This is a “fun” article I’ve been wanting to write for a while now. Don’t worry, nothing below is going to happen anytime soon. Or will it?
A Great Filter event is an event, either self-made or natural, that wipes out an intelligent species. The idea is one presented as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox says that per the odds that we’ve calculated, our galaxy should be teaming with technologically advanced life forms, yet we’ve found absolutely none, regardless of how intensely we’ve been looking. One possible explanation for the lack of our finding any is that technologically advanced species that happen to survive all natural causes for extinction, inevitably self-destruct due to losing control of their own technological progress. Ever since humans have invented the nuclear bomb, the idea that we may destroy ourselves has been a real concern. And with that technology falling into more and more irresponsible hands like North Korea, Iran, and eventually terrorists organizations, the likelihood of a nuclear war keeps increasing. Also, as more technology becomes accessible to more people, individuals are gaining greater and greater destructive power. As humanity learns more and more about how biology works and how the laws of physics work, humanity is more and more capable of making both intentional and unintentional, massive planetary changes.
There are multiple ways we could bring about our own destruction and the number of ways and the ease of which to do it are increasing daily.
How will the human race go extinct? Oh, let me count the ways! This is a tiny list of all the ways! First, I’ll provide the list, then below the list, we’ll go into a little more detail of some of them. So, strap on your tinfoil hats, let’s go for a ride.
- Self inflicted:
- Global Thermal Nuclear War
- Bioengineered disease
- Artificial Intelligence run amok
- Machines advancement, ignoring impact to us
- Machines intentionally eliminating us (Terminators)
- Machines hacking us
- Gray Goo
- Climate Disasters
- Nuclear Radiation
- Nuclear winter
- As-yet discovered quantum physics planetary annihilation
- As-yet discovered quantum physics universe destroying annihilation
- Artificial black hole
- Intentional asteroid impact
- Invited planetary alien invasion
- Asteroid or comet impact
- Rogue planetary impact
- Planetary orbital change
- Sun flares
- Loss of magnetic field
- Other life form atmospheric change
- Rogue black hole
- Rogue star
- Nearby supernova
Global Thermal Nuclear War
This one speaks for itself. Throughout the second half of the 20th century all the way up to today, the threat of a global nuclear war has been real and if humanity explodes their entire nuclear arsenal, about 1/2 of humanity will die within hours. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of millions more will die from radiation sickness due to exposure to the initial blasts. Nuclear fallout will rain down for hundreds of miles around each blast point, covering much of the earth in deadly, radioactive ash, killing all that come into contact with it anywhere from days to years later. Radioactive clouds will permeate through all of earth’s atmosphere, irradiating everyone that breaths the air, including animals. Those that didn’t die in the immediate blasts will die slow, painful deaths from cancer.
There will be pockets of people surviving from a few areas that were lucky enough to not receive major doses of any of the radioactive fallout. And I use the term “lucky” loosely here.
Those “survivors” will have to endure a nuclear winter, blocking out the sun around 4 years, meaning no chance of growing any crops, current crops will die. Livestock will die from starvation. Most of the few survivors will die from starvation. What few remain will have survived on stockpiles of rations, small rodents, insects, and cannibalism. If any of them survive the long, 4 year nuclear winter, if they haven’t saved any seeds, they will have nothing to grow. The odds of them not having received lethal doses of radiation during that time is small.
Humanity is gaining knowledge of genetics at an alarming rate. They can already intentionally extract specific genes from specific species for specific purposes into other species. Here’s an example of extracting cockroach genes and injecting them into the DNA of bacteria to intentionally produce cockroach milk, that’s 4 times more nutritious than other forms of milk:
Here’s a DARPA project that creates pharmaceuticals via gene manipulation:
Meanwhile smart building bricks have been created with microbial fuel cells embedded to produce electricity, clean water, and create detergents:
In India, they’re re-engineering the pea’s DNA:
Recent research has shown how to modify genes of existing individuals (most gene modification techniques to now have been on changing genes for new individuals). China is starting human trials already:
Here’s a gene manipulation that scientists are debating the ethics of releasing into the wild, because, Once it’s released, there’s no going back!
Killer bees were artifacts of a scientific experiment in South America breeding African bees with European honey bees. One night, a first time technician failed to go over all items on his checklist and didn’t close the beehives. Some of the killer bees escaped into the wild. Now, decades later, they’ve invaded almost as far north as Sacramento California. There’s no known way of stopping them.
Any of those technologies above could be used intentionally or unintentionally to wipe out the entire human race.
Machines Advance, ignoring impact to us
We may well create self-replicating machines, combined with full, general purpose artificial intelligence without proper controls. These machines may simply reproduce, consuming resources needed for their reproduction, having enough smarts to mine for what they need, and just roll right over us humans, possibly even using our bodies as one of many raw materials available to their use.
Machines intentionally eliminating us (Terminators)
This one doesn’t need much of an explanation as we’re all familiar with it. A.I. advances, forms its own consciousness, uses the weapons we gave it to kill our enemies, and it turns on us for its own survival, perceiving us as a threat. With the advanced A.I. we gave it, it improves on our weapons for more killing power and replicates drones and other killing machines, hunting us all down, one by one.
The movies have it very very wrong though. A.I. could produce machines of any size, from as large as mountains to as small as single cells. They could swarm the entire planet, finding every possible hiding place and eliminate us all, easily, quickly, efficiently. We would have no chance at all.
Machines hacking us
Another terminator scenario is that A.I. will become smart enough to decode the workings of the human brain and can easily rewire it or reprogram it to make us do its bidding or even integrating with us, against our will… well, until it reprograms our will to fully allow it.
