Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various prospects for the future – good and bad – are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity's future depends on our taking a very different approach to thinking about and planning for tomorrow.
The future of humanity is bound to the future of science, and our prospects hinge on how successfully we harness technological advances to address the challenges to our collective future. If we are to use science to solve our problems while avoiding its dystopian risks, we must think rationally, globally, collectively, and optimistically about the long-term future. Advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence – if pursued and applied wisely – could empower us to boost the developing and developed world and overcome the threats humanity faces on Earth, from climate change to nuclear war. At the same time, further advances in space science will allow humans to explore the solar system and beyond with robots and AI. But there is no "Plan B" for Earth – no viable alternative within reach, if we do not care for our home planet.
Rich with fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology, this slim, accessible book will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.
Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK's House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic Habitat (Princeton), Just Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.
"UK astronomer royal Martin Rees faces the future as scientist, citizen and 'worried member of the human species'. His bold, beautifully synthesized primer paces from human-driven challenges such as climate change to dizzying astronomical discoveries within and beyond the Solar System [...] A clarion call for global, rational, long-term thinking."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature
"A remarkable book not only because of the subject – the prospects of humanity – but because it is so reasonable [...] Rees largely manages to steer clear of both fear mongering and cheerleading. The question of how we should deal with new technology has no easy answer, and the author doesn't pretend that it does. Instead, in each case he lays out the important points to consider."
– Sabine Hossenfelder, Wall Street Journal
"Fortunately for Rees, the symptoms of his anxiety appear to be an exceptionally clear head and a capable grasp of the big picture. His sense of cosmic wonder shines through brilliantly in the book's later chapters. Explanations of complex subjects like the Large Hadron Collider and the ongoing search for exoplanets benefit from his crisp, precise prose [...] Rees is a seasoned science communicator, and in so far as his job is to get more and more people interested in the field, the book's short length and approachable style is a shrewd move that will open a wormhole to the big questions for the curious."
– Louie Conway, Vanity Fair
"When politics seems impossible, it is sometimes good to take the long view. Astronomer Martin Rees's On the Future offers a cosmological perspective on the present state of the world. Brexit seems a bit less all-or-nothing when set against the prospect of post-human space travel."
– David Runciman, The Guardian
"[Hawking and Rees] offer brisk, lucid peeks into the future of science and of humanity. They evince a profound faith in science's power to demystify nature and bend it to our ends."
– John Horgan, Wall Street Journal
"[On the Future] offers forecasts of impending technological developments and words of hope for the human ability to use science to repair a wounded planet and improve lives [...] This far-ranging but easily understood collection of ideas shares and communicates the enthusiasm of Rees's 'techno-optimist' view of the prospects for humanity."
– Publishers Weekly
"Short in extent but wide in range: from redesigning genes, through the likelihood of human-induced climate change, to the possibility of encounters with alien intelligence in the Universe. [On the Future]'s overall theme is that Earth's growing population will flourish only if science and technology are deployed with 'wisdom.'"
– Andrew Robinson, Science
"Rees neatly packages his sprawling subject matter into a guidebook for the responsible use of science to build a healthy and equitable future for humanity."
– Daniel Ackerman, Scientific American
"Rees is hardly the first to issue a stern warning about what lies ahead if complacency and consumerism rule, but his lucid, well-reasoned explanation of the stakes and inimitable prose lift this manifesto above the rest. An impassioned call to action from one of the world's foremost scientists. A book to be read by anyone on Earth who cares about its future."
– Kirkus, starred review
"It is hard not to be fascinated as [Rees] builds his Eeyorish case – which is laid out with the dispassionate air of a superintelligent alien anthropologist observing our species' eccentricities from afar [...] [A] lucid and engaging book."
– Tom Whipple, The Times
"Lord Martin Rees manages weighty, often scary, matters with an eminently accessible lightness of touch in On the Future: Prospects for Humanity [...] [A] short, crisply written new book."
– John Cornwell, Financial Times
"This slim volume, written in Rees's characteristically elegant style, will frighten and inspire – and above all, entertain."
– Clive Cookson, Financial Times
"If you're worried about the prospects for the human race, try Martin Rees's On the Future for a sober, level-headed assessment."
