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In 1950 physicist Enrico Fermi wondered why we have found no alien civilizations even though there are about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe.

Among other things, he worked on nuclear power.

Nuclear weapons helped nations prevent wars. And, luckily, your socially challenged neighbour that every now and then threatens to kill someone with his automatic rifle, couldn't enrich uranium even if he wanted to. Everyone could sleep safe, knowing that they won't wake up to a bright flash of light that will kill 10,000,000 people instantly.


Year 2060.

3D printers have evolved to the point they cost as much as normal printers did in 2015. They can "print" extremely complex objects in very small amount of time, be it food, or a complex machine.

Drones sized a few micrometers are used routinely to cure previously incurable diseases.

Life expectancy has skyrocketed to 150 years.

What a great time to be alive!

Or is it? Your neighbour no longer has a rifle. He has a 3D printer which he used on creating uranium enrichment devices. He also printed a fully functional nuclear weapon. The final piece of the puzzle is that fist sized ball of U-235. He has been working for half a year on his project. Soon the whole world will know him and fear him! They will finally respect him!

As he sits in his room waiting impatiently, he feels an insect on the back of his neck. 5 seconds later, he drops on the floor. His heart stops as the toxin injected by the fruit-fly-sized drones reached his neurons.

Police neutralized the suspect.


The problem is that you have 10 billion "neighbours". If 1 in 10,000 wants to destroy society, that's 1 million crazy neighbours.

  • How hard would it be to protect our civilization from total annihilation?
  • Which measures would governments have to take in order to achieve that? Would personal data cease to exist as we know it? Would everyone be under surveillance?
  • Is it even possible to prevent self-destruction indefinitely?
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One super-geek's home made nuke, even if successful isn't going to destroy humanity. All out state driven nuclear war will.

Of course, the damage would be horrendous, but not in itself civilization ending. Though it may sound callous, the loss of a city or two is not a direct threat to civilization, although it may be a threat to general liberty (to which your OP cogently refers).

The supply of suitable fissile material is the main issue, not the blueprints or the centrifuge.

There is a limit to how significant, in the grand scale of Mutual Assured Destruction that such efforts can aspire. Is it significantly more statistically significant than a meteor strike or super-volcano eruption or climate disaster which wipes us all out? If not then why worry?

As a politician once said, 'Events Dear Boy, events'. Certainly, if total loss of liberty can be taken to constitute an ending of civilization its a very real possibility. But then again from an alien xenobiologists perspective, a transformation of human society from an individualistic basis to a hive mind type situation would not register as a collapse.

How hard would it be to protect our civilization from total annihilation?

Impossible. Only statistical improvements in chances can be made (see point re: meteors). The major improvement is to diversify beyond being on one planet. But, soon after that, one needs to diversify beyond one solar system.

Which measures would governments have to take in order to achieve that?

Global integration continues apace. Each advance in communications technology and computing (including recent advances in machine learning) advances the final consolidation of human society. Pattern recognition and machine learning are already widely deployed by NSA/GCHQ etc, as well as by the tech giants.

Abolition of physical cash in favour of electronic cash (both to enable introduction of negative interest rates and also to track the black market economy) is no longer a taboo subject. Just today official members of the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have mentioned this idea. An electronic cash society will, long story short, drive us to an open, reputation based society.

But even a final consolidation of the diverse fragments of human society only serves to protect from internal threats - not external.

Would personal data cease to exist as we know it? Would everyone be under surveillance?

The main coming impact to societal surveillance is electronic cash, as I have noted above. Its probably inevitable and will cement social changes already underway.

It will still be possible to conceal social data but the act of concealing it will reduce its value to its owner. It will become an economic trade-off whether to sacrifice privacy for other social gain.

Is it even possible to prevent self-destruction indefinitely?

Only by changing the definition of self such that there are multiple "selves". And even then, only if the various selves are not dependant in some unforseen way.

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  • $\begingroup$ There will be millions of "neighbours", so perhaps hundreds or thousands of "super-geeks". This should be sufficient to damage the civilization to the point where it can't defend from asteroids and other otherwise manageable threats. Also, fissile material would be the major issue, but looking at how accelerators improve, i'm pretty sure the same will happen with enrichment plants. Other than that, I fully agree with your answer. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 20 '15 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ Another notable example is floppy discs able to store 1.2MB vs today's USB flash drives with 2TB. That's a 2,000,000 increase in capacity and at the same time a huge improvement in size. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 20 '15 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding surveillance, privacy and electronic cash that you mentioned. It's a dystopia coming true in China with their social credit system. Poor dissidents. I won't be surprised when it reaches the west. Resistance (and innovation) will be futile. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Feb 9 at 20:28
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Being crazy isn't enough. One has to have the desire to kill everyone, plus the ability to think rationally enough to devise and carry out an effective plan, all without anyone suspecting that you might be doing something untoward. This is not a small feat, even if you can print complex components at home. Most crime is not prevented by there being superhuman detection and prevention of crime - it is because criminals and madmen tend to be stupid or otherwise irrational.

I certainly wouldn't worry about anyone trying to build a nuke - the radiation from trying to gather than much highly radioactive material would be very easy to find. Even today, if you live in a major city in the US, that much radioactive material would be found rather quickly (whether or not that is a rational use of resources, or just a paranoid government never questioning the costs, is an exercise left for the reader).

