Good news about COVID-19

Many of us feel depressed about the COVID-19 situation, and it is without doubt a horrible tragedy.

But millions of people are rising to the occasion, and there’s a lot of good news mixed in with the bad.

The media has a tendency to give extra coverage to bad news, because readers find negative stories more eye-catching.

So in the interest of balance, here are some positive things we’ve learned in the last week while writing articles on how to tackle the coronavirus crisis through temporary work, donations, or policy.

Some countries are turning COVID-19 away at the door, while others are turning the tide of the pandemic

As you can see in this chart, COVID-19 remains mostly controlled in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan is barely visible down there at the bottom, while Singapore actually hasn’t had enough deaths to make it onto the figure yet.

Once they emerge from their ‘lockdowns’, other places can potentially copy the methods which these three countries have shown can work.

COVID-19 may also be controlled in Hong Kong, Japan and China, which are reporting few new cases. (Unfortunately Hong Kong and Japan aren’t testing enough people to be sure, and China doesn’t say how many tests it’s running, so we’ll have to wait and see.)

As the figure below shows, even the two worst affected countries,

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Essential Facts and Figures – COVID-19

This page aims to summarise our understanding of the current science on key questions about COVID-19 (as of 3 April, 2020), as best we can given the state of the evidence and the fast moving situation. We provide more explanation as well as sources in the footnotes.

Symptoms and severity

  • The most common early symptoms are cough (appearing in about 80% of confirmed cases) and fever (80%-90%). Later, many experience shortness of breath. Diarrhea and other GI symptoms have also been seen in some patients. Nasal congestion and runny nose seem uncommon (<5%). Anecdotally, loss of the sense of taste or smell have also been reported.
  • Once someone is infected, it takes an average of ~5 days for symptoms to develop (and less than 12.5 days for 95% of people).
  • According to initial data from China, around 81% of confirmed cases are ‘mild’ (though can still involve pneumonia), 14% are severe (requiring hospitalisation), and 5% are critical. A large proportion of people infected with the virus have mild symptoms, and around 20% may have no symptoms, though there is not reliable data here.
  • Most current estimates of the fraction of infected people (rather than people with confirmed cases) who die from the disease (the ‘IFR’) seem to be between 0.1% and 2%. The fraction will vary based on whether healthcare capacity is overwhelmed, as well as the age and health of the population.

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Options for donating to fight COVID-19

Many people have been asking about where they can donate to fight COVID-19, so we asked a couple of advisors for their initial thoughts on which opportunities could be especially high-leverage.

We haven’t evaluated how these compare to donation opportunities in other areas, but if you are keen to donate specifically to COVID-19-related work then read on.

1. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Personally, I would donate to the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins (CHS), which researches biosecurity and advocates for better policy. It takes donations here.

  • They’ve been one of the most influential sources of information and analysis for helping inform policymakers’ response to the crisis, for instance releasing influential situation reports at least once a day since January 22nd.
  • Getting the policy response right seems like a crucial lever in navigating the crisis.
  • They had a good track record of work on pandemic preparedness before the crisis, and received a large grant from Open Philanthropy in 2019.
  • My best guess is that if the CHS has urgent funding needs during the crisis, those needs will be met by other donors, especially Open Philanthropy. However, the Center’s budget is large, so in the longer term I expect it could make productive use of additional funding, helping to improve the policy response to future pandemics. This seems like an advantage to me (because I think future pandemics are a highly pressing issue,

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If you want to help the world tackle COVID-19, what should you do?

To tackle the COVID-19 crisis, there are five main things we need to do:

  1. Research to understand the disease and to develop new treatments and a vaccine.
  2. Determine the right policies, both for public health and the economic response.
  3. Increase healthcare capacity, especially for testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and critical care.
  4. Slow the spread through testing & isolating cases, as well as mass advocacy to promote social distancing and other key behaviours, buying us more time to do the above.
  5. We also need to keep society functioning through the progression of the pandemic.

Everyone can help stem the spread of COVID-19 by practicing proper hygiene and staying at home whenever possible. But if you want to do more, what can you do that’s most effective?

