How to Destroy Earth and Other ‘Apocalyp-tech’ Scenarios

Illustration by Mike Agliolo/Corbis

An asteroid several miles across could push most of life into extinction.

With Earth Day this Sunday, my colleague Eric Roston over at the Sustainability channel put together the mother of all how-to slideshows: “How to Destroy the Planet.”

Of course, he’s not bent on our collective destruction. As he puts it, “If you really want to save the Earth, first you must identify the best ways to destroy it.” His slideshow presents different catastrophic scenarios, real and imagined, and the likelihood of them happening.

Absent from the final terrifying list were a couple of possibilities that he called “apocalyp-tech.” So here are Roston’s impressions, in his words, on technology’s role in our final log-off:

Artificial Intelligence

It’s hard to imagine that any superintelligent machine life form would think it efficient to use humans as batteries, a la “The Matrix.” Humans (and other mammals) convert more fuel into energy than cars, but we still take a lot of inputs for the output.

Of course, there are many other ways artificial intelligence could destroy humanity, such as activating and unleashing all 22,400 or so nuclear bombs at once.

Synthetic Biology

Years ago, Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil got in the mother of all apocalyptic debates over whether some variety of gray goo could wipe out humanity. The scenario involved out-of-control nanotech replicators consuming the planet in order to build more of themselves.

Joy’s piece in Wired, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, took a dystopian view to Kurzweil’s utopian one. Whatever your view, the goo nightmare has yet to become a reality. Although sometimes when watching  television or reading about national politics, it’s hard to tell.

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