– John Naughton, The Observer
"The importance of science in society has no greater spokesperson than Lord Martin Rees."
– The Economist
"By no means merely a happiness pill, Martin Rees's On the Future: Prospects for Humanity nonetheless encourages the reader to think beyond the new norms of diminished and collapsing expectations [...] This is less a book than a set of goggles that provides the reader a glimpse of a wider spectrum of possibility than would otherwise be visible."
– Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education
"Rees is clear-sighted and pithy [...] His account of the planets and exoplanets on which we might one day descend feels thrillingly real [...] Wonderfully optimistic."
– James McConnachie, Sunday Times
"Rees shows us an optimistic yet realistic way of contemplating the what is to come, as long as we broaden our thinking and realise that we're all on this crowded planet together."
– Sandra Kropa, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
"It would be easy for a book about the future to turn gloomy, but this one balances concerns with hopeful prospects."
– Foreword Reviews
"[An] eloquent book."
– John Thornhill, Financial Times
"Rees dispenses his apocalyptic overview of the coming decades like cocktail party wisdom. The author, who moves in elevated circles and has the papal ear, is an affable doom merchant."
– Anjana Ahuja, New Statesman
"An overview of the great science-based possibilities for mankind, as well as an expert's gentle warning against what will happen to life on earth if we continue to form our thinking around short-term goals."
– Rozalind Dineen, Times Literary Supplement
"With the authority that only someone of his calibre could command, Martin Rees presents his vision of the future of mankind."
– Nature Astronomy
"This little gem is divided into four beautifully-crafted chapters providing broad perspective, personal anecdotes, some seldom-mined historical background, strong scientific emphasis, and hope."
– Bruce L. Dietrich, Planetarian
"In [On the Future], Rees turns his focus closer to home, examining the existential threats that face humanity over the next century. From cyberattacks to advances in biotechnology to artificial intelligence to climate change, Rees, Britain's astronomer royal, says we are living at a critical juncture – one that could define how the human species fares."
– Denise Chow, NBC News MACH
"[On the Future] shrewdly weighs up our chances of survival."
– Andy Martin, Belfast Telegraph
"A rallying call for the sort of rational thinking that seems to have become unpopular in recent years [...] A short, but persuasive, book."
– Dominic Lenton, Engineering & Technology
"A really important book."
– David Runciman, Talking Politics podcast
"Overall, this is a wise and humane overview of the challenges we all face, with much practical guidance about how best to tackle these in terms of responsible scientific and technological innocation related to deeper human values."
– David Lorimer, Paradigm Explorer
"Lord Rees is the source on all things future-of-humanity."
"[A] condensed masterpiece of analysis and observation."
– Jonathan Power, New York Journal of Books
"Reading On the Future will equip the reader with the means to challenge their representatives to lift their eyes above the daily grind of politics and set their sights on a brighter future which humanity can enjoy if the correct decisions are made in respect of the development and application of science and technology."
– K. Alan Shore, Contemporary Physics
"I found reading Rees's ideas here rewarding. I also learned a lot from this book [...] as such, I am very positive about this book and I think that all ethicists should read it."
– Wouter Kalf, Ethical Perspectives
"On the Future, by a leading senior scientist and written in a charming and crystalline style, provides the kind of wisdom humanity most needs to make our way on through the twenty-first century."
– Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus, Harvard University
"Curious about the future? Here, one of the world's most eminent scientists takes you through what will happen and why. On the Future is excellent!"
– Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Google
"From climate change to biotech to artificial intelligence, science sits at the center of nearly all decisions that civilization confronts to assure its own survival. Martin Rees has created a primer on these issues, and what we can do about them, so that the next generation will think of us not as reckless custodians of their inheritance, but as brilliant shepherds of their birthright."
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, co-author of Welcome to the Universe
"Martin Rees offers a compelling vision of our future – on Earth and in space."
– Elon Musk, founder, CEO, and CTO of SpaceX and cofounder and CEO of Tesla Motors
"Prophecy may be a lost art, but I can think of no better way to envision what lies ahead than this book – a multidimensional meditation by one of our most distinguished and wise scientific minds on where we are headed and what we can do to right the ship of our civilization. In a time when it is hard to find a dream of the future that is not dystopian, Martin Rees sees and writes with rigor, clarity, and hope."
