OpEd

Oppenheimer's Shadow

Although the film "Oppenheimer" means many things to many, one of the main themes of the film is the permanent paradox between the creative potential and the destructive danger that man represents to himself. And in this sense Oppenheimer's shadow still lives among us

If anyone has reason to be happy about the year behind us, it's Christopher Nolan. The director of the film "Oppenheimer" creates his most successful cinematic work on the life of the "father of the atomic bomb", Robert Oppenheimer, and his role lies within the "Manhattan" project. The film broke the revenue record for a biographical film, won 5 awards at the "Golden Globes" and is nominated in 13 categories for "Oscar". As things stand, "Oppenheimer" will likely bring Nolan what was denied him for a long time - the first "Oscar" for directing.

And although the film "Oppenheimer" means many things to many, one of the main themes of the film is the permanent paradox between the creative potential and the destructive danger that man represents to himself. In no case is this contradiction displayed more beautifully than in the case of the creation of the atomic bomb. In this sense, the film remains faithful to historical accuracy and brings to life the doubts, concerns and debates of the scientists of the "Manhattan" project about the indignity of using science for destructive purposes. This is also the reason why, after the "Manhattan" project, Robert Oppenheimer dedicated an important part of his life to educating and advocating the public and decision-makers for the benign use of science. And while the film "Oppenheimer" has already popularized Robert's role as the creator of the atomic bomb, his role as the founder of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Doomsday Clock is much less well known in the public discourse.

After leaving the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer, Einstein and other scientists from the Manhattan Project have joined together to create an instrument that will educate the public about the danger of self-destruction from the atomic bomb, but also other dangers created by the man himself. Thus they founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and launched the Apocalypse Clock. For nearly a century the Bulletin has been recognized as the forum of humanity's brightest minds who gather once a year to assess major global trends and warn humanity of the danger of self-destruction. The main product of their work is the Apocalypse Clock. The Apocalypse Clock is set a few minutes closer to or farther from midnight as a symbol of the end of time and the end of humanity. The closer the clock gets to midnight, the closer we are to the apocalypse.

The first time the clock was set closer to midnight (2 minutes before midnight) was in 1953, when the US and the Soviet Union tested their respective thermonuclear bombs – the most powerful bombs mankind has yet discovered. Then the clock has turned back, assessing that humanity is well on its way to peace and prosperity. And this lasted for 65 years until 2018. From 2018 to today the clock has started approaching midnight again. In the years 2020, 2021 and 2022, the Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists has estimated that humanity has come extremely close to destroying itself and has therefore begun counting down the time until midnight in seconds. So for years the clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight. In 2023 with the war in Ukraine the clock broke the previous records and was set at 90 seconds to midnight. And this week the bulletin published the year 2024: the clock is left 90 seconds to midnight. So, in other words, these last two years we are living are the most dangerous years for humanity since the end of the Second World War. These are four main dangers which the Bulletin has assessed as threatening the destruction of humanity.

1. Nuclear danger

The great powers have begun the rearmament race on an alarming scale. In the background of the war in Ukraine, the possibility of using a nuclear weapon by Russia remains a serious risk. The dialogue between the great powers regarding the control of nuclear weapons is non-existent. Russia has suspended the only agreement with the US to reduce nuclear weapons - the New START Treaty - while warning of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Also, Russia has withdrawn from the General Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Tests, while the USA has refused to even debate the ratification of the treaty. And while the entire nuclear security architecture is being threatened, the three major powers, the US, Russia and China, are investing record resources to develop nuclear capabilities. The recent report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on US Strategic Capabilities has recommended the urgent modernization of US nuclear capabilities to ensure that they will be able to meet and defeat China and Russia together. Meanwhile, beyond the Big Three, smaller powers, such as Iran and North Korea, are continuing to expand their nuclear programs and capabilities, without any Western control. Iran is now able to produce nuclear material for small amounts of offensive weapons, while North Korea has successfully tested the Hwasong-8 intercontinental ballistic missile. These powers are already indirectly involved in Ukraine, while with the new conflict in Gaza and the possibility of a new conflict in Taiwan, these dynamics increase the risk of escalation of conventional conflicts into nuclear conflicts between the involved parties.

2. Climate change

The year 2023 was the year with the highest temperatures in history. Sea temperatures have broken records, while Antarctic ice is melting at the fastest rate on record. In all likelihood, the world will not meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement and slow the increase in global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And while 2023 saw a new clean energy investment record of $1.7 trillion, investment in traditional fuels reached $1 trillion. Greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Carbon dioxide emissions in 2022 were 1.5% higher than in 2021, reaching a record of 57.5 gigatons. Failure to stop the effects of climate change will affect basic food chains, endanger coastal countries and fuel cultural, ethnic and social conflicts.

3. The militarization of biology

The capabilities of artificial technology are driving the level and quality of information that is now automatically available to malicious actors. In this sense, AI can provide state and non-state actors with the information needed to create hazardous biological materials. For example, the release of detailed information about AI algorithms has enabled some hackers to produce the 1918 pandemic influenza virus. Two other biohazards remain a cause for continued concern: the accidental release of malignant organisms from laboratories into the wild, and the birth natural accidental of communicable diseases. This type of risk is especially increasing due to the exponential increase in the construction of high-level biological laboratories. With the increase in the number of biological laboratories and the non-standardization of laboratory practices and scientific supervision, the risk of accidental release of pathogens into the public increases.

4. Risks of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence, social networks and disinformation are technologies that have the potential to radically change the way we live. The informational chaos generated by these tools threatens democracy and our capacity to engage in constructive dialogue and make reasoned decisions about complex challenges. The use of AI for far more invasive surveillance of citizens in some authoritarian countries, the aftermath of Twitter's ownership change, and Russia's militarization of disinformation in the Ukraine war are just a few examples of the capacity of these technologies to corrupt the foundations of society. ours. The use of AI in sensitive areas, such as nuclear development, climate change or health experiments, although offering tremendous potential, also represents the fundamental threat to humanity. The expansion of military use of AI remains a major cause for concern.

It is a thread that connects the Manhattan Project and the invention of the atomic bomb in the middle of the last century with the Apocalypse Clock and the present day. That fiber is the concern of using science for the self-destructive purposes of humanity. The fear that humanity will intentionally or accidentally initiate a chain of events that will destroy humanity. The fear that humanity will not be able to manage what it has created. The fear that between the creative potential and the destructive danger of humanity, the latter will win. These are the same doubts that preoccupied Robert Oppenheimer and the scientists of the "Manhattan" project, and these are the same doubts that preoccupy the world's brightest minds today. Thus in a sense Oppenheimer's shadow still lives among us. Times have changed and with it technology, society and everything else, but one thing remains unchanged: our species' temptations for power and dominance, even at the cost of self-destruction.