In 1945, as American physicists were preparing to test the atomic bomb, it occurred to someone to ask if such a test could set the atmosphere on fire.
This was a legitimate concern. Nitrogen, which makes up most of the atmosphere, is not energetically stable. Smush two nitrogen atoms together hard enough and they will combine into an atom of magnesium, an alpha particle, and release a whole lot of energy:
N14 + N14 ⇒ Mg24 + α + 17.7 MeV
The vital question was whether this reaction could be self-sustaining. The temperature inside the nuclear fireball would be hotter than any event in the Earth’s history. Were we throwing a match into a bunch of dry leaves?
Los Alamos physicists performed the analysis and decided there was a satisfactory margin of safety. Since we’re all attending this conference today, we know they were right. They had confidence in their predictions because the laws governing nuclear reactions were straightforward and fairly well understood.
Today we’re building another world-changing technology, machine intelligence. We know that it will affect the world in profound ways, change how the economy works, and have knock-on effects we can’t predict.