We may have the credit crunch, crime and terrorism, but it isn't the end of the world

CALM down, dear. We can all breathe a sigh of relief – despite the credit crunch and the threat of global warming, the world's top scientists have offered assurances that it's not yet the end of the world.

The first ever meeting to discuss "mega-catastrophes", events that could wipe out mankind, has concluded that despite the potential threat of nuclear wars, bioterrorism or asteroids slamming into the Earth, we've never been safer.

In Hollywood movies such as Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow, scientists are usually gathered in the White House or in an underground bunker to map man's final hour.

By contrast, the scientists gathered at Oxford University yesterday for the first international conference on mega-catastrophes, organised by the Future of Humanity Institute, concluded that, aside from the ticking bomb of global warming, all the other potential causes of human extinction were under control.

Dr Ali Nouri, of the Science and Global Security programme at Princeton University in the US, said the biotech industry was making it harder for anyone to create a killer bug without triggering alarms.

Dr Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation dedicated to reducing nuclear proliferation, said the threat of atomic war was lower than it had been for 15 years, thanks to significant reductions in US and Russian arsenals, bans on testing, the shutdown of weapons material production and consensus between policy-makers.

The threat of nuclear terrorism has diminished, with improved security at nuclear facilities, the removal of fissile material from vulnerable sites in the former Eastern Bloc countries and a tighter grip on smuggling.

This has made it "hard to devise plausible scenarios for terrorists wiping out humanity with stolen nuclear materials", said Dr William Potter, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. There is still scope for such acts to cause huge loss of life, but the challenge of preventing nuclear terrorism is "manageable", he said.

As for those pesky asteroids, well, according to Nasa's expert on asteroid threat, all potential trouble-makers have been mapped. Prof David Morrison said: "There is no asteroid out there remotely like the one that ended the Cretaceous period. We are not going to go the way of the dinosaurs."

There was, however, another cloud on the horizon. The virologist Prof John Oxford, from St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, explained the threat from the H5N1 influenza virus remained real. But he added governments were well prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Too soon to say if the end is nigh

PRINCE Charles may fear that nanotechnology could turn the world into a "grey goo" but scientists at the conference said it was too early to say whether anything dangerous enough to cause a mega-catastrophe could emerge from microscopic computer circuits.

Dr Eliezer Yudkowsky, of the Singularity Institute for AI research in California, said: "Intelligence is the most powerful force scientists have ever tried to tamper with. It could help or it could hurt."

Yet on the final day of the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference the delegates discussed the unintended consequences of new technologies such as superintelligent machines and the danger that if poorly planned they could cause the demise of mankind.

Dr Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute, who hosted the conference said: "Any entity which is radically smarter than human beings would also be very powerful. If we get something wrong, you could imagine the consequences would involve the extinction of the human species."

It is believed that in the near future man and machine will begin to fuse. Biotechnology, molecular nanotechnology, artificial intelligence will be used to improve our intellectual capacity, improve our capabilities and even enhance our emotional well-being. While Dr Bostrom declined to predict when such a change will take place he said: "Maybe it will be eight years or 200 years. It is very hard to predict."

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