Review: Ord’s The Precipice

The Precipice: Existential Risks and the Future of Humanity
Tony Ord

An odd and fascinating little book written by one of the leading forces in effective altruism, the Precipice is an attempt to catalogue and rate true existential crises facing humanity. We’re not taking about inconveniences, here, we’re talking ending human life kind of stuff. We’re talking asteroids, super volcanos, environmental collapse, rogue AI.

 It’s a project that is at once kind of wacky, while being brilliant and carefully done. My quibble, such as it is, is Ord’s insistence on putting a numerical possibility on the various scenarios. This, to me, is a misuse of mathematics. We’re obsessed with probabilities, and yet we know very little about them, and most of us profoundly do not understand how they work. Additionally, predicting rare events (or even semi-rare, like presidential elections) is incredibly hard, and really all Ord is doing here is spit balling. I wish he hadn’t as it leaves a sour taste on what is overwise a wonderfully challenging book.

Recommended for the enthusiast.