To maximise your impact, the aim is to identify a high-leverage opportunity to contribute to one of these bottlenecks that’s a good fit for your skills.

In this article, we’ll discuss some opportunities to work within each of these five categories, and some rules of thumb to work out which might be highest-impact for you, drawing from the rest of our research on high-impact careers. We also provide a long list of specific projects we’ve seen proposed.

We cover where to donate, in a separate article on donation opportunities to fight COVID-19.

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The coronavirus crisis and our new review of how to prevent the worst possible pandemics

At the time of this writing, COVID 19 — a flu-like respiratory disease causing fever and pneumonia — has killed over 11,000 people and has likely infected over 2 million. The growth in new cases is exponential, although cases are slowing substantially in places where strict containment measures have been instituted.

Cities are shutting down around the world. Although it is very hard to predict what will happen, it seems likely this outbreak will end up being among the worst economic and humanitarian disasters of the last 100 years.

Yesterday we put out a detailed interview and set of 70 links covering what both individuals and governments can do to fight the coronavirus crisis.

We will be producing plenty more on this topic and it will all be posted on our COVID-19 landing page.

COVID-19 is proof that a global pandemic can happen in the 21st century. It has also shown how underprepared we are as a world to coordinate with one another and deal with disasters like these.

Unfortunately, it’s possible for things to get much worse than COVID-19.

From the perspective of preventing threats to the long term future of humanity, preventing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) is especially important. GCBRs are risks from biological agents that threaten great worldwide damage to human welfare, and place the long-term trajectory of humankind in jeopardy.

GCBRs seem much more likely to arise from engineered pandemics than natural ones.

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Emergency episode: Rob & Howie on the menace of COVID-19, and what both governments & individuals might be able to do to help

Hours ago from home isolation Rob and Howie recorded an episode on:

  1. How many could die in the coronavirus crisis, and the risk to your health personally.
  2. What individuals might be able to do.
  3. What we suspect governments should do.
  4. The properties of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the importance of not contributing to its spread, and how you can reduce your chance of catching it.
  5. The ways some societies have screwed up, which countries have been doing better than others, how we can avoid this happening again, and why we’re optimistic.

We’ve rushed this episode out, accepting a higher risk of errors, in order to share information as quickly as possible about a very fast-moving situation.

We’ve compiled 70 links below to projects you could get involved with, as well as academic papers and other resources to understand the situation and what’s needed to fix it.

A rough transcript is also available.

Please also see our ‘problem profile’ on global catastrophic biological risks for information on these grave risks and how you can contribute to preventing them.

For more see the COVID-19 landing page on our site. You can also keep up to date by following Rob and 80,000 Hours’ Twitter feeds.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

Producer: Keiran Harris.

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How becoming a ‘patient philanthropist’ could allow you to do far more good

Just as it’s unlikely that someone passing you on the street is the person who can make the best use of the money in your wallet, we should typically think that the moment in which we find ourselves is not the moment at which we can have the most impact…

Phil Trammell

To do good, most of us look to use our time and money to affect the world around us today. But perhaps that’s all wrong.

If you took $1,000 you were going to donate and instead put it in the stock market — where it grew on average 5% a year — in 100 years you’d have $125,000 to give away instead. And in 200 years you’d have $17 million.

This astonishing fact has driven today’s guest, economics researcher Philip Trammell at Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute, to investigate the case for and against so-called ‘patient philanthropy’ in depth. If the case for patient philanthropy is as strong as Phil believes, many of us should be trying to improve the world in a very different way than we are now.

He points out that on top of being able to dispense vastly more, whenever your trustees decide to use your gift to improve the world, they’ll also be able to rely on the much broader knowledge available to future generations. A donor two hundred years ago couldn’t have known distributing anti-malarial bed nets was a good idea. Not only did bed nets not exist — we didn’t even know about germs, and almost nothing in medicine was justified by science.

What similar leaps will our descendants have made in 200 years, allowing your now vast foundation to benefit more people in even greater ways?

And there’s a third reason to wait as well. What are the odds that we today live at the most critical point in history, when resources happen to have the greatest ability to do good? It’s possible. But the future may be very long, so there has to be a good chance that some moment in the future will be both more pivotal and more malleable than our own.

