The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has called on the United States, China and Russia to wind back increasing military and nuclear armament investment in its annual update to the ‘Doomsday Clock’ – the symbolic marker of a human apocalypse.
The concept was first devised by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the scientists who developed the first atomic weapons in 1945.
Since then, the clock’s hands have never ticked closer than 90 seconds to midnight, which it reached in January 2023. It hasn’t changed this year.
While the clock remains stuck at 90 seconds to midnight, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says this merely shows the current risks to humanity remain unabated, writing in a statement that “We once again set the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight because humanity continues to face an unprecedented level of danger”.
“Our decision should not be taken as a sign that the international security situation has eased. Instead, leaders and citizens around the world should take this statement as a stark warning and respond urgently, as if today were the most dangerous moment in modern history.”
Among the threats listed by the Bulletin were:
- The ongoing conflict between nuclear-armed Russia, and Ukraine.
- Failure by the US Government to ratify, and Russian withdrawal from, the comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
- Increases in nuclear spending programs by China, Russia and the US.
- The Gaza conflict and the threat of its expansion into a bigger regional conflict.
- Climate change: marked by the hottest year on record in 2023.
- The use of AI tools in the development of biological tools, which could be misused.
- Potential misuse of AI tools, and potential lack of regulation.
The sudden rise of AI tools in society was one of the prompts for pushing the clock towards 90 seconds to midnight in 2023. But it’s more conventional risks that concern the Bulletin as well as non-affiliated observers.
“Though artificial intelligence may dominate the discourse as a potential existential threat, and perhaps rightly so, we should not be distracted from the many other issues impacting humanity on a global scale,” says Paul Salmon, co-director of the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
“Of these, there are many, including climate action failure, extreme weather, the cost-of-living crisis, infectious diseases, geopolitical conflict, and human environmental damage, to name only a few.”
The Doomsday Clock was furthest from midnight in 1991, when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the hands at 17 minutes. That the clock has swung from its most optimistic to pessimistic states in the lifetime of a 33-year-old alive today.