– Ann Druyan, writer, producer, and director of Cosmos
"In clear and simple prose, Martin Rees lays bare the catastrophic dangers now facing humanity: nuclear, biotech, cyber, and climate. Modern science, he says, created these dangers but still provides the only path forward. A real wake-up call."
– Jerry Brown, governor of California
"On the Future is a very important book that should be widely read and acted upon. Martin Rees combines his deep scientific insights and compassion for humanity's welfare to address, in clear and elegant prose, the major issues facing human civilization today, some of which are not now commonly considered. Whether or not you agree with all the points he makes, you must take them very seriously indeed."
– Roger Penrose, author of Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe
"An engaging analysis of the most important issues facing the world, sprinkled with insight and suffused with wisdom and humanity."
– Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now
"Are we heading for a utopian or dystopian future? Martin Rees believes it's down to us. But the one thing we must not do is put the brakes on technology. Science, applied wisely, offers humanity a bright future, but we must act now. In this visionary book, and despite his many fears, Rees adopts a refreshing and cautiously optimistic tone."
– Jim Al-Khalili, author of Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics
"A breathtaking journey through thrilling advances in science and technology that may address society's most vexing challenges, On the Future is ideal reading for all citizens of the twenty-first century."
– Marcia K. McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences
"What if we got one of the smartest people alive to figure the odds on how we might be able to survive our ability to do ourselves in? We have that person in Martin Rees, and his thoughtful answers in this book."
– Alan Alda
"As Yogi Berra said, 'It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.' But in this readable and thought-provoking book, Martin Rees shows the challenges we and our planet face – and why scientists need to engage citizens in the choices that are made."
– Shirley M. Malcom, director of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science
"For anyone who wants to consider the choices we have in our future and the implications of those choices, this is the book to read. Rees is a clear thinker and graceful writer, and he expresses an encouraging optimism about the future, if we can avoid some of our current species-limiting behaviors. Rees's projections are grounded in today's scientific knowledge and a scientist's sense of probability and presented with a deep sense of humility."
– Rush D. Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former U.S. Representative from New Jersey
"On the Future is a delightful intellectual treat and a must-read for everyone on Earth – and beyond, if aliens exist. With wisdom and originality, Martin Rees, our most accomplished living astronomer, addresses the most important of subjects – the future of humanity and the scientific advances and risks it brings. His deep personal insights are unique and exciting and his many anecdotes are enjoyable. I couldn't put it down."
– Abraham Loeb, Harvard University
"In this outstanding book, the always brilliant Martin Rees addresses the key problems of our day, putting humanity's perils and prospects in perspective – from climate change, to the future of artificial intelligence, to the threat of bioterrorism, to the chance for future space adventurers to spread out into the universe. Rees is one of the deepest and clearest thinkers on these subjects, and his book sparkles with gems of insight and humor."
– J. Richard Gott, co-author of Welcome to the Universe
"In this short and mighty book, Rees grapples with the exhilarating promise and frightening possibilities of today's vast scientific advancements, situating himself somewhere between the techno-optimists and dystopian naysayers. On the Future provides tremendous insight into science's great expanse and beseeches us all to get involved and advocate for long-term policies that will keep future generations safe. The future of humanity and the planet rests in our hands."
– Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
"On the Future will captivate readers. Martin Rees stands at the top of our informed thinkers about futurology."
– Pedro G. Ferreira, author of The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity
"This inspiring and thought-provoking book by one of the world's leading scientists and visionaries is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of humanity."
– Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
"Our planet is in peril – and humanity needs huge doses of wisdom to save it. Fortunately, one man, Martin Rees, can provide it. This book is a must-read for all who care about our planet's future."
– Kishore Mahbubani, author of Has the West Lost It?
"Martin Rees's book is a vital compass to help us navigate the future, an enthralling love letter to knowledge and rationality, and a call to arms for those of us who dare to hope for the best."
– David Puttnam, film producer and educator
"Martin Rees's On the Future is a template of hope that offers practical scientific, social, and political solutions for avoiding man-made disasters that could devastate our species."
– Michael Wilson, film producer