Stephen Hawking on our “imminent danger”

imageIn his last interview, Marlon Brando (one of the most venerated people of the 20th century) of full age and wisdom, sat in his mansion on the hill, looking down on Los Angeles. The interviewer asked one final question, “Do you think mankind will make it?”. Brando looked sad, but almost relieved that his day was over. “No!” Brando answered.

Taking this cue, at the end of an astonishing career, when Professor Stephen Hawking says mankind is threatened, then the world takes notice. And its not to say, it has not been said before by others. The holy books and holy men have been saying it for many thousands of years. Maybe we have become desensitised to their words. Logic and science in the present day, are our foundation stone. Todays populace has been brought up on that diet and so it reaches deeper, I guess.

What does Hawking say?

Three specifics threats and one more general statement. Also, in an earlier talk, he classified one more specific threat.

Mankind is in danger and he would expect some catastrophic event to occur over the ages. An extinction level event has regularly happened every 100 million years or so in the world. This makes sense, as it is really a question of probability and statistical chance. The last time it occurred, the dinosaurs were wiped out. A catastrophic event is about due on Earth.

So where are the possible dangers coming from.

A) nuclear or similar world wide conflagration.
B) environmental damage.
C) genetically engineered viruses.
D) cognitive architecture artificial intelligence.*

*The D point was stated by Hawking in an earlier discussion – the development of artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race”-, while the points A to C are in the Reith Lectures which Hawking made recently for the BBC. The above four points are not a catch-all and future developments might well see more threats appear in this world of ours.

It is very ironic that all these four dangerous points are self created by humans. When science and technology advances, it seems always to be a double edged sword. Used within reason and balance, it is a great benefit to mankind. However, over use or emphasis and it tends to get out of hand, as we reach out for more than our due. This has ever been humanity’s story. We have allowed our greed, ambition and larger unawareness to create threats, which should not have been there at all. Professor Hawking remarked that technological advances, were taking humanity into one of the most dangerous time periods ever.

So how are we to revert this danger of an existential threat to our future generations? Hawking thought the best chance of survival would be to colonise space. That is reverting to our past and core human behaviour. Whenever, what we have in hand is not enough, then we venture out and grab from others. Even the most celebrated mind today, cannot escape our programmed characteristics. Unfortunately, the truth is that at the moment we are at the edge of the science of space travel and surviving out there. This outlet could be hundreds of years away perhaps. So in this time we stand in great existential danger.

Hawking describes himself an optimist, despite the perceived future dangers. Considering his tilt of mind and his great mental capacity, we are well advised to take this danger seriously.

Compassion

imageRob Lawrie is a simple man, who happened to feel a twinge in his heart. It is called compassion and it is a very human emotion. Lawrie knew this family in the asylum camps in Calais and he was attached to their little girl(Bahar). Over time the family had come to be his friends. His compassion almost landed Lawrie in prison.

How does one classify this situation. An Afghan family, whose fate had turned against them. They lived some sort of rural life in Afghanistan and I guess they must have called it normal. However, whatever the circumstances, they ended up in Calais in a camp. They were asylum seekers, with zero status, living at the Jungle camp. Not really able to go back to their previous home and stuck here in a veritable prison.

One cannot even blame the French Government or people. They, like others in Europe, are facing this refugee crisis. It is the sort of thing which requires a very big heart. The heart requires to be even bigger, if it is incessant and continuous. Attrition sets in, and peoples insecurity fires up. There is economic and emotional fall-out and it is very difficult for humans to face it. The French Government has been under severe pressure on refugees and more so after recent terrorist events in Paris.

Some of the pressure then translates into the quality of the facility. The budgets are stretched and so the Jungle camp is not exactly five star. Infact it is more or less like a slum. The cold makes it even more unbearable. Maybe it is deliberately kept that way, to discourage residents. This Afghan family like others, has been living there. In case we do not understand, this is really at the edge of existence; hunger, poverty, inadequate facilities. No one really desires this sort of existence. Especially the uncertainty and the lack of something to do. People are just there, all day long.

It is really the luck of the draw. A roll of fate and one who lives in a chateau in France could as easily have been born in Afghanistan. Or this very Afghan family, could have been born in Calais, spoken the tongue, had documents which were French, worked locally and may have been on the outside, looking into this very camp. That is the way fate dodges some and awards others. No achievement, just plain luck.

The Afghan father said at the trial that he had asked Rob Lawrie to take the girl to UK several times, but he had steadfastly refused. On his last visit, he came to see them one last time. Bahar slept in his lap. Even if a cat curls up and sleeps in ones lap, one feels attachment. Here was a small, innocent human. Lawrie must have felt a cascade of emotions. Guilt, sadness, love and plain old compassion. He succumbed and picked up the girl and took her with him to the UK. Its a dangerous place to be, when faced by emotions and doing an illegal operation. Lawrie got caught and landed up in court. But thank God for other compassionate humans. The court saw it otherwise. Lawrie’s life could have been ruined, instead he was let off. His interview post the trial, confirmed his emotional, compassionate nature. A decent human, who thought that doing equitable and right, is more important than doing just the legal thing. Unfortunately, despite Lawrie, the family is back in their camp and the young one still suffers.

