Doomsday clock: Humanity is as close to destroying itself as it has ever been, experts say

Humanity continues to be in the most danger it has ever been, experts have said.

The Doomsday Clock has been left at 90 seconds to midnight, reflecting a “continuing and unprecedented level of risk”, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which sets the clock. Each January, a set of experts use the symbolic time to show how close the world is to annihilation – with midnight representing the end of the world.

The clock was set at 90 seconds to midnight last year, and it marked the closest to midnight it has ever been. The change was largely made to reflect the danger posed by the Ukraine-Russia war, the organisers said then.

Those threats continue, and others such as disruptive technologies have grown in the past year. It pointed to the continuation of the war in Ukraine, the weakening of nuclear arms reduction agreements, the climate crisis and 2023 being the hottest year on record, new genetic engineering technologies, AI and the danger of misinformation.

The scientists behind the clock urged that the decision not to change it should not lead to complacency.

“Make no mistake: resetting the clock at 90 seconds to midnight is not an indication that the world is stable. Quite the opposite,” said Rachel Bronson, the president and chief executive of the Bulletin.

“It’s urgent for governments and communities around the world to act. And the Bulletin remains hopeful – and inspired – in seeing the younger generations leading the charge.”

The scientists did point to some positive news amid the increased and new dangers. There has been some progress in responding to climate change, with the world heading in the right direction, it said. But overall the crisis still threatens humanity’s future.

And the Bulletin noted that while the worry about AI has grown, even the top experts disagree about whether it really poses an existential risk. What’s more, it would only cause a real danger to humans if it were hooked up to a physical system. And if it gained control of nuclear weapons, for instance, that would be a nuclear problem rather than an AI one.

Many nations have recognised the need for controls on AI, too, noted Herb Lin, a member of the board that sets the time as well as a researcher at Stanford University. Some have taken steps to work out the governance required to limit the danger – though they are still attracted by its use in war and other dangers.

The Bulletin recognised the possibility of feeling powerless and depressed in the fact of such dangers. “Everyone on Earth has an interest in reducing the likelihood of global catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, advances in the life sciences, disruptive technologies, and the widespread corruption of the world’s information ecosystem,” it said in its announcement.

But it said that the threats were of “such a character and magnitude that no one nation or leader can bring them under control ... that is the task of leaders and nations working together in the shared belief that common threats demand common action.

“As the first step, and despite their profound disagreements, three of the world’s leading powers – the United States, China and Russia – should commence serious dialogue about each of the global threats outlined here. At the highest levels, these three countries need to take responsibility for the existential danger the world now faces.

“They have the capacity to pull the world back from the brink of catastrophe. They should do so, with clarity and courage, and without delay.”

The countdown was established in 1947 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project to design and build the first atomic bomb.

It was created to provide a simple way of demonstrating the danger to the Earth and humanity posed by nuclear war.

The clock first started ticking at seven minutes to midnight, and has moved forwards and backwards over the years as the threats to the world changed.

In 2020, it was set at 100 seconds to midnight, and remained unchanged for the next three years. In 2023, it was moved to 90 seconds – where it has since stayed.

Although originally intended to warn of the threat of nuclear armageddon, the Doomsday Clock has evolved to take into account the likelihood of other emerging threats such as climate change and advances in biotechnology and AI.

The Bulletin is an independent non-profit organisation run by some of the world’s most eminent scientists.

Additional reporting by agencies