The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is out today. I’ve been working on the book with Toby for the past 18 months, and I’m excited for everyone to read it. I think it has the potential to make a profound difference to the way the world thinks about existential risk.
How to get it
- It's out in the UK on March 5 and US March 24
- An audiobook, narrated by Toby himself, is out March 24
- You can buy it on Amazon now, or at theprecipice.com/purchase
- You can download the opening chapters for free by signing up to the newsletter at www.theprecipice.com
What you can do
- Read the book
- Talk about it with your friends and family, or share quotes you like on social media
- If you enjoy it, consider writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads
Summary of the book
Part One: The Stakes
Toby places our time within the broad sweep of human history: showing how far humanity has come in 2,000 centuries, and where we might go if we survive long enough. He outlines the major transitions in our past—the Agricultural, Scientific, and Industrial Revolutions. Each is characterised by dramatic increases in our power over the natural world, and together they have yielded massive improvements in living standards. During the twentieth century, with the detonation of the atomic bomb, humanity entered a new era. We gained the power to destroy itself, without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t. This is the Precipice, and how we navigate this period will determine whether humanity has a long and flourishing future, or no future at all. Toby introduces the concept of existential risk—risks that threaten to destroy humanity’s longterm potential. He shows how the case for safeguarding humanity from these risks draws support from a range of moral perspectives. Yet it remains grossly neglected—humanity spends more each year on ice cream than we do on protecting our future.
Part Two: The Risks
Toby explores the science behind the risks we face. In Natural Risks, he considers threats from asteroids & comets, supervolcanic eruptions, and stellar explosions. He shows how we can use humanity’s 200,000 year history to place strict bounds on how high the natural risk could be. In Anthropogenic Risks, he looks at risks we have imposed on ourselves in the last century, from nuclear war, extreme climate change, and environmental damage. In Future Risks, he turns to threats that are on the horizon from emerging technologies, focusing in detail on engineered pandemics, unaligned artificial intelligence, and dystopian scenarios.
Part Three: The Path Forward
Toby surveys the risk landscape and gives his own estimates for each risk. He also provides tools for thinking about how they compare and combine, and for how to prioritise between risks. He estimates that nuclear war and climate change each pose more risk than all the natural risks combined, and that risks from emerging technologies are higher still. Altogether, Toby believes humanity faces a 1 in 6 change of existential catastrophe in the next century. He argues that it is in our power to end these risks today, and to reach a place of safety. He outlines a grand strategy for humanity, provides actionable policy and research recommendations, and shows what each of us can do. The book ends with an inspiring vision of humanity’s potential, and what we might hope to achieve if we navigate the risks of the next century.
I've compiled 16 fun or important points from the book for the write-up of my interview with Toby, which might well be of interest people here. :)
I have a selfish question. How hard is it for y'all to get the audio synced with the text version? (Amazon calls this Whispersync.)
(This is selfish because despite constant evangelizing on my part, my friends are not that enthusiastic, and I have no indicators that I'm normal in my fanaticism for this feature.)
I will investigate this and get back to you!
Excited to get stuck into this!
I generally prefer audiobooks, but on 80k Toby mentioned that about half of the book is interesting footnotes and appendices. Will the audiobook version have all of that? And how would it work (e.g., are all the footnotes just read at the end, or read alongside the relevant part of the main text)?
The audiobook will not include the endnotes. We really couldn't see any good way of doing this, unfortunately.
Toby is right that there's a huge amount of great stuff in there, particularly for those already more familiar with existential risk, so I would highly recommend getting your hands on a physical or ebook version (IMO ebook is the best format for endnotes, since they'll be hyperlinked).
For those looking for the ebook, it's only available on the Canadian, German, and Australian (cheapest) amazon pages (but not US / UK ones). (EDIT: Actually available on the UK store.)
I got it on Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Toby_Ord_The_Precipice?id=W7rEDwAAQBAJ
Infinite Jest has them at the end of the audiobook in chaptered (clickable) segments, iirc
Thanks. Yes, I'll get the ebook then.
