Are We Standing on the Precipice? image

Are We Standing on the Precipice?

Serendipity? Luck? A cosmic warning? The timing of Toby Ord’s book, The Precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity, could be seen as all those things. Published just as the coronavirus outbreak was gripping the attention of the world, Ord’s book examines the things that could kill us – not just a few thousand or millions of us, but the entire human race. It’s an important book, and an unusual one.

The Precipice is unusual in its format, and the author is unusual in his actions. It is 468 pages long but the appendices and notes begin at page 243; so there is almost as much information in the half of the book most people won’t read as in the half that hopefully they will. And the author is an Oxford philosopher who is not only an ivory tower thinker, but who has spearheaded truly significant philanthropic initiatives, such as this and this.

The Precipice is profoundly troubling. Ord dissects the different existential risks we face and puts a probability on them killing us. It’s a relief to know the likelihood of being taken out by an asteroid is extremely low but Ord’s estimate of what an engineered pandemic or uncontrolled artificial intelligence might do is pretty scary. Overall, he calculates we have a one in six chance of rendering ourselves extinct in the next century. Read his reasoning and the case doesn’t seem overstated at all.

I hope Boris Johnson might be reading this book – or that at least some advisors close to him are. Ord makes a strong case that governments should be spending far more on ‘targeted existential risk interventions.’ At present we ‘spend less than a thousandth of a percent of gross world product on them.’ Ord argues that this should increase, ‘by at least a factor of 100, to reach a point where the world is spending more on securing its potential than on ice-cream.’ He suggests a global catastrophe might be the warning shot that causes us to adjust the attention we give to existential risk – perhaps Covid-19 will be that shot?

It’s certainly not all gloom and doom though, as The Precipice is extraordinarily optimistic. Swerve the Russian roulette bullet we’re facing and humanity could progress to unimagined – and unimaginable – achievements. This is where Ord gets into territory that will be familiar to readers of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: galactic expansion and dominance by a human species optimised for long life and pleasure.

With spellbinding imagery and mind-bending cosmology Ord describes how early in its history the human story could be: we are, in his estimation, in the adolescent phase of our potential lifespan, which is exactly why we are such a danger to ourselves at this point. Get through our teens (don’t cause a nuclear winter, engineer an unstoppable pathogen, or release artificial intelligence that replaces us) and we could have billions of years of development and joy ahead of us.

Because, in expectation, almost all of humanity’s life lies in the future, almost everything of value lies in the future as well: almost all the flourishing; almost all the beauty; our greatest achievements; our most just societies; our most profound discoveries. We can continue our progress on prosperity, health, justice, freedom and moral thought. We can create a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine.

Ord’s analysis is powerful and deserves the most careful attention – and action. But the picture he paints of what humanity might be capable left me feeling that in some ways The Precipice is a theology book in search of God.

I finished the book on Easter Sunday. The Christian hope is not that humanity might somehow save itself, and finally escape the confines of the earth to ‘fill with life’ the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Rather, we believe that because of the cross of Christ, ‘a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine’ is already guaranteed. The apostle Paul expressed this long before the existential risks we now face were dreamed of:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

I don’t think Ord has seen that most vital part of the picture – but The Precipice has helped me to dream all the more of what it might look like. If there were anyone I could meet for a coffee right now (remember when we used to do that?) Toby Ord would be top of the list.


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