Of course, there are many objections to this proposal. If you start a foundation you hope will wait around for centuries, might it not be destroyed in a war, revolution, or financial collapse?

Or might it not drift from its original goals, eventually just serving the interest of its distant future trustees, rather than the noble pursuits you originally intended?

Or perhaps it could fail for the reverse reason, by staying true to your original vision — if that vision turns out to be as deeply morally mistaken as the Rhodes’ Scholarships initial charter, which limited it to ‘white Christian men’.

Alternatively, maybe the world will change in the meantime, making your gift useless. At one end, humanity might destroy itself before your trust tries to do anything with the money. Or perhaps everyone in the future will be so fabulously wealthy, or the problems of the world already so overcome, that your philanthropy will no longer be able to do much good.

Are these concerns, all of them legitimate, enough to overcome the case in favour of patient philanthropy? In today’s conversation with researcher Phil Trammell and my 80,000 Hours colleague Howie Lempel, we try to answer that, and also discuss:

  • Real attempts at patient philanthropy in history and how they worked out
  • Should we have a mixed strategy, where some altruists are patient and others impatient?
  • Which causes are most likely to need money now, and which later?
  • What is the research frontier in this issue of global prioritisation?
  • What does this all mean for what listeners should do differently?

COVID-19

Finally, note that we recorded this podcast before the appearance of COVID-19. And as we discuss, Phil makes the case that patient philanthropists should wait for moments in history when patient philanthropic resources can do the most good. Could the coronavirus crisis be one of those important historical episodes during which Phil would argue that even patient philanthropists should ramp up their spending?

We’ve spoken with him more recently, and he says that this strikes him as unlikely. The virus is certainly doing widespread damage, but most of this damage is expected to accrue in the next few years at most. As a result, this is the sort of crisis that governments and impatient philanthropists are happy to spend on (to the extent that spending can help at all).

On Phil’s view, therefore, patient philanthropists are still best advised to wait i) until they’re rich enough to better address, or fund more substantial preparation for, similar future crises, or, ii) until we face crises with unusually long-lasting impacts, not just unusually severe impacts.

If this is right, COVID-19 just serves as an example of the many temptations to spend in the present that patient philanthropists will have to resist, in order to reap the benefits that can come from waiting to do good.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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80,000 Hours Annual Review – December 2019

We’ve released our 2019 annual review here.

It summarises our annual impact evaluation, and outlines our progress, plans, mistakes and fundraising needs.

The document was initially prepared in Nov 2019. We delayed its release until we heard back from some of our largest donors so that other stakeholders would be fully informed about our funding situation before we asked for their support. Most claims should be taken to be made “as of November 2019.”

We include:

If you would like to go into more detail, we also provide the following optional sections:

You can find our previous evaluations here.

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Reducing global catastrophic biological risks

Plagues throughout history suggest the potential for biology to cause global catastrophe. This potential increases in step with the march of biotechnological progress. Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs) may compose a significant share of all global catastrophic risk, and, if so, a credible threat to humankind.

Despite extensive existing efforts addressed to nearby fields like biodefense and public health, GCBRs remain a large challenge that is plausibly both neglected and tractable. The existing portfolio of work often overlooks risks of this magnitude, and largely does not focus on the mechanisms by which such disasters are most likely to arise.

Much remains unclear: the contours of the risk landscape, the best avenues for impact, and how people can best contribute. Despite these uncertainties, GCBRs are plausibly one of the most important challenges facing humankind, and work to reduce these risks is highly valuable.

This profile replaces our 2016 profile on biosecurity.

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Toby Ord on the precipice and humanity’s potential futures

“The Precipice” is a time where we’ve reached the ability to pose existential risk to ourselves, which is substantially bigger than the natural risks, the background that we were facing before. And this is something where I now think that the risk is high enough, that this century, it’s about one in six.

Dr Toby Ord

This week Oxford academic and 80,000 Hours trustee Toby Ord released his new book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. It’s about how our long-term future could be better than almost anyone believes, but also how humanity’s recklessness is putting that future at grave risk, in Toby’s reckoning a 1 in 6 chance of being extinguished this century.

