Problem areas beyond 80,000 Hours' current priorities

by Ardenlk15 min read22nd Jun 202058 comments

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Why we wrote this post

At 80,000 Hours we've generally focused on finding the most pressing issues and the best ways to address them.

But even if some issue is 'the most pressing'—in the sense of being the highest impact thing for someone to work on if they could be equally successful at anything—it might easily not be the highest impact thing for many people to work on, because people have various talents, experience, and temperaments.

Moreover, the more people involved in a community, the more reason there is for them to spread out over different issues. There will eventually be diminishing returns as more people work on the same set of issues, and both the value of information and the value of capacity building from exploring more areas will be greater if more people are able to take advantage of that work.

We're also pretty uncertain which problems are the highest impact things to work on—even for people who could work on anything equally successfully.

For example, maybe we should be focusing much more on preventing great power conflict than we have been. After all, the first plausible existential risk to humanity was the creation of the atom bomb; it's easy to imagine that wars could incubate other, even riskier technological advancements.

Or maybe there is some dark horse cause area—like research into surveillance—that will turn out to be way more important for improving the future than we thought.

Perhaps for these reasons, many of our advisors guess that it would be ideal if 5-20% of the effective altruism community's resources were focused on issues that the community hasn't historically been as involved in, such as the ones listed below. We think we're currently well below this fraction, so it's plausible some of these areas might be better for some people to go into right now than our top priority problem areas.

Who is best suited to work on these other issues? Pioneering a new problem area from an effective altruism perspective is challenging, and in some ways harder than working on a priority area, where there is better training and infrastructure. Working on a less-researched problem can require a lot of creativity and critical thinking about how you can best have a positive impact by working on the issue. For example, it likely means working out which career options within the area are the most promising for direct impact, career capital, and exploration value, and then pursuing them even if they differ from what most other people in the area tend to value or focus on. You might even eventually need to 'create your own job' if pre-existing positions in the area don't match your priorities. The ideal person would therefore be self-motivated, creative, and willing to chart the waters for others, as well as have a strong interest or relevant experience in one of these less-explored issues.

We compiled the following lists by combining suggestions from 6 of our advisors with our own ideas, judgement, and research. We were looking for issues that might be very important, especially for improving the long-term future, and which might be currently neglected by people thinking from an effective altruism perspective. If something was suggested twice, we took that as a presumption in favor of including it.

We're very uncertain about the value of working on any one of these problems, but we think it's likely that there are issues on these lists (and especially the first one) that are as pressing as our highest priority problem areas.

What are the pros and cons of working in each of these areas? Which are less tractable than they appear, or more important? Which are already being covered adequately by existing groups we don't know enough about? What potentially pressing problems is this list missing?

We'd be excited to see people discussing these questions in the comments, and to check out relevant material from any readers who have existing expertise in these areas. We've linked to a few resources for each area that seem interesting or helpful, though we don't always agree with everything they say and we wouldn't be surpised if in many cases there are better resources out there.

We hope that for people who want to work on issues other than those we talk most about, these lists can give them some fruitful ideas to explore.

Potential highest priorities

The following are some global issues that seem like they might be especially pressing from the perspective of improving the long-term future. We think these have a chance of being as pressing for people to work on as our priority problems, but we haven’t investigated them enough to know.

Great power conflict

A large violent conflict between major powers such as the US, Russia or China could be the most devastating event to occur in human history, and could result in billions of deaths. In addition, mistrust between major powers makes it harder for them to coordinate on arms control or ensure the safe use of new technologies.

Though there is considerable existing work in this area, peacebuilding measures aren’t always aimed at reducing the chance of the worst outcomes. We’d like to see more research into how to reduce the chance of the most dangerous conflicts breaking out and the damage they would cause, as well as implementation of the most effective mitigation strategies.

Great power conflict is the subject of a large body of literature spanning political science, international relations, military studies, and history. Get started with accessible materials on contemporary great power dynamics—this blog post for a brief and simple explanation, this report from Brookings on the changing role of the US on the world stage, this podcast series on current military and strategic dynamics from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and this talk on the risks from great power conflict using the scale, solvability, and neglectedness framework.

