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The Precipice: ‘A book that seems made for the present moment’ New Yorker Paperback – 18 Feb. 2021
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What existential threats does humanity face? And how can we secure our future?
'The Precipice is a powerful book . . . Ord's love for humanity and hope for its future is infectious' Spectator
'Ord's analysis of the science is exemplary . . . Thrillingly written' Sunday Times
We live during the most important era of human history. In the twentieth century, we developed the means to destroy ourselves - without developing the moral framework to ensure we won't. This is the Precipice, and how we respond to it will be the most crucial decision of our time.
Oxford moral philosopher Toby Ord explores the risks to humanity's future, from the familiar man-made threats of climate change and nuclear war, to the potentially greater, more unfamiliar threats from engineered pandemics and advanced artificial intelligence.
With clear and rigorous thinking, Ord calculates the various risk levels, and shows how our own time fits within the larger story of human history. We can say with certainty that the novel coronavirus does not pose such a risk. But could the next pandemic? And what can we do, in our present moment, to face the risks head on?
A major work that brings together the disciplines of physics, biology, earth and computer science, history, anthropology, statistics, international relations, political science and moral philosophy, The Precipice is a call for a new understanding of our age: a major reorientation in the way we see the world, our history, and the role we play in it.
A powerfully argued book that alerts us to what is perhaps the most important - and yet also most neglected - problem we will ever face -- Peter Singer, author of 'Animal Liberation' and 'The Life You Can Save'
The Precipice separates science from hype and will remain the definitive work on existential risk for a long time to come -- Max Tegmark, author of 'Life 3.0' and 'Our Mathematical Universe'
A fascinating and persuasive guide to the most important topic of all: how our species will survive the risks we pose to our continued existence -- Stuart Russell, author of 'Human Compatible' and 'Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach'
This book is a wake-up call to the existential threats of nuclear and biological weapons and the urgent need for action. A must-read that galvanises us to play a role in addressing these risks -- Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
Humanity has never been more vulnerable - there's now a one-in-six chance that civilisation won't make it to the end of the century, argues a highly influential philosopher . . . Ord's analysis of the science is exemplary . . . Thrillingly written ― Sunday Times
Many people have recently found that they want to read books offering the grandest perspectives possible on human existence, such as Sapiens . . . Toby Ord's new book is a startling and rigorous contribution to this genre that deserves to be just as widely read ― Evening Standard
Splendid . . . The Precipice is a powerful book, written with a philosopher's eye . . . Ord's love for humanity and hope for its future is infectious ― Spectator
Urgent and vaguely prophetic . . . In a year in which our everyday lives were upended by the unexpected (or rather the expected yet neglected), The Precipice is a good way to put everything in perspective -- Books of the Year ― WIRED
The Precipice is a fascinating book, one that showcases both the knowledge of its author and his humanity ― Axios
A book that seems made for the present moment ― New Yorker
A story of the greatest risks to humanity's future, from the climate crisis and nuclear war to pandemics and artificial intelligence -- Highlights for 2020 ― Guardian
- Publisher : Bloomsbury Publishing; 1st edition (18 Feb. 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1526600234
- ISBN-13 : 978-1526600233
- Dimensions : 19.9 x 3.1 x 12.9 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 25,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer reviews:
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What strikes me the most about the book is the incredibly smooth text, with earnest calls for people with 'keen intellect' to go forth and tackle these challenges, because the future could be great. It's clear that Toby Ord has poured so much into this book over the past few years, and the text remains calm, honest, persistent, and inspirational. I ordered five copies and will be sharing them with my friends and family.
Loads of academics could spend decades in conferences, throwing around impressive mathematics and concepts and philosophical and political ideas, only to be as subject to the pointlessness of fate as the builder who built the conference hall, or the cleaner who cleaned the seats before the conference. Of course we have to care about humanity and about the future, just as we have to care about the welfare of our own children. Of course we have to live as if things are going to go on and on, and try to make them better all the time. But that is just common sense and decency. It doesn’t make it any better if we complicate any of it with equations identifying risk probabilities, or get all worked up about the world of our great-great grandchildren, about which we know almost nothing. (Those equations are surely only given value if they relate to the real world, e.g. they increase the safety of road or air travel vehicles.)
