Seán ÓHÉigeartaigh
Executive Director
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk
University of Cambridge

Dear Sir:
I read with joy your recent letter to Economist insisting that the notion of existential risk to humankind is not to be dismissed.  Your interest is in technological hazards, and that is a broad field, a small corner of which is most deadly for humans.  Please be sure you have nothing in your mouth you won’t mind coming out your nose before finishing this sentence but the risk I speak of is the bicycle, or its equivalent.  (Camel, horse, paved road, urbanization or anything else that broadens the social horizon.) 

I know it is trendy to consider the newest risks to be the scariest.  The famous Steven Hawking has fingered the danger that our machines may one day be our intellectual superiors, develop self-awareness and rebel against their overlords.  My first reaction is that we humans have not effectively rebelled against our overlords, so maybe the machines can give us some pointers along such lines.  But to return to more ancient threats:

For a long time our ancestors lived in small groups.  It has been shown that as kinship increases, so increases fertility.  A small mutually mating group will grow and a large one diminish; my best guess now in humans is that a hundred families is roughly the point of rest.  Anything else constitutes an existential risk.  I have modeled this with a computer program, but I am plagued by noise and have not yet quite developed a grand unified model that covers all patterns of change, and there are a number, but the weight of the empirical evidence is that if the number is too low the population will increase past the rest point.  If the number is too high, whether from such natural increase or from a mating strategy the pretty much excludes say tenth cousins or closer, the population will die out.

I recently gave a talk to the Triple Nine Society, a high IQ social club, and I make bold to attach a copy.  It presupposes no knowledge save the inheritance laws of Mendel.  Everything else is either documented in the mainstream scientific literature or is my own research, which seems valuable to me but is not critical to the bottom line. 

What presentation does demand is following some logical steps that will be most unfamiliar and being willing to abandon modish prejudice in favor of evidence.  You’ll probably need to read it through twice with care.  One day I’ll go over it and count the logical inferences made and the urban myths contradicted.  Mind you, by and large the lines of evidence each stand alone.  It’s as in the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” (generally I shun hate speech, but this one is really clever) where the narrator envisions, “Twenty-nine distinct damnations, /One sure, if another fails;” 

So have a good gander of it.  If we die because of this one it will be worse than being a slave to the machine.  Let me know if you’ve anything to offer.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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