Useful books in this area include After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, and Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Global governance

International governing institutions might play a crucial role in our ability to navigate global challenges, so improving them has the potential to reduce risks of global catastrophes. Moreover, in the future we may see the creation of new global institutions that could be very long-lasting, especially if the international community trends toward more cohesive governing bodies—and getting these right could be very important

The Biological Weapons Convention is an example of one way institutions like the UN can help coordinate states to reduce global risks — but it also demonstrates current weaknesses of this approach, like underfunding and weak enforcement mechanisms.

There doesn’t seem to be as much work on improving global governance as you might expect —especially with an eye toward reducing global catastrophic risks. Here are a few pieces we know of:

We'd be keen to see more research on what governance reforms might be best for improving the long-run future.

Governance of outer space

It seems possible that humanity will at some point settle outer space. If it does, the sheer scale of the accessible universe makes what it does there enormously important.

Currently there is no agreement on how to decide what happens in space, should settlement become possible. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over anything in space, but attempts to agree on more than that have failed to achieve consensus.

Who ends up in control of resources in space will naturally shift how they are used, and might influence vast numbers of lives. Furthermore, having agreements on how space is divided between groups might avoid a major conflict or a harmful rush to claim resources, and instead foster cooperation or compromise between different parties.

To make more concrete one possible way things could go wrong: one superpower may be alarmed by another superpower that finds itself on the verge of claiming and settling Mars, as they would anticipate eventually being eclipsed economically and militarily.

Despite the huge stakes, governance of space is an extremely niche area of study and advocacy. As a result, major progress could probably be made by a research community focused on this issue, even just by applying familiar lessons from related fields of law and social science.

Arguably it is premature to work on this problem because actual space settlement appears so far off. While this is an important point, we don't think this is decisive for 4 reasons.

First, legal arrangements like constitutions and international treaties are often 'sticky' because they are difficult to renegotiate. Second, it may be easier to agree on fair processes for splitting resources in space while settlement remains far in the future, as it will be harder for interest groups to foresee what peculiar rules would benefit them in particular. Third, humanity may experience another 'industrial revolution' in the next century driven by AI or atomic scale manufacturing, which would allow space settlement to begin sooner than seems likely today. Fourth, once settlement becomes possible there will likely be a rush to agree on how to manage the process, and the more preparation has been completed ahead of that moment the better the outcome is likely to be.

This blog post by Tobias Baumann fleshes out this case and suggests next steps people could take if they're interested in using their career to study this problem.

Voting reform

We often elect our leaders with 'first-past-the-post’-style voting, but this can easily lead to perverse outcomes. Better voting methods could lead to better institutional decision-making, better governance in general, and better international coordination.

Despite these potential benefits, ideas in this space often get little attention. One reason might be that current political leaders—those with the most power to institute reforms—have little incentive to change the systems that brought them to power. This might make this area particularly difficult to make progress in, though we still think additional effort in this area may be promising.

To learn more check out resources from the Center for Election Science and our podcast episode with Aaron Hamlin.

A related issue is the systematic lack of representation of future generations' interests in policy making. One group trying to address this in the UK is the All Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations.

There is also the importance of voting security to prevent contested elections, discussed in our interview with Bruce Schneier.

Improving individual reasoning or cognition

The case here is similar to the case for improving institutional decision-making: better reasoning and cognitive capacities usually make for better outcomes, especially when problems are subtle or complex. And as with institutions, work on improving individual decision-making is likely to be helpful no matter what challenges the future throws up.

Strategies for improving reasoning might include producing tools, trainings, or research into how to best make better forecasts or decisions, or come to sensible views on complex topics. Strategies for improving cognition might take a variety of forms, e.g., researching safe and beneficial nootropics.

Although focusing on individuals seems to us like it will usually be less effective for tackling global problems than taking a more institutional approach, it may be more promising if interventions can influence large segments of the population or be targeted toward the most influential people. See the Update Project for an example of the latter kind of strategy.

Global public goods

Many of the biggest challenges we face have the character of global 'public goods' problems—meaning everyone is worse off because no particular actors are properly incentivized to tackle the problem, and they instead prefer to 'free-ride' on the efforts of others.

If we could make society better at providing public goods in general, we might be able to make progress on many challenges at once. One idea we’ve discussed that both has promise and faces many challenges is quadratic funding, but the space for possible interventions here seems enormous.

Another potential approach here is improving political processes. Governments have enormous power and are the bodies we most often turn to to tackle public goods problems. Shifting how this power is used even a little can have substantial and potentially long-lasting effects. Check out our podcast episode with Glen Weyl to learn about current and fairly radical ideas in this space.

If you’re interested in tackling these issues, learning product design, gaining experience in advocacy or politics, or studying economics may all be useful first steps.

Surveillance

We’d be keen to see more research into balancing the risks and benefits of surveillance by states and other actors, especially as technological progress makes surveillance on a mass scale easy and affordable.

Some have argued that sophisticated surveillance techniques might be necessary to protect civilization from risks posed by advancing technology with destructive capabilities (for example see Nick Bostrom’s article ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis’); at the same time, many warn of the dangers widespread surveillance poses not only to privacy but to valuable forms of political freedom (example).

Because of these conflicts, it may be especially useful to develop ways of making surveillance more compatible with privacy and public oversight.

Atomic scale manufacturing

Both the risks and benefits of advances in this technology seem like they might be significant, and there is currently little effort to shape its trajectory. However, there is also relatively little investment going into making atomic-scale manufacturing work right now, which reduces the urgency of the issue.

To learn more, read this popular article by Eric Drexler, a cause report from the Open Philanthropy Project, or listen to our podcast episode with Christine Peterson.

Broadly promoting positive values

If positive values like altruism and concern for other sentient beings were more widespread, then society might be able to better deal with a wide range of other problems—including problems that haven’t come up yet but might in the future, such as how to treat conscious machine intelligences. Moreover, there could be ways that the values held by society today or in the near future get ‘locked in’ for a long time, for example in constitutions, making it important that positive values are widespread before such a point.

We’re unsure about the range of things an impactful career aimed at promoting positive values could involve, but one strategy would be to pursue a position that gives you a platform for advocacy (e.g. journalist, blogger, podcaster, academic, or public intellectual and then using that position to speak and write about these ideas.

Advocacy could be built around ideas such as animal welfare, moral philosophy (including utilitarianism or the 'golden rule'), concern for foreigners, or other themes.

In the context of cause prioritization within the effective altruism community, some have argued for the importance of spreading positive values through working to improve the welfare of farmed animals (comparing it to AI safety research), while others push back against this view.

Civilization resilience

We might be able to significantly increase the chance that, if a catastrophe does happen, civilization survives or gets rebuilt. However, measures in this space receive very little attention today.

To learn more, see our podcast episode on the development of alternative food sources, this paper on refuges and our podcast episode with Paul Christiano.

S-risks

An ‘s-risk’ is a risk of an outcome much worse than extinction. Research work out how to mitigate these risks is a subset of global priorities research that might be particularly neglected and important. Read more.

Whole brain emulation

This is a strategy for creating artificial intelligence by replicating the functionality of the brain in software. If successful, whole brain emulation could enable dramatic new forms of intelligence—in which case steering the development of this technique could be crucial. Read a tentative outline of the risks associated with whole brain emulation.

Risks of stable totalitarianism

Bryan Caplan has written about the worry that 'stable totalitarianism' could arise in the future, especially if we move toward a more unified world government (perhaps in order to solve other global problems) or if certain technologies—like radical life extension or better surveillance technologies—make it possible for totalitarian leaders to rule for longer.

We think more research in this area would be valuable. For instance, we'd be excited to see further analysis and testing of Caplan's argument, as well as people working on how to limit the potential risks from these technologies and political changes if they do come about.

Risks from malevolent actors

A blog post by David Althaus and Tobias Baumann argues that when people with some or all of the so-called 'dark tetrad' traits -- narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism -- are in positions of power or influence, this plausibly increases the risk of catastrophes that could influence the long-term future.

Developing better measures of these traits, they suggest -- as well as good tests of these measures -- could help us make our institutions less liable to be influenced by such actors. We could, for instance, make 'non-malevolence' a condition of holding political office or having sway over powerful new technologies.

