I recently saw this question asked on Quora and was unable to post a reply due to it being a “hosted Quora session” so I decided to take a stab at it here and answer it on the blog. This question is something I am asked regularly by friends or often hear discussed at social get together’s – so here are my 2 cents on the subject.

Is Artificial Intelligence the Biggest Threat to Humanity?

In one regard, I would agree with Elon Musk that AI is definitely a long term concern – but to deem it our “biggest existential threat” I would say is misguided. Although AI could ultimately present some kind of danger to humanity at some distant date in the future, there are many more realistic and current prevalent dangers that are far more likely to induce extinction level events before we face or encounter any threat from a runaway AI.

Let me elaborate

The first and most obvious one, of course, is nuclear war and is a far more realistic danger – especially now with rogue states with terror agendas having nuclear weapons and or the ability to refine weapons grade Uranium. Not to mention the obvious concern that stupid politicians within the current super power countries allow political tensions to escalate to the point of war. Should the event occur albeit being a showstopper, it is still not in my opinion the most realistic existential threat to humanity from a probability perspective.

The biggest threat may indeed surprise you, and is something that is mostly overlooked, not often spoken about or entirely ignored by the mass media. This is the fact that there are 437 Nuclear power plants with an additional 70 under construction in the world today. Each power plant houses multiple spent nuclear fuel rod pools onsite separate from the reactor cores themselves. These pools require significant volumes of constant water cooling to pumped through the pools 24/7 x 365. This is required to remove the decay heat from the most dangerous and long-lived radionuclides byproducts produced from the Nuclear Fission process – from melting through their zirconium cladding and/or reacting to produce explosive hydrogen gas.

Scientists estimate that should coolant be lost to a fuel pool and the rods start to burn, this would produce an above ground nuclear fire or a so-called “Gamma Shine Event” a single fire of this kind is enough to potentially wipe out an entire hemisphere of the globe and make it unsuitable for life for hundreds to thousands of years.

We are talking about massive amounts of material in these pools. You can listen to the Former Prime Minister of Japan (Naoto KAN) talk about how they came within inches of having to permanently evacuate Tokyo a city of 13 million people during the Fukushima incident when one of the spent fuel pools came close to failing:

For example, The “Indian Point” power station complex located 38 miles North of New York city, contains over 1500kg of Cesium 137 alone. This is 150X more Cesium 137 than was released by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.

Now statistically, this is why this is the most likely existential threat to humanity from a probability perspective.

This is the reason why

There are hundreds of these potential problem sources all over the planet. Each one is susceptible to multiple threats, namely:

  • Extreme weather conditions
  • Tsunamis
  • Earthquakes
  • War
  • Sabotage
  • Terrorism
  • Accidents (We have already had 5 reactor core meltdowns in the last 30 years alone).

In addition, there are external planetary events that have and will continue to naturally occur such as:

  • Large Solar Flares
  • Meteor impacts.

With the sheer number of facilities and the myriad multiple risks that could trigger an event, the likelihood of this occurring is far greater than the likelihood a naughty AI will take over and destroy humanity. In my opinion, worrying about Artificial Intelligence over and above these other issues is like: Worrying about what you will be eating for dinner while you are drowning in the ocean.

Unfortunately, a single such huge radiation event will have a domino effect which will either cause loss of power to other nuclear facilities and /or prevent people from getting close enough to service them, due to fallout and radiation. This would in turn cause other facilities to fail. Remember it takes 10-20 years to decommission a single nuclear power station.

For anyone interested, or who is not too overwhelmed or preoccupied with reading about the “brand of socks Justin Timberlake wears” or the “Which Hollywood celebrities marriage is in trouble”, I have a previously written blog post for you to read on how nuclear power generation works. Which includes some studies and information on fuel pools, Fukushima and the associated risks thereof.

BTW, if any of you can figure out a way to safely store these spent fuel rods for tens of thousands of years, you would have a trillion $ business on your hands, as to this day nobody has figured out how or where to safely store them”. I guess no one guessed that the earth has tectonic plates that move and that water flows deep underground between rock fractures(sarcasm). If you do figure it out, that would be one hell of a family business to bequeath to your descendants, you could rest assured that your next 100 generations of off-spring would have a job and an income looking after the stuff. Take that along as a business plan to your next Venture Capital funding meeting”

In the end, ironically this lucrative problem may ultimately be left up to Elon Musk and SpaceX to solve at a time when Space flights are cheap and consistently reliable enough to use regularly – as the only realistic way to get rid of this stuff is to Jettison it off into space.

There is a brilliant German documentary with English subtitles about the subject:

Journey to the Safest Place on Earth

Here is the trailer, I highly recommend watching it on Netflix