The world has changed. For millennia people just traveled everywhere. Ibn Batuta traveled all over for 30 years and Marco Polo went to China for 25 years. There was no scarcity, no documents or nationalities. Within the last 50 years, as human civilisation advanced(?), our hearts have shrunk. We put up barriers and instead of thinking that the world and its resources were on lease to us for life, we now own them to the exclusion of others. We face a terrible period in the next few decades, as environmental damage and resource conflicts will create multiples of refugees, compared to the numbers now. As a reminder of compassion, I hark back to 1980, when 3 million Afghan refugees overnight landed up in Pakistan. The numbers peaked at 4 million and a majority of these have now faded into the local population. Others stayed for a quarter of a century before going back. Pakistan is a developing country with few resources and has probably paid an economic and cultural cost, but nevertheless opened its heart for its neighbours. In the case of Rob Lawrie, he showed this very compassion; I hope his actions are contagious and others follow suit.

Winner Takes All

imageIn late 1973 Red Star Belgrade came to Anfield in the European Cup (Champions League today) and ran the legs off Liverpool. Liverpool were one of the favourites, and couple of years later won the same European trophy twice back to back, besides winning the UEFA Cup twice in this period, and five League Championships in eight years and being runners-up in the remaining three. So no mugs.

Anfield must have been shocked. Absolutely, no argument about that. At the end of the match, the Kop (at the time, the most celebrated football crowd in the world, pre Heysel and Hillsborough), simply stood up and gave them a standing ovation, genuine and appreciative of the great skill of that Red Star team.

History records this particular Red Star Belgrade team was one of the great underachievers of club football. They were one of the best football teams in the world, but simply disappeared into the unknown. A later Red Star team won the European Cup in 1991, and that is what Red Star Belgrade is known for today. Like some other underachievers, namely Puskas Hungarians of 1954 and Tele Santana Brazilians of 1982, they won nothing and today, even very knowledgeable football fans do not know of them.

Who really remembers the 1970 South Africans? Except that they were one of the most magical cricket teams to exist. But they never won on the world stage, other than the 4-0 drubbing of Australia. Players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor were kings of their era.

This winner takes all mentality is a modern phenomenon. It has several aspects to it. Firstly, it expects that people win something to be acknowledged and become somebody. Secondly, the expectations and loyalty of supporters is also short and variable.

If, it’s a question of numbers and probabilities, one wonders how people will achieve acknowledgement in this world. Only 2 percent are outstanding in the Bell Curve. I am presuming title winners will come from within this 2 percent. So, what of the 98 per cent? Are they to be consigned to the scrap machine? Will these people live out an also-ran existence, because fortune did not smile on them?

The other point is of patience and loyalty. I read the Liverpool and Manchester United forums. In the old days, Shankly and Busby were given deep loyalty. When their teams were not doing well, the supporters never lost patience. Nowadays, Rogers, Moyes and Van Gaal, have had praise and then dung heaped on them. Sometimes this variability is week to week. A good performance and the manager is up in the sky; a bad performance and he is buried. The recent case of Mourinho is a stark reminder, ‘success is now measured in concrete returns – the trophies’.

There is a more obscure third matter, people my age will notice. In the past, there used to be a case for aesthetics in sports. Today it has been replaced by efficiency, because of the need to win. Guardiola, Benitez and Mourinho are all about this efficiency. Used to be that the luxury, skilful, maverick player would roam the park. They would deliver supreme beauty of skill, but were not too pushed about marking opposite players or getting back in position. Nevertheless, the joy of watching what they did with the ball was enough. Today these players have disappeared. Messi and Ronaldo, the most skilful players today, do not exercise their skills in matches as a Finney, Zico or Rivera (thats right, how many have heard these names, they were great, but never won a famous trophy). The same with a graceful batsman. They crunch the beauty out of his game and leave instead an efficient, slogging or boring run machine. One has to watch a free-wheeling Kanhai to understand what I mean. The joy of the visual has gone and the efficient deliverer has to perform on the stage.

Now just imagine this thinking spread across sports, art, literature and more. The flamboyant beauty of a Sobers innings, the risky manoeuvre of a Senna in F1, the audacious paint strokes of a Van Gogh, the long styled challenging writings of a Dickens. All these have disappeared and been replaced by efficiency, which cuts out risks and delivers results. Today, the winner takes all and so we also refine our lives accordingly. Imagine you advising your child to pursue a profession which is guaranteed good returns, shunning any particular artistic skills which may have been the real passion. Drabness starts to take over life.

%d bloggers like this: