Philosopher Toby Ord (Australia, 1979) fears the precipitous extinction of humanity. He believes that the destruction of our civilization and our potential could happen in this century if we don’t prevent it. He is one of the researchers working at the Institute for the Future of Humanity (IFH), an Oxford University research center founded to answer the big questions about the future of our species, which has been at a crossroads since the detonation of the first bomb atomic in the desert of New Mexico, according to Ord. In your last book, The Precipice (the precipice, 2020), explores these big questions. The philosopher answered the questions by videoconference.
Question. Could you describe what your work at the Institute for the Future of Humanity consists of?
Response. I study everything that I consider crucial for the future of our species. Much of my work focuses on Existential Risk, trying to understand the threats that lie in wait. I also published a study of the cosmology of the universe on a grand scale, trying to figure out how far we can see from Earth —46 billion light years — and how far humans might actually have an impact. We found that most of the universe could not be affected by our actions. Even so, there is a sphere about 17 billion light years in radius that is susceptible to being affected by human actions. I think about the risks as well as the extent of our future in terms of time and influence.
FOR. It mentions 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?
A. It all depends on the particularity of our species. If civilizations like ours exist, our disappearance may not have much meaning on a cosmic level. Carl Sagan talked about it, said that maybe we’re the universe’s way of understanding and knowing itself, so if Earth were the only planet where intelligent life exists, its expansion into a largely barren galaxy is likely to be our fate. . This could endow our species with the duty to protect and expand life, but above all it would mean that Earth is the only place in the universe where concepts such as ethics and moral agents (us) exist. If so, only through human beings can a fairer universe be conceived and our extinction would imply the disappearance of this positive force. It is possible that our planet is one of the strangest and most fragile places in the universe.
FOR. In your book you describe a new period in our history and called it the Precipice. Why?
A. We’re at a point where we’re walking along a narrow path on the edge of a cliff and we don’t know if we’ll make it out alive—or what the chances of falling—but we know this is the most dangerous period we’ve been exposed to. This stage of our history began in 1945, with the creation of nuclear weapons: our potential for self-destruction far exceeded that of any of the natural threats we had already faced.
FOR. So this is the most important moment in our history.
A. If we survive our passage through the Precipice, future generations will see this period as the most important for our species, the moment when the future was at stake. I may be wrong and perhaps we will find ourselves facing a greater precipice in the future. One of the reasons I think it’s the most important is because you can only expose yourself to this type of risk a limited number of times.
FOR. There are two types of existential risks: natural and anthropogenic. Which ones worry you the most?
A. 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 encountered are not on a collision course with Earth. The possibility of our extinction in any one century is one in 1,000; otherwise, we would not have survived this long. 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 urgent, as we have lived with them for about 75 years and we have no references that allow us to understand how they can develop.
FOR. Would the only way to avoid the risks be to become an interplanetary species?
A. Carl Sagan talked about it too. It is a coincidence that the moment when humanity faces these threats is just when we can travel to other planets. Elon Musk suggested that this is what drives SpaceX. I believe that without a doubt it would be useful to deal with the Existential Risk and some such as supervolcanoes and asteroids would be avoided, but there are other risks, such as the threat of totalitarianism and pandemics, which can also occur on other planets. If we become an interplanetary species, half the risks could disappear and we could double the chances of survival, but the key is not to reach other planets, but to face the risks and take appropriate action here and now.
FOR. We put so much emphasis on detecting all asteroids in the vicinity of Earth because there is a precedent.
A. Yes, we are lucky to be able to see them. If Earth had been impacted by an asteroid more than 10 kilometers in diameter in the last 100 or 1,000 years, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, which is very reassuring.
FOR. We are at the end of a worldwide pandemic, do you believe humanity will survive the next 100 years?
A. Yes I believe. In my book I explain that the probability that the human species will not survive the next 100 years is one in six; the upside is that the probability of survival is much higher: five out of six. The shock of not doing so would be enormous.