While it's not clear how large of a problem malevolent individuals in society are compared to other issues, there is historical precedent for malevolent actors coming to power -- Hitler, Stalin, and Mao plausibly had strong dark tetrad traits -- and perhaps this wouldn't have happened if there had been better precautions in place. If so, this suggests that careful measures could prevent future bad events of a similar scale (or worse) from taking place.

Safeguarding liberal democracy

Liberal democracies seem more conducive to intellectual progress and economic growth than other forms of governance that have been tried so far, and perhaps also to peace and cooperation (at least with other democracies). Political developments that threaten to shift liberal democracies toward authoritarianism therefore may be risk factors for a variety of disasters (like great power conflicts), as well as for society generally going in a more negative direction.

A great deal of effort—from political scientists, policymakers and politicians, historians, and others—already goes into understanding this situation and protecting and promoting liberal democracies, and we're not sure how to improve upon this.

However, there are likely to be some promising interventions in this area that are currently relatively neglected, such as voting reform (discussed above) or improving election security in order to increase the efficacy and stability of deomocratic processes. A variety of other work, like good journalism or broadly promoting positive values, also likely indirectly contributes to this area.

Recommender systems at top tech firms

The technology involved in recommender systems—such as those used by Facebook or Google—may turn out to be important for positively shaping progress in AI safety, as argued here.

Improving recommender systems may also help provide people with more accurate information and potentially improve the quality of political discourse.

We may need to invest more to tackle future problems

It may be that the best opportunities for doing good from a longtermist perspective lie far in the future—especially if resources can be successfully invested now to yield greater leverage later. However, right now we have no way of effectively and securely investing resources long-term.

In particular, there are few if any financial vehicles that can be reasonably expected to persist for more than 100 years while also earning good investment returns and remaining secure. We’re unsure in general how much people should be investing vs. spending now on the most pressing causes. But it seems at least worthwhile to look more into how such philanthropic vehicles might be set up.

Founders Pledge — an organisation that encourages effective giving for entrepreneurs — is currently exploring this idea and is actively seeking input.

Learn more about this topic by listening to our podcast episode with Philip Trammell.

Other longtermist issues

We’re also interested in the following issues, but at this point think that work on them is likely somewhat less effective for substantially improving the long-term future than work on the issues listed above.

Economic growth

Speeding up economic growth doesn’t seem as useful as more targeted ways to improve the future, and in general we favour differential development. However, speeding up growth might still have large benefits, both for improving long-term welfare, and perhaps also for reducing existential risks. For debate on the long-term value of economic growth check out our podcast episode with Tyler Cowen.

The causes of growth already see considerable research within economics, though this area is still more neglected than many topics. Potential strategies for increasing growth include trade reform (which also has the potential to reduce conflict), land use reform, and increasing aid spending and effectiveness.

Science policy and infrastructure

Scientific research has been an enormous driver of human welfare. However, science policy and infrastructure are not always well-designed to incentivize research that most benefits society in the long-term.

For example, we’ve argued that some scientific and technological developments can increase risks of catastrophe, which better institutional checks might be able to help reduce.

More prosaically, scientific progress is often driven more by what is commercially valuable, interesting, or prestigious than by considerations of long-run positive impact. In general, we favor differential development in science and technology over indiscriminate progress, which better science policies or institutional design may help enable.

This suggests that there is room for improving systems shaping scientific research and increasing their benefits going forward. We’re particularly keen on people creating structures or incentives to push scientific research in more positive and less risky directions. Read more.

Migration restrictions

This strategy has the potential to greatly increase economic growth, intercultural understanding, and cosmopolitanism—as well as help migrants directly. However, it also faces strong opposition and so carries political risk.

Read more from the Open Philanthropy Project, OpenBorders.info, or see the book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Aging

Recent advances in the science of aging have made it seem more feasible than was previously thought to radically slow the aging process and perhaps allow people to live much longer. If these efforts are successful, some have argued there would be positive long-run effects on society, as people would be led to think in more long-term ways and could keep working productively past retirement age, which could be beneficial for intellectual and economic growth.

