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Strategizing on the Edge of a Precipice

Posted in on
October 12, 2021

Author: Ron Dembo

The world today, according to University of Oxford moral philosopher Toby Ord, stands on a precipice. As never before, we have obtained the power to destroy ourselves and now stand on the very brink of doing so. He boldly forecasts that we face in this century a one in six chance of total human extinction; this, where just a century ago the probability was more like one in six hundred.

Arriving at a single probability like this is perhaps a futile attempt to quantify the radical uncertainty of our environment. Nevertheless, Ord’s more qualitative arguments ring true: along with our advances in technology, our increasingly reckless use of the power we have obtained is putting us in graver danger than our species has ever faced. Climate change, pandemics, and out-of-control AI – these are just a few of the most pressing issues, and they will affect every one of us in the decades to come.

So, how do we learn to survive? How can we navigate these radically uncertain dangers?

In a recent article for The Guardian, Ord suggests that we must learn to spot risks and become more resilient. We need new national centres for particular threats. We must look further ahead than the two-year window that governments currently examine. And we need “a new treaty on risks to the future of humanity, with a series of UN security council resolutions to place this new framework on the strongest possible legal footing.”

But while these measures are a start, we still lack a formalized approach to risk management that could guide practice in a consistent, widely applicable manner across governments, industries, and economies. We currently rely too heavily on past data and single-instance forecasts to try and predict the future. These are hopelessly inadequate for numerous reasons, and we are only just starting to understand why.

We argue that Risk Thinking offers provides a way forward. It’s a formalized methodology for gathering the latest science on a topic and a wide range of expert judgement to create forward-looking measures of uncertainty and risk. It combines this data in an algorithmic scenario generation process to create a spanning set of possible outcomes about the future, and it teaches us how to create an adaptive strategy to hedge potential downsides and chart an optimal course into the future.

With such a method, we might just be able to step back from Ord’s precipice and combat the radical uncertainty of our greatest threats. To find out more, look for the forthcoming book, Risk Thinking: Decision Making in a Radically Uncertain World.

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