Perhaps I found the vision of the book simply too huge for normal human beings. The best things to do with our expertise and intelligence and expert opinions is to be pragmatic about solving current issues – climate change, political and economic conflicts, and the potential threats from artificial intelligence – with a focus on the next fifty years, and let the century after that take care of itself. All we can hope to leave behind is a good example and the fruits of our experience and knowledge.
Ethical philosophy about any future society is potentially rather silly. Imagine getting someone in a time machine from a mere 150 years ago and bringing them to today – when all of their ideas about women and foreigners and music and sexuality and conduct in society would be screamingly out of place and wildly intolerant to our eyes. How do you think that someone in 150 years might feel about, say, paedophilia? It’s only a (really unfortunate) sexual orientation, isn’t it, which you can’t “help” any more than being gay, so criminalising it and being thoroughly disgusted by it and condemnatory of it – which is our current society’s response, overwhelmed by the emotional reaction to the vulnerability of child victims – is surely going to be looked back upon as primitive. Hating and criminalising it is no more capable of solving resulting social/psychological/ emotional problems than believing that it is in the nature of black slaves to be slaves, once a widely accepted attitude. So how disgusted might we be, from our time and our perspective, by the activities and fashions of the society of 3,000 years in the future? We might not even think they are worth saving the world for, with their genetically modified inhabitants of Mars and Titan with heaven-knows-what in the way of social and sexual practices, with their sex robots and their utterly incomprehensible music and their stupid religions and mad political set-ups. (I’m not saying they won’t think their existences are just fine, thank you!)
So yes, he’s right that we’re on a Precipice, and that only we can do something about it. But that’s virtually nothing to do with what we might get up to when we become capable of settling other planets, for example, or how long the stars will last or how fast the universe is expanding (if it is – something else our great-great-grandchildren might have vastly different explanations for, looking back on our quaint ideas about string theory and parallel universes and dark energy, and taxation and social policies, and even perhaps on the threats from AI). There is much of interest in this book and you might have a completely different perspective on it from mine, but I think it could have been a damn sight shorter and more near-future focused, in order to make a greater impact. Not that I have an ounce of the influence that the author has, in academic and political circles.
It is, incidentally, one of the most infuriating books I have read – it was absolutely necessary to use two bookmarks, because half of the information, and half of the book, is in a gigantic footnotes section. There is therefore, if you want to appreciate what is being discussed, endless going back-and-forth, to take in long notes – these footnotes are rarely just a reference to something you can find in the bibliography. It would have made much better reading if many of the footnotes were simply incorporated into the main text, where, in my opinion, they really belong.
To return to what I said at the beginning, Toby Ord is clearly brilliant, and a great guy, but I was left with very mixed feelings about this book. If you want the big picture, and don’t mind also putting up with some waffle (rather speculative) about the probabilities, or if you want to support the future-humanity charities that the book’s royalties are all going to go to, buy the book. You could have done worse things in your life or with your money. But I don't think it will be one of the best books you ever read.
Ord makes his case in a systematic, persuasive and captivating way. Aside from that, the book is sprinkled with interesting facts. For example, did you know that, if all bees and all other pollinators were to disappear, this would only reduce global crop yields by 3-8%? Or that maximum-security biological research labs have accidentally released foot-and-mouth disease (twice, and once leading to an outbreak), Polio (45kg of it), SARS, and the black death?
The book finishes with recommendations for how you can help reduce existential risks. My recommendation: read this book.
Toby Ord convincingly argues that this is not the case, the chances that humanity may go extinct in near future are not that small, and the topic deserves serious attention. Actually I think the likelihood of dying because of some global catastrophe is larger than e.g. the risk of dying because of a traffic accident. Taking this seriously could be quite a perspective-changing event.
Readable and throughly researched