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Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking worries about humanity’s long-term future. (Credit: NASA)

British physicist Stephen Hawking says we need to colonize other worlds because humanity will almost certainly face a disaster on Earth sometime in the next few millennia – perhaps a disaster of our own making.

Among the risks he outlined in a report from the BBC are nuclear war, climate change and genetically engineered viruses. What’s more, he said further progress in science and technology will bring “new ways things can go wrong.”

Like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Hawking believes the best cosmic insurance policy is to create human colonies on other worlds in our solar system and beyond. Here’s the way he put it in the BBC report:

“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years.

“By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.

“However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period.”

Hawking’s comments aren’t that surprising: He issues frequent warnings about risks ranging from the the rise of artificial intelligence and the persistence of aggressive behavior to a Higgs boson doomsday. He also has said we shouldn’t broadcast our location too loudly for fear of attracting hostile extraterrestrials.

The idea that further scientific progress will bring new threats is just an extra dollop of gloom on top.

The outlook isn’t completely dark, however. “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognize the dangers and control them,” Hawking said. “I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Hawking made the remarks in response to audience questions while delivering this year’s BBC Reith Lectures on the topic of black holes.

The Reith Lectures are traditionally recorded for later broadcast. This year’s first installment is due to air on Jan. 26 on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. BBC News says it’ll publish the full text of the lectures online.

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