Navigating the Future
The Final ChapterBy Malcolm Borthwick. Autumn 2019
In his book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, Martin Rees describes ‘Space-Ship Earth’ as hurtling blindly through the void. At his home in Cambridge, he talks to Trust editor Malcolm Borthwick about why we need to think long term and globally to stay the course.
This article originally featured in Baillie Gifford’s Autumn 2019 issue of Trust magazine.
When I meet one of our foremost scientists to talk about his book, it’s hard to know where to start. His latest work covers everything from whether we are alone in the universe and how to manage risks that could lead to our extinction, to the implications of downloading our brain into a machine. Rees is not short on big ideas, and he draws on a wide range of thinkers. We talk surrounded by shelves of books on science, philosophy, politics and history. Many belong to Lord Rees, the rest to his wife Caroline Humphrey, an expert on Asia and one of the first Western anthropologists to do fieldwork in the Soviet Union.
Rees, who is the Astronomer Royal, says On the Future: Prospects for Humanity reflects his concerns about the way things are going. “The fact that I’m an astronomer doesn’t have much effect,” he explains. “Indeed, it misleads people because they think I worry most about asteroids colliding with the Earth and things like that, whereas the theme of the book is that the main threats we should worry about are emergent and are consequences of human actions.” He highlights three in his book: bio, cyber and artificial intelligence (AI).
He describes himself as a “scientific and technical optimist, but a political pessimist”, adding: “Tech can be hugely beneficial, but it needs to be better directed. AI, for example, can be used to run complex systems such as electricity grids and traffic flows.” However, he argues, we need global organisations to regulate energy production and the internet, and large tech companies such as Facebook and Amazon should pay more tax. Rees stresses the last point a few times in our conversation. He has a strong sense of public service that extends to how businesses should behave. He is also committed to pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge and making the topic accessible to a wide audience, as demonstrated by his relentless appearances at conferences and literary festivals, and frequent articles in the national press.
Rees is pessimistic about politics because long-term goals tend to slip down the agenda. He has cited European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who said when prime minister of Luxembourg: “We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” Rees is adept at moving between science, politics and finance with a blend of seriousness and good humour. He says the short-termism we see in politics is also pervasive in finance: “We have got to seriously question whether the present system is optimum in terms of quarterly reporting and the way the financial system works. Adair Turner [former chair of the then Financial Services Authority] was quite right when he talked about the City’s socially useless activities, of which I put millisecond trading at the top of the list. The system is too short term and it rewards chief executives grossly and excessively through pay and stock options. This is promoting short-term gains over long-term investment in research and innovation.”
The early stages of business growth are working well, adds Rees: “We have lots of start-ups, and people are willing to join them. It’s just that what happens afterwards is not optimal.”
Cambridge is home to two of Britain’s most innovative companies in recent times – ARM Holdings (ARM) and Solexa. ARM’s designs form the basis of most of the processors found in the world’s mobile devices and Solexa pioneered a new and revolutionary approach to DNA sequencing. Both companies are now foreign-owned, which raises the question, why do we have so many world-renowned scientists, but so few world-class companies?
“It’s a failure of venture capitalists to invest,” according to Rees, whose views on investors’ role in backing innovation chime with those of the managers of Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust. “These companies are often taken over too early, often before they float on the stock market. Solexa is one example. It was taken over by Illumina. I put the blame on the finance sector for not seeing the potential. I know Hermann Hauser very well, he was one of the founders of ARM and was outraged when it was taken over by the Japanese company SoftBank. Understandably so, it was an own goal for the UK. We are being badly served by the financial sector. It would have been far better if it had been kept under British control because if there is retrenchment then the distant parts won’t be prioritised, so it damages us if these companies are not controlled from the UK. It’s clearly bad for this country.”
It’s easy to oscillate between optimism and despair listening to Rees. But he concludes that now is the time to have an optimistic vision of the future and that we need to change our approach by thinking globally, rationally and most importantly long term.
As we near the end of our time together, I turn to the big question. I’m sure he’s been asked this many times before, but I need to know. Are we alone in the universe? Rees says the short answer is we don’t know, but we are getting closer to finding out: “We now know that most stars have planets going around them and that therefore means there are probably literally billions of planets rather like the Earth orbiting stars in the Milky Way. The next generation of telescopes will be able to analyse whether there is evidence of an atmosphere with biological activity.” In the meantime, if you know the answer, please don’t write to Martin Rees. “I get letters from people who think they do know, and that they have been abducted [by aliens], and I tell them to write to each other, not me.”
Martin Rees appeared at the Scottish Mortgage-sponsored event Into the Future at the Cambridge Literary Festival.
Flamsteed’s equatorially mounted sextant fitted with telescope, 1725. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Finding Longitude: The Role of the Astronomer Royal
King Charles II appointed John Flamsteed as his first Astronomer Royal in 1675, in the hope that he would draw up definitive “…tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation”.
It was not until the tenure of Nathaniel Bliss and Nevil Maskelyne, in the late 18th century, that the problem of mapping longitude for shipping was resolved. Shortly afterwards, Sir George Biddell Airy invented a telescope that was able to determine exactly where the modern Prime Meridian lies. Under Sir Frank Watson Dyson’s watch, nearly 100 years ago, the Greenwich time pips which accompany the broadcast news were introduced.
In 1947, the Royal Observatory started moving from Greenwich to Herstmonceux in Sussex and the Astronomer Royal became an honorary title in 1972. By then, UK astronomers could use telescopes in Tenerife and Hawaii, and the Greenwich Observatory had become a museum.
The holder of the position may still advise the monarch on scientific and astronomical matters.
Words by Heather Farmbrough
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MALCOLM BORTHWICK Editor
Malcolm is editor of Trust. He was formerly the BBC’s economics and business editor in Asia and the Middle East, and vice president of corporate affairs at BNY Mellon.
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