That said, the case for long-term impact here is highly speculative and many people think more anti-aging research could be totally ineffective (or perhaps even negative). Anti-aging research also might soon be able to draw substantial private investment, meaning it will be less neglected. But some have also argued that's a reason to work on it now, because it may need some early successes before it can become a self-sustaining field. Read more.

Improving institutions to promote development

Institutional quality seems to play a large role in development, so if there were a way to make improvements to institutions in developing countries, this could be an effective way to improve many people’s lives.

For instance, legal and political changes in China seem to have been key to its economic development from the 80’s onwards. For a discussion of the importance of governing institutions for economic growth see our interview with a group trying to found cities with improved legal infrastructure in the developing world.

Keep in mind, however, these efforts are often best pursued by citizens of the relevant countries. There is also substantial disagreement about which institutions are best, and the answers will vary depending on a country's circumstances and culture.

Space settlement and terraforming

Expanding to other planets could end up being one of the most consequential things humanity ever does. It could greatly increase the number of beings in the universe and might reduce the chance that we go extinct by allowing humans to survive deadly catastrophes on earth. It may also have dramatic negative consequences, for instance if we fail to take into account the welfare of beings we cause to exist in the process, or if settlement turns out to increase the risk of eventual catastrophic conflict. (Read more.)

However, independent space colonies are likely centuries away, and there are more urgent challenges in the meantime. As a result, we think that right now resources are generally better used elsewhere. Still, there does seem to be a chance that in the long run research on the question of whether space settlement is likely to be good or bad—and how good or bad—could have significant impacts.

Lie detection technology

Lie detection technology may soon see large improvements due to advances in machine learning or brain imaging. If so, this might have significant and hard-to-predict effects on many areas of society, from criminal justice to international diplomacy.

Better lie detection technology could improve cooperation and trust between groups by allowing people to prove they are being honest in high-stakes scenarios. On the other hand, it might increase the stability of non-democratic regimes by helping them avoid hiring, or remove, anyone who isn't a 'true believer' in their ideology.

Wild animal welfare

Wild animals are very numerous, and they often suffer due to starvation, heat, parasitism and other issues. Almost nobody is working to figure out what if anything can be done to help them, or even which animals are likely to be suffering most. Research on invertebrates might be especially important, as there is such an enormous number of them.

Learn more in our interview with Persis Eskander and read some early research from the Foundational Research Institute here.

Other global issues

We think the following issues are quite important from a short- or medium- term perspective, and that work on them might well be as impactful as additional work focused on reducing the suffering of animals from factory farming or improving global health.

Mental health

Improving mental health seems like one of the most direct ways of making people better off, and there appear to be many promising areas for research and reform that have not yet been adequately explored—especially with regard to new drug therapies and improving mental health in the developing world. See the Happier Lives Institute for more.

There is also some chance that like economic growth, better mental health in a population could have positive indirect effects that accumulate over time. Read a preliminary review of this cause area and check out our podcast episode with Spencer Greenberg to learn more.

Biomedical research and other basic science

Basic scientific research in general has had a large positive effect on welfare historically. Major breakthroughs in biomedical research specifically could lead to people living much longer, healthier lives. You might also be able to use training in biomedical research to work on other promising areas discussed above, like biosecurity or anti-aging research. Read more.

Increasing access to pain relief in developing countries

Most people lack access to adequate pain relief, which leads to widespread suffering due to injuries, chronic health conditions, and disease. One natural approach is increasing access to cheap pain relief medications that are common in developed countries, but often not available in the developing world. One group working in this area is the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering. Read more.

Other risks from climate change

We discuss extreme risks of climate change—such as severe warming and geopolitical risks—in our writeup of the area.

Climate change also threatens to create many smaller problems or make other global problems worse, for example frictions between countries due to movement of refugees. While compared to other areas we cover climate change is not as neglected, we are highly supportive of reducing carbon-emissions through research, better technology, and policy interventions. Read more.

Smoking in the developing world

Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Despite this, smoking is on the rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.

Possible approaches include advocating for cigarette taxes or campaigns to discourage smoking, and development of e-cigarette technology. Read more.

There is a lot to do.

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