Over 99 per cent of all species that ever existed went extinct. The worry is that humanity faces the same fate. The question then becomes: till when will Homo sapiens live?

One thing we can do to answer that question is to look at our closest relatives and see what happened to them. The average lifespan of all Homo species is about 300,000 years. The one that lived the longest was Homo erectus with circa 1.6 million years. Considering that Homo sapiens evolved about 200,000 years ago, that would leave us between 100,000 and 1.4 million years.

There is a big difference between Homo sapiens and other Homo species. Modern humans have a power unprecedented in history: since the invention of the atomic bomb, we have the power to make ourselves extinct.

Atomic bombs are the most prominent threat to humanity, but they are not the only one. Advances in biotechnology, for example, make it ever easier to replicate pathogens or even engineer new ones.

Other future technologies, such as general artificial intelligences (not yet invented), could have the potential to disempower humanity

What is currently only possible for big, well-funded labs could become feasible for relatively small groups of people with bad intentions. Other future technologies, such as general artificial intelligences (not yet invented), could have the potential to disempower humanity.

Does that mean, we should stop innovation in order to prevent more deadly threats from being developed? We should not. If we did that, it would mean that we would be waiting for a natural catastrophe to snuff us out. Other Homo species have already gone extinct for these reasons. Advanced technology, on the other hand, gives us the power to protect ourselves from these catastrophes. What we should do is invest a big amount of our resources to safeguard humanity’s future.

An emerging international movement called Effective Altruism already advocates this strategy. The group consists of people from all backgrounds, connected by their dedication to make the world a better place and ensure it will be enjoyed by humans for a long, long time.

Sound Bites

•        In his upcoming book What We Owe the Future, Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill investigates how we can ensure that generations far in the future have a good life to live, what values determine whether a life is good, and why we have the moral responsibility to direct plenty of resources towards safeguarding humanity’s existence.

•        The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is signed by 122 countries. Among those, there is only one NATO country, the Netherlands, and no country that possesses nuclear weapons. Trillions of tax dollars and rubles are still spent to maintain thousands of nuclear bombs.


•        According to experts, there is no need to have enough nuclear bombs on earth to induce a nuclear winter. Deterrence strategies would work with a two-digit number of submarine-based bombs. However, the US and Russia have about 7,000 nuclear warheads each.

•        The biggest resource you have to improve the world are the 80,000 hours the average person spends at work, which makes the choice of your job a key moral decision.

•        The explosion of a nuclear bomb is hotter than the sun.

•        When the first nuclear bomb was tested, the scientists involved estimated a non-zero probability that the bomb could ignite the entire atmosphere. The bomb was tested anyway.

•        The most cost-effective way to save a human life today is to distribute bed nets against malaria with $4,500 per life saved.

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