Existential Risks

An existential risk represents a catastrophe that leads to an extinction event, society’s collapse to a pre-agricultural state, or a totalitarian regime that maintains total and lasting subjugation of the global population.

An existential risk is a risk that threatens the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential.

Toby Ord

We must be aware of the probability of such events taking steps to reduce the risk of their occurrence and avoid them. In the book ‘The Precipice‘, Toby Ord suggests that we entered a period of high risk in 1945 with the first use of the atomic bomb on humans and calculated that we have a 20% risk of total extinction 2100. Toby argues that humans need to start to take a longterm view of their decisions or risk the end of civilisation.

There are two main categories of existential risk; the first and less likely are natural disasters, including supervolcanos or asteroids. The second, more likely set of threats we have created ourselves (anthropomorphic) such as war, environmental damage, and unaligned artificial intelligence. We are currently told that climate change is the most significant risk facing civilisation, and it does have real consequences. Still, other existential threats are more likely to have catastrophic effects, and each needs attention based on its probability and impact.

RiskEstimated probability
for human extinction
before 2100
Overall probability19%
Molecular nanotechnology weapons5%
Superintelligent AI5%
All wars (including civil wars)4%
Engineered pandemic2%
Nuclear war1%
Nanotechnology accident0.5%
Natural pandemic0.05%
Nuclear terrorism0.03%
Future of Humanity Institute, 2008, taken from Wikipidia

There is a common argument about the need to look after the current population before making decisions that might reduce current growth and prosperity to provide a better future for the people that are yet to be born. There is also a strong argument that many of these risks have been inherited from previous generations. Both of these arguments are strong, particularly when you see the suffering and deprivation that many people across the world live in. However, they do not change the fact that the existential risks are real, and we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better situation than we found it.

How to reduce existential risks

Responsible and mature activism can be an important secondary activity, but there are many more impactful and pressing actions for those serious about reducing the risk of an end to humanity, such as living as sustainably as possible ourselves first. Toby Orb provides two actions people can take to lessen the probability and impact of global catastrophic risks.

  1. Your choice of career
  2. Charitable donations

There is a global mismatch of skills; this is particularly an issue in the various engineering fields. For a sustainable future, people must be working on practical solutions to existential risks. 80,000 hours provides ideas for how you can use your career to solve the human races most important problems and offers a list of jobs by problem area to apply the skill you have to the issues you feel most strongly about helping to solve. The most significant impact an individual can have on the future of human civilisation is to choose a career that reduces the risk of an existential event. 

The second most significant impact you can have on reducing existential risks is to use your disposable income to support charities or companies that are working towards reducing global catastrophic risks. Toby Ord suggests donating to charities through the Giving what you can community. I would go a step further than this and suggest that investing your savings in private companies solving these problems is the best way to support sustainable solutions. Charities are dependent on donors for their survival; however, successful enterprises, once up and running, can fund themselves through the answers they provided, making a far more sustainable future.

Existential risks are real, and we live through a period of human history where the stakes are more significant than ever. We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than when we enter it, first through living sustainably, second through choosing a career that reduces either the likelihood or consequence of existential risks, and thirdly by investing and donating to organisations doing the same. 

We are responsible for learning about the dangers and starting an open, honest, and respectful conversation with those around us. Just don’t be an art graduate who riots at protests about climate change and then returns to your single glazed converted barn in their camper van to sit in front of a log burning fire talking about how other people are ruining the planet. We have the creativity and skills; we need each person to take real action.

Strategy vs Tactics

Strategy: a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty.


Tactic: a conceptual action or short series of actions with the aim of achieving a short-term goal.


A strategy is a general long term plan that may contain a set of goals. The strategy will incorporate multiple tactics, each designed to achieve a specific goal. Many people use the two words interchangeably, but this is not correct.

What poker can teach you about business

Saturday marked our first, and hopefully last, annual boys weekend that had to be held virtually. A group of people who mostly work in tech played poker over Zoom with real cards instead of a virtual poker table to save the £20 fee (it cost more to buy and post the cards). This was my first ever real game of poker and to say I was not a natural is an understatement.

I am a third of the way through Tony Hsieh’s book and used my first commute in 8 months to listen to more of the audio version, read my Hsieh himself. During today’s section of the book, Tony talks about rediscovering the game of Poker one sleepless night after selling LinkExchange to Microsoft by reading a community website for regular poker players. 

Tony writes that he was ‘fascinated’ by the mathematics of the game. He discovered that luck did not matter so much in the long run as there was a mathematical way to calculate the ‘pot odds’ from the ratio of people still in the bet, the number of chips in the pot and the statistical chance of winning. After noticing the similarities between what he was learning in poker and what he knew about business, Tony made a list of lessons that he could apply in his work. 

The two biggest lessons that poker taught Hsieh were 1, ‘Focus on what’s best for the long term, and 2, the most critical decision is to pick the correct market to be in.

Quote: One of the most interesting things about playing poker was learning the discipline of not confusing the right decision with the individual outcome of any single hand… Tony Hsieh

A small selection of Hsieh’s poker rules for business

  1. Evaluating market opportunities – “Table selection is the most important decision you can make.”
  2. Marketing and branding – “Act weak when strong, act strong when weak. Know when to bluff.
  3. Financials – “Always be prepared for the worst possible scenario.”
  4. Strategy – “Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them.”
  5. Continual learning – “Educate yourself. Read books and learn from others who have done it before.”
  6. Culture – “You’ve gotta love the game. To become really good, you need to live it and sleep it.”

I really should have paid attention to rule four, but alas, I started the book too late. I have dusted off my copy of Play poker like the pros that I bought years ago and never used, and I am heading to an online poker table to start my Tony inspired journey.

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