The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, by Toby Ord

novelfables's review against another edition

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There are a lot of ideas and bits from history that hit hard, but I feel like the delivery of this book was a bit drawn out and dragged a bit with the repetitiveness of statistics. I wish it would have had more applicational approaches to how we as individuals can help, but there are some resources at the end of the book, and after all, how can one dude tell us how to save humanity? At least it tells us where to focus our resources and energy for the most impact.

That said, it's an important read for humanity and sparked a lot of thoughts. Even though many of those thoughts are grim, it can take my four stars for simply spreading awareness about the importance of empathy for humanity, not just for near generations, but for humanity thousands of years or more from now.

Living in a world driven by consumerism and the constant desire to get the next dopamine hit to feed individual wants, the mentality of "Who cares if I won't be here to see it?" makes me wonder if we even stand a chance.

pipsqueaks's review against another edition

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It was interesting until the part about AI. That is not how it works, which made me wonder if the author actually did do his research properly about all the other things he mentioned. Ryan review explains very well what I disagreed with:

wojciech's review against another edition

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The questions tackled by this book are as grand as they get. What are the different existential risks that threaten humanity? How do we minimise them? Why this should be a priority cause especially this century?
Those, and many more, are explored by the author drawing from extensive and varied research (e.g. philosophy, ethics, statistics, science, technology, biology, astronomy etc.).

What is at stake? Well; everything.

Highly recommend reading. Feel free to skip the extensive endnotes unless something catches your interest. Book reads much more fluidly without the back and forth.

I have been interested in x-risks for a while now and this was an incredibly useful resource to inform my thinking and provide food for thought.

(BTW read the Three Body Problem trilogy for a great science fiction series covering similar topics)

godhelm's review against another edition

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Good overview of issues, and succeeds in reigning in some alarmism in what could easily have been a hopeless alarmist book, where exaggerations are made to elevate the material. Prescient about the dangers of pandemics and gain of function research. Has some good sections on the varying levels of existential risk but could have used more on that subject, as most of these individual parts - climate change, AI, pandemics, nuclear wars, and so on - are better covered in other books.

lisaxdf's review against another edition

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challenging hopeful informative reflective slow-paced


kaiake's review against another edition

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hopeful informative inspiring reflective medium-paced


I enjoyed this book. I began reading it feeling that the idea of delibaretly pushing back the extinction of humanity was, to put it simply, stupid. I ended the book feeling much more open to this idea, as well as fascinated (and okay) with the possibilities of space exploration and interplanetary travel in the future—something I'd previously been passionately against. I won't say this transformation is inevitable for readers of the book who share the feelings I did prior to reading, but I do think this is well worth the read, even if only for awareness of another perspective and for a space to contemplate humanity's development.

I enjoyed how hopeful the author was about the future, and I was very much inspired by his paragraphs which focused on the universe and the celestial bodies within. I'm always struck when learning of the incomprehensible size and age of the universe, and I admit that talk of this as well as ideas of what humanity could be capable of technologically in the next hundreds of thousands of years and beyond is what made my feelings shift.

A small example of something that I appreciated was the perspective on the necessity of human-made technology for preserving plant life far in the future when photosynthesis becomes impossible. I hadn't seriously considered the necessity of human exclusive capabilities in the prevention of a species' extinction when the damage is unrelated to humans, and its application extends far beyond photosynthesis and plant life!

cassssss's review

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hopeful informative medium-paced


mdmullins's review against another edition

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In a book encompassing nothing less than the entirety of human potential Toby Orb has written a thorough, statistic-laden, intelligent and slightly tepid response to all the things which could go wrong in the worst of all possible nightmares. Asteroids, climate change, nuclear war, volcanos, exploding stars, AI — everything (save one thing) which poses natural or anthropogenic annihilation of all human potential (as opposed to just those threats which could cause the extinction of the species) is gamed out, mathematically and logically. Herein lies the only real problem with the book. In another recent book, The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, Chris Mooney points out that such factual counterpointing rarely has the desired effect. Mooney says:

[…] as for defending reality itself? That’s the trickiest thing of all.

As I’ve suggested, refuting conservative falsehoods does only limited good. There are more than enough conservative intellectuals out there to stand up (sic.) “refute” the refutations, leading to endless, fruitless arguments. And for the general public, those unconvinced or undecided, sound and fury over technical matters is off-putting, and leaves behind the impression that nobody knows what is actually true.

Rather, liberals and scientists should find some key facts—the best facts—and integrate them into stories that move people. A data dump is worse than pointless; it’s counterproductive. But a narrative can change heart and mind alike.

And here, again, is where you really have to admire conservatives. Their narrative of the founding of the country, which casts the U.S. as a “Christian nation” and themselves as the Tea Party, is a powerful story that perfectly matches their values. It just happens to be . . . wrong. But liberals will never defeat it factually—they have to tell a better story of their own.

The same goes for any number of other issues where conservative misinformation has become so dominant. Again and again, liberals have the impulse to shout back what’s true. Instead, they need to shout back what matters.

For the record, I am the one bringing the political divide into the discussion, not Orb, who despite being so thorough and insightful, has failed to recognize the one, previously alluded to, missing existential threat: stupidity, for which we are currently in boundless supply.

It wasn’t because someone came along with the right facts and figures that the German people joined hands with madmen, men so efficient and stunningly pathological in killing that we needed to promote a word to proper status just to describe it. (Holocaust.) No. One of the madmen told them a story and apparently made it irresistible. Because of this, 17 million people were slaughtered. The Precipice is a book of popular nonfiction, and so the oversight is a double-strike against it: first because popular books need a compelling story and, second, because a message this important must be sharp in tooth and claw. Nothing that is here needs to be removed. Ord simply wrote half of a book, forgetting the Dionysian tragedy which should have accompanied the Apollonian luminescence penetrating his subject. His subject is our subject, after all. What could be more important than that? Let’s hope we have future storytellers with sufficient grit for the telling.

silent_coup's review against another edition

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The Precipe forces the reader to grapple existential risks that are both natural and anthropogenic in nature and how humanity can and must mitigate them. The author provides a strong argument for humanity being at a hinge point where the risks it has created for its own survival are now sufficiently large and its wisdom necessarily insufficient that there is a not insubstantial chance of existential catastrophe. This catastrophe could have major ramifications not just for humanity, but for sentient life as we know it.

The author provides some discussion on how these risks may be mitigated, however do not expect to leave the book with answers. The questions that are posed are large and profoundly challenging and will change the way that you think about humanity and life more generally.

cazxxx's review

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challenging dark emotional informative inspiring reflective sad slow-paced