Big things are happening at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The state-of-the-art intergovernmental research organization is home to the single biggest particle physics laboratory on the planet. CERN’s unparalleled infrastructure and funding from 23 member countries give the organization the unprecedented opportunity to scientifically study some of the biggest, most hard-to-answer questions about the universe, even down to the logistics of the all-encompassing mystery that the Big Bang.
At any given time, CERN has its hands in a number of different scientific endeavors, each loftier and more high-minded than the last. At the moment the Large Hidron Collider--the world’s largest--is almost halfway through a two-year hiatus, but that doesn’t mean that the researchers at CERN have slowed down one bit.
One of the projects currently in the works concerns the future of Artificial Intelligence and its role in the advancement of science. CERN has ambitious plans to upgrade its famous accelerator over the next 20 years in order to push our research capabilities and understanding of physics to historically unprecedented levels, but in order to do so the research organization will need to surpass some enormous computational hurdles.
This is where AI comes into the picture.
“Such technologies could, for example, play a role in filtering through hundreds of millions of particle collision events each second to select interesting ones for further study,” says CERN’s own news outlet.
“Or they could be used to help spot patterns in monitoring data from industrial control systems and prevent faults before they even arise. Already today, machine-learning approaches are being applied to these areas.”
Playing around with AI is nothing to be taken lightly, however, and CERN is well aware of the potential pitfalls. This is precisely why School of Computer Science at University College Dublin in Ireland assistant professor Vivek Nallur was invited to CERN to give a talk about “consequentialist ethics, virtue ethics and deontological ethics”.
But AI should be the least of CERN-sceptics’ worries. In fact, AI is just the very tip of the ethical iceberg. AI is not the only project that CERN has devoted its attentions to in the interim while the particle accelerator is offline. And the other big project has potential implications so dangerous it could literally mean the end of the world.
As has already been mentioned, CERN is currently working on a lofty plan to revamp its “flagship accelerator complex” over the course of the next two decades. But a more powerful particle accelerator could be the very last thing the world needs, according to British cosmologist Martin Rees. Rees, a well-respected expert in his field, issued a grave warning to the scientific community about particle accelerator experiments gone awry in his book “On The Future: Prospects for Humanity” published late last year. These experiments meant to push the boundaries of nature and physics, he writes, “might do something far worse — destroy the Earth or even the entire universe.”
As alarmist as it sounds, this is no crackpot notion. Rees writes that,
"Maybe a black hole could form, and then suck in everything around it [...] The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However, under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about one hundred metres across."
If the idea of a black hole being created by sheer accident here on earth, almost instantaneously compacting the entire earth into an ultra-dense object the length of a football field isn’t scary enough, this isn’t even the worst-case scenario. The third, and by far the most disturbing way in which a particle accelerator could potentially undo the world as we know it is by taking the entire universe down with it by means of a "catastrophe that engulfs space itself.”
The book goes on to elaborate on this impossible-to-fathom idea. “"Empty space - what physicists call the vacuum - is more than just nothingness. It is the arena for everything that happens. It has, latent in it, all the forces and particles that govern the physical world. The present vacuum could be fragile and unstable.
"Some have speculated that the concentrated energy created when particles crash together could trigger a 'phase transition' that would rip the fabric of space. This would be a cosmic calamity not just a terrestrial one."
CERN, of course, has dismissed the ideas put forward by Rees and maintain that their experiments and their groundbreaking Large Hadron Collider pose no such threat to the world or the universe or even its hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. In a statement on its website CERN assures readers that “the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) can achieve an energy that no other particle accelerators have reached before, but Nature routinely produces higher energies in cosmic-ray collisions,” and that a new safety analysis has been conducted, with all findings backing up the 2003 report in that “ LHC collisions present no danger and that there are no reasons for concern.”
In Rees own words, however, even though the various potential doomsdays via particle accelerator are unlikely, "given the stakes, they should not be ignored.” NBC’s tech and innovation news branch MACH points out that Rees’ call for concern has its place in a long and historized legacy of “experts cautioning that modern technology could lead us to disaster,” from atomic bomb testing igniting the atmosphere to astronauts bringing incurable space diseases back from the moon. Just because these worries haven’t come true, however, doesn’t mean that such fears should be dismissed--especially coming from an industry veteran like Rees.
Every technological advancement in human history has been made possible by the boundless curiosity and hubris of man. Scientific inquiry and an outright refusal to explain away or simply accept the infinitely complex world and universe we live in is quite possibly the greatest gift of our species. But as we continue to push the bounds of physics, nature, and science, we should always endeavor to expect the unexpected and consider every possible outcome so we can best mitigate the consequences.