The Precipice

Recommendation: It’s an interesting concept but the vagaries annoyed me

Where to read: In the fetal position?

Read with: Half decent prosecco

In brief: I didn’t hate this but it’s a bit…trite. And I am really not sure how you characterise a book about the future of the human race that way.

Science published a good content-based review which is worth reading for an overview of Ord’s premise since I don’t propose to summarise the book here.

A disturbing number of reviewers, including this one, describe this book as “optimistic” which is a bit weird when you consider that Ord puts the chances of humanity wiping itself out completely in the next couple of hundred years as 1/6.

This impression comes, I think, primarily from two factors, the first being Ord’s insistence that when he is talking about ‘existential risk’, he means it. Despite his finger-in-the-wind risk analysis, it’s hard to imagine (and hard for him to convey) catastrophes on the scale required to completely destroy human potential. The second is his mistily utopian prognostications about the potential human future. Add in the the slightly weird musing on expanded human consciousness and the book acquires an almost naively hopeful overtone.

A certain level of haziness is probably inevitable given the subject matter but it is also slightly jarring given the amount of work that is done in a very concrete way around risk analysis. Granted, it is usually of a more limited scope (bushfires in a particular area, flood risk etc) but the language and framework does exist and it was an odd experience to go from more concrete thinking to this more high-level rumination.

All in all, it is a fine but less substantive read than I might have expected.

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