By Liam Bohen-Meissner
The hands of the famous Doomsday Clock remain unchanged at 100 seconds to midnight, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Jan. 27. While the time of the clock stresses the risks of nuclear disaster and climate change, Bulletin scientists also expressed concern over some technological advancements.
The clock serves as a warning of how close humanity is to destroying itself through nuclear weapons, climate change and disruptive technologies, and the Bulletin warns specifically about the “infodemic” of false information. When making the decision of where to set the time each year, leading science and security experts on the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board consider changes in these human-driven threats compared with the previous year.
This year, the hands remain at the 2020 setting, the closest they have ever been to midnight since the Bulletin set the clock at only 2 minutes away in 1953 after the U.S. detonated the hydrogen bomb, the first thermonuclear weapon. Despite a global pandemic and the continued existence of other threats, the Bulletin’s board chose not to move the hands.
“COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin. “Still the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are not prepared to handle complex and dangerous challenges like those of nuclear weapons and climate change.”
The 2021 Bulletin report focuses on the aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic called an “infodemic,” the mass amounts of false information about COVID-19. It states that this false information multiplies other risks. “The widespread dysfunction in today’s information ecosystem is a threat multiplier that vastly complicates society’s ability to address major challenges,” the report states.
But within the threats evaluated for the Doomsday Clock, scientists discussed how certain technological innovations are heightening some threats. Although such innovation improves people’s lives and safety, “a lot of these new technologies have sort of secondary effects on some of the preexisting issues,” said board member and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert H. Latiff. The threat here is greater instability, he noted.
For example, a worry of Bulletin scientists is the modernization of nuclear arsenals. The 2021 report highlights the development of hypersonic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These weapons were originally developed as a way to deter nuclear force, Latiff said.
“Hypersonic weapons had their origins in a U.S. desire following the Cold War to have a way to hold enemy targets at risk without using nuclear weapons,” he explained. Yet the development of this innovation, which the U.S. Defense Department is prioritizing, has created a quicker way to deliver a nuclear payload.
Advancements in travel, energy consumption and industry made these sectors more efficient and simpler. But many times, they can also contribute to an increase in the use of fossil fuels and pollution.
Breakthroughs in computer technology and software enable us to structure our lives and work efficiently, and manage businesses and government. But unintentionally, some technology in cyberspace has the potential to cause instability, Latiff said.
Last year, Russian hackers gained access to 18,000 private and government users, acquiring sensitive information from the State, Justice and Defense departments. The hackers used a software update created by the company SolarWinds to hack these users. SolarWinds develops software for organizations and businesses to help manage their networks. The extent of data stolen remains unknown.
Kennette Benedict, former executive director and publisher of the Bulletin, also indicated that technology could have unintended consequences. “I think the technological advances have contributed many times to the risks that we face,” she stated. But she said part of the reason problems may manifest is because the international community has not developed the political means of cooperation to address the consequences of these threats.
“We really need cooperation to deal with the spread of nuclear weapons, to deal with disarmament, to try and reduce the nationalist tendencies that people want to think about using these weapons of mass destruction,” she explained. “So the problem is the technology. But how to curb the technology, how to make sure that it’s used for peaceful and beneficial purposes is the challenge.”
Daniel Holz, Bulletin board member and a University of Chicago physicist, agreed in an interview. He said the Bulletin was founded on the idea that technological threats people create need to be communicated to the public.
“It’s the people that helped make the threats who are morally responsible for alerting the world to those threats,” he said. “That was part of why it [the Bulletin] was founded, but also because the people that helped make the threats, the people that were involved in the science, are most informed. It makes sense for them to weigh in and help convey to the public what the facts are, why these technologies are dangerous.”
Holz, Benedict and Latiff back the idea that the public and leaders must be informed about the dangers of these threats so they can be properly addressed. They all agree that to tackle these perils, cooperation and effective policy must define the way to go.
Liam Bohen-Meissner is a health and politics reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @lbmeissner.