beings, threats for which we don’t have any known antidote.

Or it could simply be used to create human beings of far superior capability. Not just taking genes and removing defects but adding new super capabilities. And so one scenario we discussed with her was what if the North Koreans or the Chinese decided that they would create super soldiers? Physically large people with great athletic ability designed to be soldiers, designed to be aggressive, designed to be able to fight for long periods of time.

Or what if they simply created people who were brilliant at computer programming and had IQs off the charts? What if in the process of that kind of gene editing we created a caste society where some people were genetically designed to do menial tasks and didn’t have the capability of doing anything else? And other people were designed to be the rulers with huge IQs and the capability of understanding things beyond the pale for lesser humans. That’s something that scared the creator of CRISPR-Cas9 and it scared us.

When we heard Jennifer's story, we asked ourselves, "does she fit the template of a Cassandra that we developed in the first half of the book looking at the first seven?" Is she an expert? Absolutely. She is the expert. She created it. Is she data-driven? Yes. She has a wealth of data on CRISPR-Cas9 and what it can do. Is she predicting something that is first-occurrence syndrome? Something that's never happened before? And the answer to that is "yes." Is it kind of outlandish? Is the stuff of Hollywood fiction? Yes it is. What about the audience—the decisions maker? One of the things we saw with the earlier Cassandras was it wasn't always clear there was a decision maker. People always pointed at each other saying "that's your job, or at least it's not my job." And in this case, making decisions about what gene editing can happen, and can't happen, and enforcing that is a matter of law, and international law, and it's not at all clear whose job that is.

One of those issues we looked at was artificial intelligence. Now frankly my co-author R.P. Eddy and I disagreed about whether or not to do artificial intelligence. I said, “I don’t think this is a problem.” After all if a computer acts up, you can unplug it. Obviously I didn’t understand the issue. And the way that my co-author, R.P. Eddy, convinced me that we should look for someone on this issue was by saying, “who are the people who are talking about this today?” Not the experts in AI but the people who are generally concerned about it.
And who are they?

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Stephen Hawking, the great physicist from Oxford. And when I heard that I said “Okay, fine. Maybe if those guys think this is a problem, maybe we should look for the expert who is predicting that this could be a future disaster.”

And we found Eliezer Yudkowsky, who not only thinks this could become a disaster, he’s dedicated his life and all of his work to dealing with the future threat of artificial intelligence. Because he doesn’t think it’s inevitable that artificial intelligence should be a problem. But he does have a scenario whereby it could be if we don’t do some of the things he has in mind. What’s the problem? The problem could be that artificial intelligence starts writing software. Complex software. Maybe even encrypted software that human beings do not understand. And can’t deal with. That future is just around the corner. Already we have software writing software.
Already at Google we have artificial intelligence writing software for further artificial intelligence.

And the Google program is getting to the point where they’re afraid they don’t fully understand how it’s doing what it’s doing. What Eliezer Yudkowsky fears most is that superintelligence will come into existence. That means artificial intelligence programs that are significantly smarter than human intelligence, and even human intelligence today augmented by computers. And what he sees as possible, looking at the rate of advance in technology, is that this will not be a linear growth in the capabilities of software. But it could be overnight. One day, artificial intelligence might be under the control of humans beings, and the next day it might have jumped into superintelligence—far more capable than anything we could possibly understand.

If you then put artificial intelligence onto networks that are running critical infrastructure—the Internet of Things, another subject we look at in the book—it’s possible in the worst case scenario that human beings will lose control of the infrastructure of society. In even worse case scenarios than that, artificial intelligence will decide it doesn’t need humans at all. And it is that fear that causes him to agree now as a planet, as a number of different countries and societies, to put limits on the development of artificial intelligence, and to do that by international treaty and to have observation to make sure artificial intelligence doesn't break out of pre-determined limits agreed by human beings and their governments. 

Now you’ve seen that plot before. You’ve seen that in a Hollywood movie. And that’s part of the problem. With so many of the possible Cassandras that we looked at today. That humans have seen these threats before, they saw them in science fiction. So whether it’s the possibility of an asteroid hitting the Earth or human beings being genetically engineered or artificial intelligence taking over, part of the reason we don’t take these Cassandras seriously is we’ve seen it in the movies, we’ve seen it in science fiction.

A corollary issue to artificial intelligence is the rise of robotics. And already in this country we’re hearing debates about the possibility that the next wave in automation rather than just shifting jobs from one function to another which has happened in the past with automation maybe the next wave of automation would be far more advanced and complex and actually throw humans out of work. It’s a debate that’s going on and we don’t know who’s right.

Some people say, "people will be thrown out of work and there’ll be less need for humans to do work and we’ll have to pay humans for doing nothing." Tax computers is one—tax robots is a proposal. And the other theory is that just as in the past when technology advances it may displace certain jobs but it will create new ones. We don’t know who’s right there, but we do know and all of our future Cassandras, or our present day Cassandras predicting things about the future, that they need to be listened to, and there needs to be examination of the theories that they’re putting forward and the data that they’re putting forward, even if they are an outlier—a minority view among experts.

Low probability events, such as an extinction-level asteroid striking the Earth's surface, deserve more attention than their unlikelihood would suggest. The reason? The magnitude of their impact is so severe that it risks the survival of the human species. Career global security expert Richard Clarke identifies three potential game changing events that could affect the wellbeing of humanity itself: the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9, which could create superhumans and thereby establish a worldwide caste system; artificial intelligence capable of writing its own software superior to the programming abilities of humans; and robotic technology that could throw humans out of work and destabilize the world economy as we know it.


​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.