Election Hacks, Artificial Intelligence, and Fake News Move Doomsday Clock Closer to Midnight

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Every year since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted the minute hand on the so-called Doomsday Clock to depict how close the world is to midnight—a metaphor for the increasing or decreasing threats to humanity.

When the clock was first established 70 years ago, the only known global threat to humanity was nuclear weapons. This year, however, a new mix of emerging technological threats has contributed to the decision to move the clock 30 seconds closer to midnight.

It is now 2½ minutes to midnight.

In addition to climate change and rising geopolitical tensions, rapid changes on the technological front– from artificial intelligence to election hacking–and fake news that have eroded trust in democracy have contributed to a greater sense of urgency among scientists who contributed to the analysis released today.

“Future technological innovation in biology, artificial intelligence, and the cyber realm may pose similar global challenges,” wrote Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “The knotty problems that innovations in these fields may present are not yet fully realized, but the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board tends to them with a watchful eye.”

According to Bronson, this year’s deliberations had a greater sense of urgency given the inability of world leaders to take effective, timely action to reduce turbulence around the world. Instead, technological innovations like Twitter have actually enabled political leaders to make matters worse by making rash public statements that increase the chance of miscalculation, according to Bronson.

“In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways,” Bronson said.

“As if to prove that words matter and fake news is dangerous, Pakistan’s foreign minister issued a blustery statement, a tweet actually, flexing Pakistan’s nuclear muscle—in response to a fabricated ‘news’ story about Israel. Today’s complex global environment is in need of deliberate and considered policy responses. It is ever more important that senior leaders across the globe calm rather than stoke tensions that could lead to war, either by accident or miscalculation.”

This year, wavering public confidence in democratic institutions stemming from the Russian hacking of U.S. political parties, potentially affecting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, influenced the decision by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe.

“If not controlled, these types of electoral attacks could be launched against democracies around the world, undermining belief in representative government and thereby endangering humanity as a whole,” the report states.

Beyond cybersecurity threats, artificial intelligence and automated systems pose emerging threats to humanity if not managed and regulated properly, the report warns.

“Without good governance, including appropriate regulation, these threats could emerge in coming decades as existential—that is, dangerous to the whole of humanity or to modern civilization as we know it. Lethal autonomous weapons systems that make ‘kill’ decisions without human input or supervision, for example, would be particularly worrisome,” the report states.

The Science and Security Board is significantly concerned about technology’s ability to outpace humanity’s capability to control it. That, combined with a global trend of governments ignoring or discounting scientific advice on technology developments, creates a particularly troubling outlook.

In its two most recent annual statements on the Doomsday Clock, the Science and Security Board has stated: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”

“In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent,” the board’s report stated. “It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

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