Saturday, August 13

Toby Ord. “The probability that we will not survive in the next century is one in six” | Ideas


Toby Ord in a 2019 file image.
Toby Ord in a 2019 file image.David Fisher

The philosopher Toby Ord (Australia, 1979) fears the precipitous extinction of humanity. He believes that the destruction of our civilization and our potential could come in this century if we do not avoid it. He is one of the researchers working at the Institute for the Future of Humanity (IFH), a research center at the University of Oxford founded to give answers to the great questions about the future of our species, which is in a crossroads since the detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, according to Ord. In his latest book, The Precipice (El precipicio, 2020), investigates these great questions. Answer questions by videoconference.

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QUESTION. Could you describe what your work at the Institute for the Future of Humanity consists of?

Answer. I study everything that I consider to be crucial to the future of our species. Much of my work focuses on Existential Risk, trying to understand the threats that threaten us. I have also published a study on the cosmology of the universe on a large scale, trying to find out how far we can see from Earth – 46 billion light years – and how far we humans could have an impact. We have discovered that most of the universe could not be affected by our actions. Even so, there is a sphere of about 17,000 million light years in radius that is susceptible to being affected by human actions. I think about the risks, as well as the length of our future in terms of time and ability to influence.

Q. Mention our ability to influence the universe. What do you think would be the meaning of the possible extinction of the human race in terms of cosmic relevance?

R. It all depends on the particularity of our species. If there are civilizations like ours, our disappearance may not have much cosmic significance. Carl Sagan talked about this, he said that maybe we are the way the universe has to understand and know itself, so if the Earth were the only planet where there is intelligent life, it is likely that its expansion by a galaxy mostly sterile be our destiny. This could give our species the duty to protect and expand life, but above all it would mean that the Earth is the only place in the universe where there are concepts such as ethics and moral agents (us). If so, only through human beings can a fairer universe be conceived and our extinction would imply the disappearance of that positive force. Our planet may be one of the strangest and most fragile corners of the universe.

Q. In your book you describe a new period in our history and you have called it the Precipice. Why?

R. We are at a point where we are walking along a narrow path on the edge of a cliff and we do not know if we will make it out alive – or what the chances of falling are – but we do know that this is the most dangerous period to which we have been exposed. This stage in our history began in 1945 with the creation of nuclear weapons: our potential for self-destruction far exceeded that of any of the naturally occurring threats we have ever faced.

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Q. So this is the most important moment in our history.

R. If we survive our passage through the Cliff, future generations will see this period as the most important for our species, the time when the future was at stake. I could be wrong and we may find ourselves facing a greater cliff in the future. One of the reasons I think it is the most important is because you can only expose yourself to these types of risks a limited number of times.

Q. There are two types of existential risks: natural and anthropogenic. Which ones concern you the most?

R. Humanity has always been vulnerable to some kind of risk or catastrophe, like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. It happened 65 million years ago, which indicates that it doesn’t happen very often; furthermore, all of the asteroids we have found are not on a collision path with Earth. The chance of becoming extinct in any given century is 1 in 1,000; if not, we would not have survived all this time. Even so, there are new risks of human origin – I am especially concerned about pandemics created in laboratories, biological warfare and artificial intelligence – which are the most pressing, since we have been living with them for about 75 years and we do not have references that allow us to understand how they can develop.

Q. The only way to avoid the risks would be to become an interplanetary species?

R. Carl Sagan talked about this too. It is a coincidence that the time when humanity faces these threats comes just when we can travel to other planets. Elon Musk has suggested that this is what motivates SpaceX. I think that without a doubt it would be helpful to deal with Existential Risk and some such as supervolcanoes or asteroids would be avoided, but there are other risks, such as the threat of totalitarianism or pandemics, which can also occur on other planets. If we become an interplanetary species, half the risks may disappear and we could double the chances of survival, but the key is not to reach other planets, but to address the risks and take appropriate action in the here and now.

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Q. We have put so much emphasis on detecting all the asteroids that are in the vicinity of the Earth because there is a precedent.

R. Yes, we are lucky to be able to see them. If Earth had been hit by an asteroid over 10 kilometers in diameter in the last 100 to 1,000 years, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, so that’s pretty reassuring.

Q. We are in the final throes of a global pandemic, do you think humanity will survive the next 100 years?

R. Yes I believe it. In my book I explain that the probability that the human species will not survive the next 100 years is one in six; the positive side is that the probability of survival is much higher: five out of six. The shock in the case of not doing it would be enormous.

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