Photo by Joseph Chan
Imagine the last group of humans, a few billion or trillion years from now. Let’s imagine two different versions of this group, representing two different outcomes for humanity.
In one future, the last humans are wise, numerous, spread across billions of galaxies, custodians of all life in the universe and have guided all reality towards undreamed-of heights of flourishing. We can scarcely imagine the nature of these humans’ experiences, but we do know that they have gone as far as possible in the pursuit of maximum wellbeing. Now, having exhausted all their resources, they have serenely accepted the end of the universe and themselves, satisfied in the knowledge of what they have achieved. The last energy source sputters out and the last humans die peacefully, the triumphant inheritors of a vast heritage stretching back to the plains of Africa on a small planet trillions of years before.
In another future, the last humans are a scattered group who have barely held on to existence. Trillions of years before, artificial intelligence was harnessed by a group of powerful people with a fundamentalist religious vision, who locked humanity into an eternal dystopia. The power of the ruling class was so entrenched that it became an impossibility to throw it off, and, though human technology advanced, human wellbeing did not. As the last humans, remnants of a now-dead totalitarianism, die, they reflect on the sheer waste of these trillions of years. How much humanity could have done! How much it could have been!
These fanciful scenarios indicate the scope of Toby Ord’s recent book, The Precipice. Ord is one of the founders of the effective altruism movement and a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. He is engaged in the questions of humanity’s future, and how to navigate the current era, so full of existential risk, to ensure that that future both comes about and is as good as it can possibly be for all involved.
My scenarios represent one desired outcome and another, much worse, one. There are many other possible outcomes, of course, but my second scenario illustrates one of Ord’s most important points: that we should be concerned not just with the possible extinction of our species before it reaches its full potential, but also with the ways in we could find ourselves trapped by bad choices into a terrible, almost irrevocable, future.
So why should such grand timescales concern us, given the problems the world faces right now? Ord does not say that current problems don’t matter: it’s just that we live at a historical moment in which our decisions could affect the way humanity’s long term future plays out. He calls this moment the precipice, arguing that, ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, we have found ourselves not just masters of the Earth but potential destroyers of it and ourselves. This massive amplification of our power has not been matched by a commensurate increase in our wisdom. We think too small, too short term, and could find ourselves either not remembered at all or remembered as the generation that doomed humanity to a horrible eternity.
We therefore bear of a huge burden: we are tasked with ensuring that humanity has a good future. We must orient ourselves across this precipice, Ord says, reducing the amount of existential risk as much as we can by thinking seriously about things like engineered pandemics, artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war and unalterable dystopias, and investing resources in combating the threats we face as well as educating ourselves morally in how best to navigate them.
Ord discusses several reasons why we should care about the long term future. One arresting point he makes is the equal importance of future generations in our moral thinking. The billions or trillions to come have as much right as we do to a decent world, and, just as we have expanded our moral circle from small tribal groups to the whole of humanity and even to other species, we must encompass the wellbeing of future people in our moral calculations.
Other reasons to care include our obligation to continue the heritage of the billions of humans who came before us, and the fact that, if we are the only intelligent life in the universe, we have a reason to extend our uniqueness temporally, as well as geographically. I find this vision inspiring: our strange little species of ape is the repository of the universe’s highest value, constrained only by the limits we impose upon ourselves, capable of heights that would make our current state of affairs look risibly primitive. Why on earth wouldn’t you want this story to continue?
The Precipice tackles an astounding range of concerns. Ord navigates history, science, philosophy, statistics and politics with admirable clarity, providing compelling and inspiring arguments. “In optimism lies urgency,” he writes: to immerse ourselves in the dark possibilities of our future is the only way to avoid them.
Ord’s “grand strategy for humanity” describes a first stage in which we must achieve existential security; thereafter comes the period of the Long Reflection, during which we might spend centuries considering the best paths open to us; the final stage involves achieving our potential in full. Though we have no hope of seeing the endgame, our generation could set our future on a firm foundation.
Ord’s vision of the future, delineated broadly at the end of the book, is spine-tingling. Though he is not a scientist, he understands science well, and the poetic tenor of his prose is, at moments, worthy of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. He speaks of how long we could last and what we could witness in the years to come—the drifting of continents and evolution in geological time, stars going out and being born, new galaxies and other physical wonders, and things we cannot even conceive of presently. We could expand across space and time, seeding the universe with life, preserving Earth’s species and possibly meeting alien civilisations:
Right now, the rest of the universe appears to lack such qualities [as love and thought] … But if we can venture out and animate the countless worlds above with life and love and thought, then … we could bring our cosmos to its full scale; make it worthy of our awe. And since it appears to be only us who can bring the universe to such full scale, we may have an immense instrumental value, which would leave us at the centre of this picture of the cosmos. In this way, our potential, and the potential in the sheer scale of the universe, are interwoven.
Just as we can only see part of the electromagnetic spectrum, writes Ord, new forms of consciousness and experience will open up to us in the aeons to come. We would have time to sort out injustice, poverty, and all the other evils, striving always towards an elevated life for all. Our current cognitive capabilities could be massively increased and our minds opened beyond anything we can imagine:
What experiences, possibly of immense value, could be accessible, then, to minds much greater [than our present ones]? Mice know very little of music, art or humour. Towards what experiences are we as mice? What beauties are we blind to?
Such a future is in our hands today. Ord analyses several existential risks in detail and proposes many ways to navigate these and improve our potential more broadly. One important factor is education. By educating ourselves on the importance of human wellbeing, we will be more inclined to preserve and expand it. As Aldous Huxley once put it, we must educate ourselves for freedom if we are to avoid a Brave New World (or no world, one might add). Enlightenment values are as important as ever—perhaps more so. We should be angry at the idiocies—from incompetence to fundamentalism—that could cut this future off and at the parochial nature of our concerns. There is so much more waiting to be dreamed and achieved. We contain more multitudes than we know.
Ord provides suggestions for individuals who want to make a difference: you and I can do our bit, despite the vastness of it all. One of the book’s most admirable characteristics is its treatment of the reader as an equal: there are copious notes and appendices providing more depth and technicality, and we are invited to explore these “scenic detours.” Ord gives us a list of resources and suggestions as to what we can do. His integrity and commitment to intellectual honesty are demonstrated by the book’s accompanying website, which features a list of errata to be constantly updated (he invites contributions).
Ord also quantifies the “risk landscape,” stating that he wants to be precise about what he means, so that his assumptions can be challenged, rather than speaking vaguely in fear of being tied down and refuted. Indeed, he rather wants to be tied down in this way because such is the path of intellectual progress.
The Precipice is an ambitious and endlessly interesting book. It is also vitally important to the future of us all. Ord humbles and inspires and therefore achieves one of his aims: to raise awareness of existential risk and the necessity of thinking about it. We could enjoy trillions of years of beauty and flourishing, of science, art and technology inconceivable to us right now before we come to a final, contented end—if we steer this ship wisely. I hope my wholehearted recommendation of Ord’s book may count as my own tiny contribution to this project.