Following Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic predictions on AI we honour the most radical – and idiotic – doomsday prophecies
Last week, Stephen Hawking told us that artificial intelligence would become so advanced so quickly that it would wipe out the human race. Such doomsday predictions might be more convincing coming from the computerised voice box of a renowned scientist, but even the wackiest prophesies have been fooling humanity for years – sometimes with dire consequences. From media storms to mass suicide, our apocalyptic predictions may be fantasy, but they can shape our reality nonetheless.
JESUS’ HOT TECTONICS
Keen to see the Earth annihilated a little sooner than everyone else, religious leader Jose De Jesus Miranda (no points for guessing the Biblical character he identified with) promised “complete destruction of the bad seed” on 30 June, 2012. Possessed by the Messiah, Miranda, or “Dad” as his fans called him, foresaw economic oblivion, the collapse of world governments and the reversal of the Earth’s poles causing “tectonic plates to heat up”. Of course, tectonic plates have been always reckoning with melting-hot magma. Still, Miranda claimed “a change on the face of the earth” was coming – maybe a volcano eruption or something – and only he and his followers would survive because they could fly and walk through walls, obviously.
THE DEADLY GAS FROM HALLEY’S COMET
Visible across the night sky every 75 years, Halley’s comet is a fairly regular and unobtrusive visitor to our local solar system. Before it was due in 1910 though, panic erupted in the United States when astronomers warned they had detected poisonous gas in the comet’s tail, which the French astronomer Camille Flammarion believed “would impregnate the atmosphere and snuff out all life on the planet”. Desperate to survive the intergalactic gas attack, the public rushed to cover their keyholes with paper, and stocked up on “comet pills” and gas masks.
THE HELTER SKELTER KILLERS
On New Year’s Eve 1968 at a campfire gathering of the Manson Family commune near California’s Death Valley, former convict Charles Manson told his followers that an apocalyptic race war would take place the next year. Manson’s supporters were willing to kill to precipitate the prophecy, “Helter Skelter”, named after a song by The Beatles. Mason ordered his admirers to murder actress Sharon Tate and four other people at her home – Tate was pregnant with her husband Roman Polanski’s child. The next day, group members killed married couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, writing “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” in their blood on the living room walls.
MASS SUICIDE CLOSES HEAVEN’S GATE
Believing a spacecraft was following the Comet Hale Bopp, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, Marshall Applewhite, declared suicide was “the only way to evacuate this Earth” and board the craft to reach a “level of existence above human”. Thirty-nine members of the UFO religious sect, including Applewhite, committed mass suicide over three successive days. Having pocketed their interplanetary toll – a five-dollar bill and three quarters – the ‘Heaven’s Gates Away Team’ took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce, washed it down with vodka and, finally, secured plastic bags around their heads.
NIBIRU CATACLYSM – A REOCCURRING DREAM
Nancy Lieder predicted that the Earth would collide with a large planetary object in May 2003, causing a pole shift that would eliminate most of humanity. Her source? Some helpful aliens in the Zeta Reticuli star system who contacted her through a brain implant. Although it didn’t happen, avid believers stayed faithful and continued to cite dates when Nibiru would come to destroy humanity.
WIMPY COMET ELENIN SPURS A MEDIA STORM
More comet-related hysteria – the only bankable impact of any passing space rock – erupted on Earth in 2011. Dubbed the “Doomsday Comet” by the media, Elenin sparked widespread panic when it was supposed to trigger major earthquakes and tsunamis as it swung treacherously close to Earth (22 million miles away). The Niribu theorists jumped on the disaster bandwagon, claiming Elenin was the deadly intergalactic object that they had been talking about for ages. Astounded by all the attention the Elenin was getting, NASA astronomer Don Yeomans told The Daily Mail Elenin was in fact “a second-rate, wimpy little comet…it’s time to move on to the next Armageddon.”
THE MAYAN APOCALYPSE
Possibly the most feared date for all doomsday forecasters in recent times was 21 December, 2012. Regarded as the end-date of a cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar, fanatics said earth would be destroyed by an asteroid, an alien invasion or a supernova. Predictably, the Nibiru lot barged in on this Armageddon too, saying this time their planet-crushing object really was coming to kill us. In China, police arrested nearly 1,000 members of a Christian group – or “evil cult”, according to state media – who believed in the Mayan apocalypse and, crucially, urged its members to overthrow communism. Meanwhile, French believers prepared to converge on a mountain where the aliens were supposed to rescue them and in the United States sales in hi-tech underground survival shelters soared. When chaos engulfed Russia, with people desperately stocking up supplies after reading a newspaper article supposedly written by a Tibetan monk, the prime minister Dmitry Medvedev felt pressed to step in: “I don’t believe in the end of the world,” he said, adding: “At least, not this year.”
WORLD WAR III – THE WAR TO END ALL WARS
Japanese cult and terrorist organisation Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for killing 13 people in coordinated Tokyo sarin attacks in 1995, predicted that the world would be ravaged by nuclear war between 30 October and 29 November, 2003. The founder Shoko Asahara, self-proclaimed as the first “enlightened one” since Buddha, foretold that the nuclear apocalypse would begin when the United States initiated World War III with Japan, and only Aum followers would survive.
THE MILLENNIUM MELTDOWN
The ultimate opportunity for doomsday scare-mongers is, obviously, the passing of a millennium. Today we may be worried that technology may become so powerful that it will take us over – fifteen years ago, we feared computers wouldn’t be able to handle the turn of the century. Programmed to only count the last two digits of the year, computer systems needed upgrading to distinguish between the year “1900” and “2000”. If that didn’t happen, everyone feared crashing planes, broken cash machines and jammed escalators would bring the developed world to its knees. Fifteen years later and it's still a fascination, with Perry Chen speaking on the topic in New York tomorrow.
BLACK HOLES AND THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
In 2008, the public became anxious that turning on the CERN laboratory atom-smasher would vanquish the human race. Fuelled by the media, rumours spread that the mammoth particle collider could create an expanding black hole that would eventually eat the planet; a headline from The Sun declared “End of the World Due in 9 Days”. The panic spilled into law courts; a German chemist Otto Rossler filed a lawsuit against CERN with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that making a globe-gobbling black hole violated the right to life of European citizens.