Toby Ord Transcript

Toby Ord is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. He focuses on the big picture questions facing humanity such as global poverty, health, the long term future of humanity and the risks which threaten to destroy our entire potential. Toby is also the author of a new book called, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity.

How does he research and think about future risks and possibilities? Toby says, “I have looked into a lot of the astrophysics of questions about the earth’s lifespan and things like that. And when it comes to particularly the risks that we might face over the next 100 years. Yeah, I’ve had to read a lot about science and technology and really talk to a lot of experts. That’s been a real focus with the book. It looks at a lot of issues in cutting edge science and I really… This is a real area where it’s easy to screw it up when you’re writing a book like this if you have a great idea about something closer to your own discipline, but then you have to say a lot of things about other disciplines for it to make sense. It’s easy to just kind of make it up. So I wanted to really make sure I didn’t do that. And I talked to really the cutting edge experts in all of these different risks and I also have them look over the book before it went to print to make sure that I hadn’t made any errors and that I was faithfully conveying the cutting edge information about these things.”

In his book, Toby breaks up the future risks into three categories:
-Natural Risks such as asteroids, supervolcanoes, and stellar explosions
-Anthropogenic risks such as nuclear weapons and climate change
-Future Risks such as pandemics and unaligned AI

Toby also spends a lot of time advising governments and leaders at organizations around the world. When it comes to the things they are most concerned about Toby says, “So some of this was on my earlier work about global poverty. So trying to understand how we can most effectively help people in poor countries. And some of it has been… Yeah on future trends and technologies and ideas for example, about interest in AI and work. I would like them to always be asking me these other questions about existential risks. These are risks to the entire future of humanity and what they could be doing to protect us. They don’t tend to ask me about that. Hopefully, after this book comes out, they will… But my experience when talking to them about those existential questions is that… And they say, “Wow that’s really interesting, but it’s above my pay grade.” And everyone seems to react like this at least up all way through the national level of government. That it’s something where it just feels a bit too big for them to deal with. And they’re used to thinking about the new cycle the next week or so or about the election cycle. But something that’s, that you’re talking about, what do we need to put in place such that we can be protected from engineered pandemics in 20 or 30 years time? How do we need to start working now in order to avoid that? It’s so far beyond their normal horizons and it’s at such a level thinking about not just a country and not even just global level, but the entire future of humanity that they’re not really used to thinking about those questions at all. And I’m hoping to make them better at thinking about these things.”

But despite all these risks Toby is not pessimistic. He shares, “We have the potential to have a really great future. It’s not a pessimistic book. And I think that we want to with clear eyes see the types of risks see how high they are and then act appropriately and defend our future, so that we can have a great future going forwards.”

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How Toby goes about determining what the future risks for humanity will be
A look at some of the most immediate risks we face
Toby’s view of the future of AI and automation
How we can think about the big picture without getting overwhelmed
How we are currently doing when it comes to climate change
How much technological progress have we experienced

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