IMAGINE a barrel of several hundred ping-pong balls, mostly colored white, some gray, and a few black. The balls are human inventions, with the white ones being good inventions, the grey denoting inventions with mixed effects, and the black ones being disasters that destroy civilization. Now imagine you are blind-folded and pulling balls out of the barrel, one at a time.
Your chances of pulling out white balls is good, but with every ball, you realize that the chance of you pulling out a black ball increases. In fact, it is just a matter of time before you pull out a ball that destroys us all. Now imagine you are not the only one pulling out balls, but many people are, and the rate they are pulling increases every minute. This describes Vulnerable World Theory.
Invention and progress are two positive ideas. Human innovation has transformed our lives, lengthened our life expectancy, spared us from horrible diseases, and generally made us safer and happier. But that has not always been the case. Sometimes an invention carries more negative effects than positive ones, and sooner or later we may develop something that risks doing away with us all. Take these few examples.
Easy nuclear weapons. In the 1940s, as scientists were working on the atomic bomb, they suddenly felt very foolish and very vulnerable. One of the men, Edward Teller, considered the possibility that, since the nuclear explosion would create temperatures that had never been experienced on Earth, and only exist inside the Sun, it was theoretically possible that they would start a reaction that would become self-sustaining. In other words, the nuclear explosion would never stop and the planet would burn as a star, ending all life on it in an instant. They thought about it but when the first atomic test occurred in New Mexico in 1945, they had not completely ruled out the possibility, yet they went ahead with the test anyway. Until today, nuclear weapons are very complicated and expensive, which prevents the likes of Al Qaeda from acquiring one. For now. But what if someone develops a technology that enables us to make an atomic bomb from common household items?
Artificial Intelligence. At the rate that computer science is progressing, many in the field of AI predict that it is only a matter of time before a computer becomes self-aware. Once that happens, it will begin to learn, not at the rate that programmers can input data, but at the rate its own processors will allow, and the more data it collects, the faster it can grow. Many science fiction movies are based on this scenario, where computers and robots outgrow us, and even conclude we are pests to be exterminated. According to people in the know, of all the doomsday scenarios and black ball events, this is the most likely.
Military technology. In the 1950s, the United States Army developed tactical nuclear weapons that destroyed everyone on the battlefield, including the person who used it. In the Second World War, Japan employed suicide pilots to crash into enemy ships. A few weeks ago, this column discussed nuclear mines that would destroy a home country rather than let it fall to the enemy. For centuries, armies have tinkered with germ warfare, poison gas, biological warfare and the like. Until now, we have been able to control their use. Some argue that the coronavirus is one such weaponized pathogen that found a way out of the lab. How many of those balls can be pulled out of the barrel before a truly black one emerges?
Bioengineering. In the realm of genetics, scientists are rewriting DNA codes and manipulating gene sequences in order to weed out genetic disorders and diseases. That sounds laudable, but what happens when a genetic mutation does not produce the desired effects? What happens when the side effects are worse than the primary benefit? In the movie I am Legend, someone invents a cure for cancer that turns everyone into horrible mutants. For now, it is science fiction, but how many bio-medical balls can we pull out before we grab a black ball?
Supergerms. With the rapid and easy spread of antibiotics, the medical profession is quickly getting the upper hand on germs. Many argue that antibiotics will eventually destroy the weak germs, leaving the strongest and most aggressive behind. Worse still, by conditioning our bodies to fight infections with drugs, our natural immune systems are softening. We will reach a point where we lose herd immunity, and will not be able to fight germs on our own. Then what happens when we cannot gain access to antibiotics?
The only method guaranteed not to produce a black ball event is to stop sticking our hands in the barrel, stop innovating, stop inventing. But that is impossible. The human race has always pushed for the horizon and always will. In that case, a black ball is inevitable.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.