Toby Ord’s ‘The Precipice’ is published!

post by matthew.vandermerwe · 2020-03-04T21:09:11.693Z · score: 136 (51 votes) · EA · GW · 17 comments


    How to get it
    What you can do
  Summary of the book
    Part One: The Stakes
    Part Two: The Risks
    Part Three: The Path Forward

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

What you can do

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. 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2020-03-09T18:32:05.830Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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. :)

comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2020-03-05T21:01:16.312Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.)

comment by matthew.vandermerwe · 2020-03-08T15:28:38.046Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I will investigate this and get back to you!

comment by MichaelA · 2020-03-11T07:56:47.073Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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)?

comment by matthew.vandermerwe · 2020-03-12T16:35:40.006Z · score: 15 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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).

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-03-24T11:26:45.366Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.)

comment by Jest(comment)er · 2020-03-17T13:56:03.756Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Infinite Jest has them at the end of the audiobook in chaptered (clickable) segments, iirc

comment by MichaelA · 2020-03-12T16:49:44.669Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. Yes, I'll get the ebook then.

comment by willbradshaw · 2020-03-11T20:13:28.125Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Sean_o_h · 2020-03-11T20:23:16.827Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by JanBrauner · 2020-03-11T20:43:47.610Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by evelynciara · 2020-03-29T04:33:20.135Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by matthew.vandermerwe · 2020-03-30T11:27:18.209Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes I gave authorization!

comment by EmmaAbele · 2020-06-01T11:14:53.116Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

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?

comment by evelynciara · 2020-03-17T20:50:39.964Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

How are you planning to advertise the book? I have suggestions....