Nick Bostrom, a Swedish-born philosophy professor at Oxford, thinks that we’re underestimating the risk of human extinction. The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen interviewed Bostrom about his stance.
I think the biggest existential risks relate to certain future technological capabilities that we might develop, perhaps later this century. For example, machine intelligence or advanced molecular nanotechnology could lead to the development of certain kinds of weapons systems. You could also have risks associated with certain advancements in synthetic biology.
Of course there are also existential risks that are not extinction risks. The concept of an existential risk certainly includes extinction, but it also includes risks that could permanently destroy our potential for desirable human development. One could imagine certain scenarios where there might be a permanent global totalitarian dystopia. Once again that’s related to the possibility of the development of technologies that could make it a lot easier for oppressive regimes to weed out dissidents or to perform surveillance on their populations, so that you could have a permanently stable tyranny, rather than the ones we have seen throughout history, which have eventually been overthrown.
While reading this, I got to thinking that maybe the reason we haven’t observed any evidence of sentient extraterrestrial life is that at some point in the technology development timeline just past the “pumping out signals into space” point (where humans are now), a discovery is made that results in the destruction of a species. Something like a nanotech virus that’s too fast and lethal to stop. And the same thing happens every single time it’s discovered because it’s too easy to discover and too powerful to stop.