I'd be fairly surprised if the answer wasn't "we dropped the footnotes" since this is almost always the answer. If that is not the answer I'd also be curious about how it was managed.
That would be a shame. If you're fairly familiar with Xrisk literature and FHI's work in particular, then a lot of the juiciest facts and details are in the footnotes - I found them fascinating.
Infinite Jest has them at the end of the audiobook in chaptered (clickable) segments, iirc
I think I overheard Toby saying that the footnotes and appendices were dropped in the audiobook and that, yes, the footnotes and appendices (which make up 50% of the book) should be the most interesting part for people already familiar with the X-risk literature.
I noticed that much of the Wikipedia article about this book was copied from this post. Did you give anyone authorization to write the article using this post as the source? I ask because Wikipedia is very strict about copyrights, and I need to make sure that the article is rewritten if it violates your copyright.
Yes I gave authorization!
Such a great book!
I am struggling to get my friends and family to read it though as they are put off by it being quite a sizeable hefty book (even when I tell them they can skip the footnotes).
Are there plans to make a short/abridged paperback version that might spread more widely outside of the EA community? I'd love to see the main ideas and thoughts become somewhat common knowledge. Or is it more important to have fewer people have a deep understanding then many people have a surface level understanding?
How are you planning to advertise the book? I have suggestions....
My book has just arrived in the mail and I was excited to flick through the contents before I make my start later tonight. One thing I did notice, there makes no mention of religion and the influence it has had on human behaviour. One thing I have noticed very recently amongst this pandemic is that there seem to be some glaring issues and in my sense, classified as existential risks as they do cause endless death and carnage, and they are religion, democracy and capitalism.
I’m in the middle of gardening at the moment so can’t give this post the intricate detail it requires, but I would be very interested if someone with a voice was able to draw the dots between the fact that only approximately 25% of the world population are made up of intuitive minds and the remaining 75% classified as sensors and how the minority have evolved our species with their thinking yet are reliant on the democratic majority to make decisions for our collective species and environment. In layman’s terms, 75% of the population can only see the options presented in front of them (this traffic light is red). Whereas the remaining 25% are able to think of other options (why is this traffic light red?). As a simple man, I know which mind I would want at the head of every institution. Now, a great man once said that a democracy doesn’t work when the majority are idiots. He was right, the democracy which we are presented with, which is nothing like the true democracy of Ancient Greece, is littered with parasites and idiots (their true Ancient Greek meaning) who are incapable of knowing what’s best for the rest of their species in an altruist nature. A quick fix solution to this would be to ban political parties and the money, power and reach that supports them, this will create a fair playing field rather than this duopoly that we have and that 75% of the population can’t see past.
Religion, has someone not drawn the dots on how we became doomed with the moral compass that we have learnt from the majority of religions? Pagan gods enabled us to love and appreciate every little thing that occupies this earth as we saw a god or life story behind everything. When we took that away with one god, we instead increased our ego by telling ourselves that man created everything at the will of god, and of course to Indulge as that is the reason why he died for us. Indigenous cultures thrive because of their belief system and their respect for the life they see in everything. They live in harmony with their habitat. I believe the Roman Empire took a step back when they outlawed pagan gods at the time.
And lastly, capitalism, our sense of achievement has changed substantially. In ancient times when we learnt and discovered at a phenomenal pace, we did so because our personal sense of achievement was to discover something new, gather more wisdom or create some engineering feat. Nowadays, we measure our sense of achievement by money and how much more we have than our neighbour. The man who is poor in materials is rich in thought and the one rich in materials is too distracted to think.
My two cents, I think our existential problems all point down human behaviour. It hasn’t change throughout history and we have repeatedly repeated it, lol. Every man who tried to make change for good was persecuted or silenced, all the way back to Socrates. I reckon making parents wait a minimum of 5 years between kids should do the trick, something about birth orders and the effect on the child’s personality... But what would I know, I’ve got gardening to do