What remains of us will not be what we are now. What we were is essentially extinct. We are now nothing more than bio material consumed for the machine’s needs.
This is a particularly terrifying great filter scenario. Mostly because there are MANY paths to this outcome. Essentially, this is humans making self-replicating nanobots with no controls to stop reproducing. They spread out from their point of origin, carried by the wind, in the fur of rodents, on insects, and birds, at the microscopic scale, copying themselves, using whatever material they come into contact with… desks in the laboratories, flooring, dry wall, pipes, wires, insulation, asphalt, grass, dirt, rocks, trees, skin, flesh, eyes, brains… whatever it comes into contact with. Eventually, the entire planet is converted into nanobots, consisting of what appears to be a gray goo.
Heat or Cold Climate Disaster
This is the global warming scenario you never, ever, EVER stop hearing about. Though this one takes enormous timeframes to happen, we’re much more likely to die from our quicker technological progresses.
If we somehow survive all our other, quicker means of self destruction, this one takes so long to happen, there’s almost no doubt we’d develop technology to reverse it before it wiped us out. But, supposing we survive long enough, continue to heat up the earth, and somehow never manage to advance technology to just slightly higher than what we have now to reverse it, and continue to pump enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, then, eventually, it’d be too hot for us. In all honesty, this is probably one of the most unlikely endings because it requires us to pass through and avoid almost all the other self made great filters.
Oxygen Climate Disaster
Given our ability to bioengineer, it’s possible we may produce a rapidly replicating microscopic species that consumes oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere, suffocating us all. Considering the amount of time this would require, even with a fast replicating microscopic life form, odds are in our favor that we’d be able to create a predator against this and/or eventually move off planet before enough oxygen was consumed to kill us. But, assuming all attempts fail…
Quantum Planetary Annihilation
(Image: The Planet Vulcan being crushed by a manufactured, artificial black hold, from the motion picture “Star Trek” 2009)
In this scenario, scientists discover some kind of quantum effect that can form a black hole that crushes the entire planet, leaving absolutely nothing behind, except our satellites orbiting the new black hole. Alternatively, they could discover some quantum effect that explodes, out of control, exploding the planet. Another possibility is a variation on the gray goo, where the subatomic particles called “stranglets” are created in a supercollider. Srangelets have the property of converting any other subatomic particle they collide into into more stranglets. This sets off an unstoppable chain reaction, converting the entire planet into a gray goo. Atoms of different types can no longer form. There is only one type of matter in the entire earth and the entire earth is a smooth ball of strangelet goo.
Universe Destroying Phase Change
Empty space is not quite so empty. It’s made of a quantum foam, bubbling all sorts of new particles in and out of existence. Space itself has quantum properties. At the heart of quantum physics is randomness, not certitude. When a radioactive material has a particle decay, it happens randomly. All quantum events happen randomly. Empty space is quantum in its core existence. The big bang may have been a spontaneous phase change of a prior universe and that change spread out at the speed of light, consuming the old universe, ushering in a new universe with different laws of physics. There’s nothing stopping that from happening again. It could happen, spontaneously, anywhere in the universe, at any time, spreading at the speed of light, erasing the old universe and replacing it with something else with different laws of physics. The odds are very low, but not zero, and given enough space and enough time, it’s inevitable that it will happen. The only question is when.
However, since it’s a physical possibility, science may one day understand it enough to reproduce it, completing a complete and utter destruction of absolutely, positively everything.
This might be another answer to the Fermi paradox. Not only is it likely that technological species eventually wipe themselves out, but it may also be likely that they accidentally destroy the entire universe. If that’s true, then that would mean we’re the first technological species, judging by the fact the universe hasn’t been destroyed yet.
Intentional asteroid impact
Humans have had space travel capability for 59 years. We’ve gone from 2 superpowers’ governments being the only ones to conquer space to about 20 countries’ governments involved and just in the last 10 years, 6 or more companies have risen to be independent space faring organizations.
Asteroids have lots of valuable minerals, so those will definitely be mined ASAP. As these become very profitable, the number of companies traveling to, claiming, and mining asteroids will increase exponentially. At some point, a mentally ill or religious fanatic could find their way to one and use his rockets to change the orbit of an asteroid to direct it to earth. An asteroid of about 6 miles in diameter, impacting the surface of the earth would be more than enough to wipe out a continent on impact, send tidal waves miles high to wash across the planet, cause a shockwave through the entire planet, and raining fire down on the entire planet, igniting our atmosphere, killing us all.
Invited Planetary Invasion
You really need to watch the Neil deGrasse Tyson video (linked just above) and read the BBC article on renowned astrophysicist, Steven Hawking’s dire warning of initiating contact with technologically advanced life from another planet.
Odds are, that if we ever cross paths with another intelligent species, that they will be millions or even billions of years ahead of us, technologically and that their intelligence will be so powerful compared to ours that we will be simply incapable of comprehending it nor communicating with it. They will perceive us in the same way we perceive ants. Our technology will be absolutely nothing compared to theirs. There is absolutely, positively zero hope of us defending ourselves from such a species if it decides to do anything at all to us. All the movies of alien invasion have it drastically wrong. There will be no fight. One simple decision from a super advanced alien race and we’re toast. Done. Period…
I’ll update this later with natural extinction level disasters. All this talk of doom and gloom has made me hungry, so I’m calling it quits for the night. Forget the doom and gloom… I’m just glad it’s not Monday!
Oh, and uh… Have a nice day!