Virus Threat Nightmare

By Pradip Phanjoubam

Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is back in news for his caution that the human race should be worried about artificial intelligence as a threat to them. According to him, humans evolve too slow to be able to keep pace with machines, if the latter come to have independent existence, which from the way science and technology have been developing, is no longer a remote consideration. Even 50 or 60 years ago, the idea of computer was stuff for science fiction, today computers form the innards of practically every gadgets, including all imaginable home and office appliances, be it the refrigerator, microwave oven, mobile phones, TV sets, music players… Even three decades ago, mobile phones were a wonder, internet was a mystery, WiFi connectivity beyond easy imagination… Now they are all part of routine reality. For those born in the last one or two decades, these are all part of their intuition, unlike their parents who have had to make the extra effort to teach themselves and acclimatise to the new age technological environment. Imagine, these intelligent gadget becoming autonomous of humans. Such a scary scenario is what Hawking is earnestly warning the world to be wary of, for considering the pace of advancement of science, advanced robotic intelligence is no longer the stuff for science fiction alone. Come to think of it, even the simple pocket calculator beats humans in any kind of computing exercises. Giving the thought more urgency, another big name in the world of computers, Microsoft founder Bill Gates has joined Hawking to warn the world of the same danger. Surely, the matter cannot any longer be considered as mere idle flights of imagination.

But the thought of slow evolution of humans, and their being overtaken by other species which evolve faster has been around for some time. The 1968 science fiction film, “Planet of the Apes” is a product of such imagination. But leave aside the thought on human’s being overtaken by higher forms of life, such as other primates in terms of intelligence in the future, there are other ways this can happen. This challenge could come from the most unlikely competitors in the great race of life and the fight for supremacy and survival by species. Intelligence is a survival tool, and as far as this tool is concerned, humans are on top. But intelligence need not always be the defining tool for survival supremacy. There could be other weapons more potent which have remained dormant so far because of conditions such as climate. Major shifts in climatic conditions hence could trigger their coming into prominence. As for instance, even in the course of the last few decades, we have been witnessing the emergence of ever new strains of viruses and bacteria. To name just a few serious threats to humans by microbes never before known, here are some: HIV, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola… Over and above these, old disease causing viruses known to humans for ages are mutating to become resistant to drugs fashioned to defeat them. Tuberculosis and malaria are just two of them. These viruses continually mutate and evolve to solve their existential problems humans put up before them, but humans can only use their brains to devise strategies to be ahead of the race. Biologically however, their evolutionary survival strategies are too slow to keep pace with the changes these organisms are capable of going through. So far, humans are ahead in the race by virtue of their brain. Can they always be so? Supposing one day, there come to be microbes to which humans have no remedial answer. Could it be a possibility then that millions of years hence, if and when alien space travellers do reach earth, they find the planet supports life, but only in the form of viruses and bacteria?

(The writer is Editor of Imphal Free Press.)

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