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The Precipice

The Precipice by Toby Ord is a great birdseye view of the biggest challenges that we humans face in the future. Challenges that have the possibility of extinguishing our potential, threats that may make us go extinct. As could be predicted, these threats are currently mostly man-made.

I found this review by Scott Alexander very good. Do read it if you want to get a good overview of the whole book.

Also see this review by Theron Pummer on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

The biggest things that stood out to me were:

  • Risk from AI is one of the largest (1 in 10 change in next 100 years)
    • I can agree on that point, but also think that there are some very good arguments that we will create benevolent AI or at least AI that has ‘good’ goals and that we can manage that
    • See Human Compatible for more about AI
  • Engineered pandemics seem very relevant at this moment (1 in 30)
    • Killing everyone would seem difficult, but it could break down society by killing 99% (or even 70% I would guess)
    • The knowledge seems difficult to get, but maybe would only be used one time
    • Can we even prevent/cure something like this (here my knowledge is lacking most)
  • Unforeseen anthropogenic (man-made) risks (1 in 30)
    • At every step Toby Ord understands the ‘unknown unknowns’ and also here accounts for them
  • There is 5/6 chance that we will make it through the next 100 years
    • But making the 1/6 smaller (to 1/6,1) may be very valuable and we’re not doing enough at this moment
  • The future potential of us humans is so vast (exploring the galaxy, making more art, discovering new things about nature, etc)
    • In the last chapter Toby Ord does a great job of making you want to see the bright future that we need to protect


Neo.Life by Jane Metcalfe & Brian Bergstein (and the contributing authors) presents 25 visions for the future of the human species. They vary from research reports grounded in today, to speculative stories about how our world will look in 50 years.

The book is divided into three parts, the first consists of road maps and is the most grounded in today. The second is creative briefs and those look at what could be possible (say in 5-50 years). The last imagines a brave new world in which the human species is quite different from today.

Below are some of the things I found most interesting:

Jan Metcalfe (the author/compiler) wrote down the principles that the group proposes for the development of our species:

  • Technology should be used to increase biological diversity, both in humans and other species.
    • To future proof the species and I think also as a counterpoint to the monoculture that we sometimes strive for (e.g. optimize for intelligence over art)
  • In general, people should be free to determine their own use of genetic modification, based on well-informed choices
    • Of course it’s difficult to say who is well-informed
    • But they do note that it should give more freedom to someone experimenting on themselves versus editing an embryo
    • And makes us think about what we edit that is only for you, or something that you pass along through the gene line
  • Humility and caution will lower the risk of unintended consequences that would undermine biotechnologies and thus reduce human possibility in the long run.
    • This seems a bit too vague
    • The explanation does mention more mute switches in genes and testing in somatic cells
  • Governance of biotechnologies should exhibit traits of the underlying system.
    • This argues that the regulations should be aware of the biological features (feedback loops, adaptations)

Genetic sequencing of everyone should help us eliminate single-gene diseases and make carriers more aware of them.

  • One example used was to have this added to dating, so at a second date you could bring it up and prevent heartbreak
  • That part didn’t sound to convincing, but the part about saving a million lives did

We humans are not diverse (only 0.1% of genome is different)

  • What would happen if this changes and we would have different types of humans?
  • Some adapted to living in space (against radiation) or other circumstances

One author (David Eagleman) philosophizes about us being able to choose kids and by having more choices, regret the alternative histories (the choice we didn’t make/pick).

  • I don’t think that applies perfectly, but I do get the point that if we know what kid we choose from 8 (or 100) options of which we knew some characteristics, we might regret it later on

Two stories revolve around the democratization/stuff becoming cheaper, of biotechnology. One should only think about a more efficient SARS-CoV-2 and we would all be toast. So ethics and detection should be paramount.

Zoe Cormier imagines the perfect drug. This reflects (one of the) last chapter(s) in Drugs: Without the Hot Air by David Nutt. It would be great if we could invent something that was better than was out there today (alcohol, tobacco – and others).

Hacking Darwin

Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl is an interesting look at the future (that is already partly here) of us hacking our genes (lives and more). Metzl doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. The book ends with a recommendation to start a global conversation; I think it’s a very good suggestion.

One interesting topic is that of genetically engineering our kids. We don’t have a very distinct line to draw in the sand (although we might want to believe so) between bad/ill and good/improvement. In the end, I think we will have a framework of compromises, but still the rich and influential will be able to edit/change their babies. And before you think only of productivity and beauty, some might opt for very different skills/abilities.

May we live in interesting times.

De Verborgen Impact

The Hidden Impact (De Verborgen Impact – Dutch) by Babette Porcelijn is a book about our impact on the world. What we consume, what we use, what we have to be careful with.

We as Western consumers have much more impact than we think. Not only in our daily activities in and around the house or weekly at the gas pump but mostly on the other side of the world, by making and transporting the things we buy and use daily. We as consumers ultimately pay for that hidden impact and we keep the system in position. This book shows you how it is, so you can exert a positive influence.

I read this book over the summer and left myself a note to make a summary. Here it is.

  • Much of the impact we have on the world is hidden. We usually don’t see the production of our products and when thinking of sustainability many only consider what is right in front of us.
  • On average, buying stuff and eating meat have the largest (hidden + visible) impact.
  • Flying also has a large impact and by flying multiple times a year, it might even be your biggest contributor.
  • Compensating can sometimes be good, but prevention is almost always better!

See more about this (and a cool tool on how to calculate your impact) on https://babetteporcelijn.com/en/

And https://babetteporcelijn.com/wp-content/downloads/CE_Delft_Top_10_milieubelasting.pdf