What I would worry about is a custom designed virus. Not much you can do about that other than lots of isolation, putting people into quarantine, making sure people had plenty of protective gear, etc. You could probably kill a local community before people become aware and really ramp up the response to it, and a few clusters here and there would pop up from travel, but the technology to create such a well developed plague implies well developed medical care and responses to epidemics. In the grand scheme of things, the lone madman is not a threat to the population at large - that is the purview of politicians.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the radiation would kill him. Uranium decays rather slowly and the type of radiation it produces isn't dangerous unless inhaled or ingested. Also, the radiation can be undetectable if you are working underground (I am assuming a few meters would suffice). $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 19 '15 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ Uranium occurs naturally with concentrations 2-250ppm in non-ore soil. Did some math assuming 15kg 20% U-235 and 200ppm and he needs about 400 m^3 of soil (if i have made a mistake let me know). Or a hole 4x10x10. It could go unnoticed if done underground. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 19 '15 at 10:56
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How hard would it be to protect our civilization from total annihilation?

It's impossible, if all forms of destruction are considered. Uranium isn't exactly a common substance. World governments already do a good job monitoring radiation levels and, more specifically, the transfer of radioactive materials. There are a bunch of movies in which one group or another acquires nuclear material, but I can't think of one where the material doesn't come from a nuclear-capable nation.

But, beyond nuclear weapons, there's also biological, chemical, and astrological weapons. pluckedkiwi discusses biological weapons, and chemical weapons can be used in the same manner. Adding a disruptive chemical to the water supply could devastate a city.

The greatest weapon, however, may not be a weapon. As of this moment, there's nothing humans can do to protect themselves against a meteor impact of epic proportions, such as the Chicxulub impact.

So, no, it's not possible to protect against total annihilation (at least for the foreseeable future), but it may be possible to protect against human-driven annihilation.

Which measures would governments have to take in order to achieve that? Would personal data seize to exist as we know it? Would everyone be under surveillance?

As I mentioned above, world governments (and probably local governments) already employ tactics to monitor, control, and/or prevent disasters. Critical points receive extra attention, cameras are trained on access points, and cyber specialists monitor websites, among other strategies that aren't publicly known.

Believe it or not, personal data almost doesn't exist in our modern world, but not because of government. Corporations like Google, Facebook, Wal-Mart, Target, and even Domino's know your information: where you live, what your spending habits are, what kind of toppings you like on your pizza, etc. Then there's all the information your bank/credit union has on your habits in order to detect fraud.

Is it even possible to prevent self-destruction indefinitely?

Yes. Upload everyone's consciousness into a virtual reality and let machines monitor the system. Alternatively, initiate a global eradication of the human species. After all, human society can't implode if there is no society.

In all seriousness, the answer is still yes, with a caveat. We evolved to out-compete other organisms. We've done so to such an extreme that our only real threat anymore is each other. Everything else being equal, humans are social creatures that benefit most from a stable society. As a result, human civilization will endure, but it may not stay the same as it is now.

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  • $\begingroup$ Currently, uranium can't be enriched by non-nation entities because it's slow and very very expensive. There are technologies that are better than current methods used and will definitely improve in the near future. You might however be right; perhaps a single individual is unable to pull this off. Maybe a group of organized individuals will be required. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 19 '15 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ Uranium exists pretty much everywhere. Currently it's not extractable unless it exceeds a ppm value (don't remember how much though). In the future that restriction will drop significantly. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 19 '15 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ @user536231 Yes, but it's still not something the average guy can go out into his backyard, do some digging, and acquire samples. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 19 '15 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ What Frostfyre said. Even at 100% extraction, getting 2 kg of uranium from a 2 ppm source (typical for the continental U.S.) would require processing 1,000 tonnes. Enriching the U-235 fraction to 99% would require excavating 100,000 tonnes, or roughly 2.5 m deep for a 200x200 m field. $\endgroup$ – user243 Sep 19 '15 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades You don't need 99% U-235 to create a nuclear weapon. Also, you are assuming 2ppm, when volcanic rock or black shale can reach up to 200ppm. Also low-grade orebody can get to 1000ppm. Assuming not all ore deposits (especially small ones) aren't discovered or monitored, this would be an option. Working underground can easily go unnoticed. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 20 '15 at 10:31
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3D printing can't produce elements, let alone isotopes of elements. Your kook will find it easier to produce that nuke than he would today as he can download all the plans for a uranium extraction plant and an enrichment plant (assuming there is a sufficient underground to provide such things)--at the average crustal density of uranium you can obtain enough from a few acres if you can extract every atom of it.

Doing either without coming to the notice of vigilant authorities is quite another matter.

Likewise, 3D printing isn't going to be of much use to the guy making a chemical weapon. You can print your factory but you still need all your raw materials and that will draw notice.

Finally, 3D printing is of even less use to the guy trying a biological approach. The real threat here is not 3D printing but DNA synthesis. It's already reached the point that a professional can produce in the lab a virus based on downloaded data--how long before that technology reaches the hobbyist level?

The hard part will be developing a new pathogen (so existing vaccines do not work) and testing it without being caught. This is beyond what one individual could accomplish in today's world but not in 2060. However, while it wouldn't be too hard to get test subjects in today's world (abductions from areas of genocide won't draw notice) the disappearances will probably be noted in 2060.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, I never said 3D printing can be used to create isotopes. Neither did I imply it. I actually said it can be used to create "enrichment devices". As for pathogens and chemicals, I didn't mention anything. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 19 '15 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @user536231 The point is that the mining and enrichment operations are just as big as they are today--not something your neighbor can hide. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Sep 19 '15 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ I highly doubt they will be the same size and efficiency as the are today. For example take a look at what happens with accelerators. Another example would be floppy discs which were able to store 1.2MB and today's we have USB flash drives with 2TB. That's a x2,000,000 increase in capacity and at the same time a huge improvement in size. $\endgroup$ – Fermi paradox Sep 20 '15 at 10:23

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