Existential Risks and Why They Matter

It might actually be up to you to save the world…sort of. Existential risks are those that have the potential to end humanity, or at least permanently reduce humanity’s standard of living, and a lot of smart people think we’re not doing enough to avoid those risks.

While existential risks have always existed, in the past they were almost exclusively based in nature – things like natural climate change or an asteroid impact. Nowadays, technology has created a lot of new and scary ways for the world to end. Things like superintelligence, nuclear bombs, and man-made bioweapons put us all at risk like never before. While a number of organizations have popped up that try to mitigate such risks, they receive little public attention and support. Such groups include the Future of Life Institute, the Lifeboat Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (which you may remember from our article about superintelligence safety measures).

But why should we care about existential risks? The world won’t really end, right? That’s silly science fiction stuff! Unfortunately, nature simply hasn’t equipped humanity with the tools to automatically take existential risks seriously. Since it’s never happened before, we assume it’ll never happen in the future – but that’s a bad strategy for predicting the future in rapidly changing times, and a particularly bad strategy for evaluating existential risk. After all, by definition, if an existential risk had happened in the past, it would already be far too late. As Nick Bostrom explains in his seminal paper, Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards, existential risks are different from normal risks because we simply can’t afford to take the approach of waiting to see what happens and then learning from our mistakes.

So what can you do to help ensure that an existential catastrophe never happens? Of course you can donate to any of the various organizations fighting such risks, but how can you actually get involved? Some organizations like the Future of Life Institute have opportunities to contribute research if you work in an applicable area, or volunteer. You can also get involved politically, to help shape policy that minimizes risks, or try your hand at advocacy. This article by 80,000 Hours can tell you more. Existential risks could affect us all, so please consider doing something, no matter how small, to mitigate them. It’s not just for the good of others, it’s for your own benefit as well.

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