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Mankind's greatest disasters


(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One.)

We’ve had countless examples of disasters happening throughout history, even when our best and brightest were involved in the decision-making. Here are 10 of the world’s worst disasters, with many still being cleaned up.

1.) Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant – On March 11, 2011, a nuclear meltdown of three of the plant's six nuclear reactors was caused when the plant was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive 9.0 earthquake. The following day, substantial amounts of radioactive material was released, creating the largest nuclear incident since Chernobyl. Over 300,000 people had to be evacuated.

2.) The Disappearance Of The Aral Sea - One of the largest lakes in the world, that once covered 26,000 square miles, between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south, has been shrinking since the 1960s because of water diversion for Soviet irrigation projects. Satellite images taken in August 2014 showed the eastern portion of the Aral Sea is completely devoid of water, and is now referred to as the Aralkum desert.

3.) Space Shuttle Challenger - On Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air over Cape Canaveral, Florida. Disintegration began after an O-ring seal in a solid rocket booster failed at launch. All seven people onboard were killed.

4.) Pacific Garbage Patch - The Pacific Garbage Patch is a vortex in the Pacific Ocean that has collected marine debris like plastic, chemical sludge and other garbage. It extends over a large area, but much of the detritus is trapped below the water. Estimates of its size range from 70,000-15,000,000 square kilometers. Predicted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists in a 1988 paper, researchers have since discovered other huge concentrations of oceanic trash vortices in both the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

5.) Sinking of the Titanic – Going down on its maiden voyage from England to the United States in 1912, the Titanic was known as the unsinkable ship. With no small amount of boasting, the ship was specifically designed to make the long journey to America with no possible chance of sinking.

6.) B-2 Stealth Bomber Crash – In 2008, on a practice flight in Guam, America's most expensive jet was destroyed when faulty sensors caused it to pitch up on takeoff, stall and crash, according to the Air Force. The B-2 stealth bomber, only one of 21 in existence at the time, cost $1.4 billion.

7.) Exxon-Valdez - In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker was on its way to California when it hit the reef near Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The tanker spilled over 760,000 barrels of oil into the water off the Alaska coastline.

8.) Space Shuttle Columbia - The Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed in February of 2003, just six minutes before it was scheduled to land. All seven people onboard were killed.

9.) Hindenburg Explosion - The Hindenburg disaster took place on Thursday, May 6, 1937, as the German airship caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock in Lakehurst, New Jersey. 36 people died in this explosion.

10.) Bhopal Disaster – Considered the worst industrial accident in history, on December 2, 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. The toxic gas filtered into several of the shantytowns surrounding the plant. The government of India reported 558,125 injuries, with estimates of over 16,000 deaths.

The list above could easily be extended to include other catastrophes like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Deepwater Horizons, Hurricane Katrina, Love Canal and countless more.

The Black Hat Backlash

It’s not reasonable to think that we will somehow reach an era of being disaster-free. Machines wear out, computers break down, and even our best attempts at making a fail safe system will eventually fail. Add in a few earthquakes and nature’s own mechanisms for disrupting things when we least expect it, and we get a sense as to how fallible our future will be.

So who will be left to pick up the pieces? Just us lowly humans.

With our growing imbalance between the super rich and the super poor, a more likely scenario will be a scaling up of techno-stealth warfare of the clandestine kind, with black hat technologies used to disrupt our systems, industries, and government in unusual ways.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, “black hat” refers to hackers intent on being disruptive, malicious and stealing for personal gain. Until now, black hat hackers have been limited to the programming world. But that’s about to change.

Black hat drones, black hat robots, black hat car crashers and black hat data manipulators will soon be entering our vocabulary. One slightly deranged psycho-bot can easily be a thousand times more destructive than a single suicide bomber today. Even in a society filled with cameras, tracking technology and data trails as wide as a barn, every new generation of techno-hacker has devised ways of masking their path of destruction.

Final Thoughts

NPR recently created a fascinating interactive website posting the likelihood of certain professions disappearing.

On the high end of the spectrum, they predict telemarketers have a 99 percent chance of one day being totally replaced by technology, with cashiers, tellers and drivers all coming in with at 97 percent. 

The jobs with the lowest potential of being overtaken by technology include mental health and substance abuse social workers. They have a 0.3 percent chance according to the data. Occupational therapists also rank at 0.3 percent, while dentists, surgeons and nutritionists appear pretty safe at just 0.4 percent.

That said, even the researchers that conducted this study for NPR admit that their estimates are rough and likely to be wrong.

History is filled with jobs that no longer exist. Whether it was pinsetters for bowling alleys, milk deliverymen, lamplighters, or switchboard operators, technology has a way of changing the work we do.

The biggest risk we face is in alienating the same people that will have to come in later to clean up after all the messes we make.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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