The Precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity
by Toby Ord
Bloomsbury, $29.99 pb, 468 pp
This is a strange time to be reading a book about risk, especially one in which the risk of a pandemic is a central concern. Many of us have been worrying about, and attempting to manage, risks every time we have left the house. One of the lessons of this experience has been just how bad we are at thinking about risk. In particular, we struggle to reckon with small risks that may have disastrous outcomes.
This well-known human failing is one of the motivations for Australian philosopher Toby Ord’s book The Precipice, which argues that we are not doing enough to address the risk of extinction of the human species. The ‘precipice’ of the book’s title refers to the idea that we are standing on the edge of great things but also on the edge of disaster. Our new-found power over the natural world, provided by science and technology, holds out the prospect of a near infinite ‘future of value’ in which humanity flourishes and reaches for the stars. At the same time, science has made us conscious of species-level threats such as asteroid strikes that might cut short this future, while technology has produced new threats, including climate change and the risk of rogue artificial intelligences.