The Notion of Existential Risk and Its Role for the Anticipation of Technological Development’s Long-Term Impact

  • Roberto PauraEmail author
Part of the Anticipation Science book series (ANTISC, volume 4)


Existential risk has been defined by Nick Bostrom (J Evol Technol 9(1):1–31, 2002) as “one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”. In this article, I will argue that the notion of existential risk should replace the so-called “precautionary principle” as a guideline for the governance of technoscientific progress.

In the first part, I analyze the notion of existential risk through a genealogical approach that is typical of the history of ideas, in order to highlight the historical trends that favored the emergence of this notion in recent years. The second part focuses on the different types of existential risks proposed, in particular those related to the endogenous risks associated with the side effects of technological progress. The third part summarizes the research activities and directions of the three major international centers working in the sector of existential risks. In the conclusions, following the studies cited in the article, I summarize the reasons in favor of the use of the notion of existential risk to anticipate the long-term impacts of scientific and technological progress, compared to the more obsolete precautionary principle.


Existential risks Precautionary principle Anticipation Technological risks 


  1. Alvarez, W. 1997. T.Rex and the Crater of Doom. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Alvarez, L.W., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the cretaceous-tertiary extinction. Science 208 (4448): 1095–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ambrose, S.H. 1998. Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 34: 623–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Asimov, I. 1979. A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters that Threaten Our World. Riverside: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  5. Batten, E.S. 1966. The Effects of Nuclear War on the Weather and Climate. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.Google Scholar
  6. Baum, S.D. 2015. The far-future argument for confronting catastrophic threats to humanity: Practical significance and alternatives. Futures 72: 86–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bostrom, N. 2002. Existential risks. Analyzing human extinction scenarios and related hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology 9 (1): 1–31.Google Scholar
  8. ———. 2013. Existential risk prevention as global priority. Global Policy 4 (1): 15–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 2014. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. ———. 2017. Strategic implications of openess in AI development. Global Policy 8 (2): 135–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bostrom, N., and M.M. Cirkovic. 2011. Global Catastrophic Risks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. New York: Viking Penguin.Google Scholar
  13. Campa, R. 2016. Creatori e creature. Anatomia dei movimenti pro e contro gli OGM. Ladispoli: D Editore.Google Scholar
  14. Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  15. Casti, J.L. 2012. X-Events: The Collapse of Everything. New York: William Morrow.Google Scholar
  16. Ehrlich, P.R. 1968. The Population Bomb. San Francisco: Sierra Club.Google Scholar
  17. Ellis, J., and D.N. Schramm. 1995. Could a nearby supernova explosion have caused a mass extinction? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 92 (1): 235–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fields, B.D., and J. Ellis. 1999. On deep-ocean 60Fe as a fossil of a near-earth supernova. New Astronomy 4 (6): 419–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Future of Humanity Institute. 2011. Achievements Report: 2008–2010. Oxford: University of Oxford Retrieved from: Scholar
  20. Jonas, H. 1984. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  21. Kolbert, E. 2014. The Sixth Extinction. New York: Henry Holt and Company.Google Scholar
  22. Lovelock, J. 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, and W.W. Behrens. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.Google Scholar
  24. Melott, A.L., et al. 2004. Did a gamma-ray burst initiate the late Ordovician mass extinction? International Journal of Astrobiology 3 (1): 55–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Newell, N.D. 1965. Mass extinctions at the end of the cretaceous period. Science 149 (3687): 922–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ord, T., R. Hillerbrand, and A. Sandberg. 2010. Probing the improbable: Methodological challenges for risks with low probabilities and high stakes. Journal of Risk Research 13 (2): 191–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Orseau, L., and S. Armstrong. 2016. Safely interruptible agents. In Uncertainty in Artificial Intelligence. Proceedings of the 32nd Conference. Jersey City, NJ.Google Scholar
  28. Price, H., and S.O. Héigeartaigh. 2014. Policy, decision making and existential risk. In Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It. Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. London: Government Office for Science.Google Scholar
  29. Rampino, M.R. 2011. Darwin’s error? Patrick Matthew and the catastrophic nature of the geologic record. Historical Biology 23 (2–3): 227–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rees, M. 2003. Our Final Hour. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  31. Russell, S., D. Dewey, and M. Tegmark. 2015. Research priorities for robust and beneficial artificial intelligence. AI Magazine 36 (4): 105–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Schlosser, E. 2013. Command and Control. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  33. Shoemaker, E.M. 1963. Impact mechanics at Meteor Crater, Arizona. In The Moon, Meteorites, and Comets – The Solar System, ed. B. Middlehurst and G.P. Kuiper, vol. 4, 301–336. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  34. Tegmark, M., and N. Bostrom. 2005. Is a doomsday catastrophe likely? Nature 438: 754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Turco, R.P., O.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, J.B. Pollack, and C. Sagan. 1983. Nuclear winter: Global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions. Science 222 (4630): 1283–1292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Italian Institute for the FutureNaplesItaly
  2. 2.University of PerugiaPerugiaItaly

Personalised recommendations