I loved the book and learned a great deal from it. You can get it here (USA, UK, Audible), or get the first chapter sent to you by joining our newsletter:

While preparing for this interview I copied out 87 facts that were surprising to me or seemed important. Here’s a sample of 16:

  1. The probability of a supervolcano causing a civilisation-threatening catastrophe in the next century is estimated to be 100x that of asteroids and comets combined.
  2. The Biological Weapons Convention — a global agreement to protect humanity — has just four employees, and a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s.
  3. In 2008 a ‘gamma ray burst’ reached Earth from another galaxy, 10 billion light years away. It was still bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. We aren’t sure what generates gamma ray bursts but one cause may be two neutron stars colliding.
  4. Before detonating the first nuclear weapon, scientists in the Manhattan Project feared that the high temperatures in the core, unprecedented for Earth, might be able to ignite the hydrogen in water. This would set off a self-sustaining reaction that would burn off the Earth’s oceans, killing all life above ground. They thought this was unlikely, but many atomic scientists feared their calculations could be missing something. As far as we know, the US President was never informed of this possibility, but similar risks were one reason Hitler stopped pursuing the Bomb.
  5. If we eventually burn all the fossil fuels we’re confident we can access, the leading Earth-system models suggest we’d experience 9–13°C of warming by 2300, an absolutely catastrophic increase.
  6. In 1939, the renowned nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi told colleagues that a nuclear chain reaction was but a ‘remote possibility’. Four years later Fermi himself was personally overseeing the world’s first nuclear reactor. Wilbur Wright predicted heavier-than-air flight was at least fifty years away — just two years before he himself invented it.
  7. The Japanese bioweapons programme in the Second World War — which included using bubonic plague against China — was directly inspired by an anti-bioweapons treaty. The reasoning ran that if Western powers felt the need to outlaw their use, these weapons must especially good to have.
  8. In the early 20th century the Spanish Flu killed 3-6% of the world’s population. In the 14th century the Black Death killed 25-50% of Europeans. But that’s not the worst pandemic to date: that’s the passage of European diseases to the Americans, which may have killed as much as 90% of the local population.
  9. A recent paper estimated that even if honeybees were completely lost — and all other pollinators too — this would only create a 3 to 8 percent reduction in global crop production.
  10. In 2007, foot-and-mouth disease, a high-risk pathogen that can only be studied in labs following the top level of biosecurity, escaped from a research facility leading to an outbreak in the UK. An investigation found that the virus had escaped from a badly-maintained pipe. After repairs, the lab’s licence was renewed — only for another leak to occur two weeks later.
  11. Toby estimates that ‘great power wars effectively pose more than a percentage point of existential risk over the next century. This makes it a much larger contributor to total existential risk than all the natural risks like asteroids and volcanos combined.
  12. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev found it so hard to communicate, and the long delays so dangerous, that they established the ‘red telephone’ system so they could write to one another directly, and better avoid future crises coming so close to the brink.
  13. A US Airman claims that during a nuclear false alarm in 1962 that he himself witnessed, two airmen from one launch site were ordered to run through the underground tunnel to the launch site of another missile, with orders to shoot a lieutenant if he continued to refuse to abort the launch of his missile.
  14. In 2014 GlaxoSmithKline accidentally released 45 litres of concentrated polio virus into a river in Belgium. In 2004, SARS escaped from the National Institute of Virology in Beijing. In 2005 at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, three mice infected with bubonic plague went missing from the lab and were never found.
  15. The Soviet Union covered 22 million square kilometres, 16% of the world’s land area. At its height, during the reign of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire had a population of 100 million, around 25% of world’s population at the time.
  16. All the methods we’ve come up with for deflecting asteroids wouldn’t work on one big enough to cause human extinction.

While I’ve been studying this topic for a long time, and known Toby eight years, a remarkable amount of what’s in the book was new to me.

Of course the book isn’t a series of isolated amusing facts, but rather a systematic review of the many ways humanity’s future could go better or worse, how we might know about them, and what might be done to improve the odds.

And that’s how we approach this conversation, first talking about each of the main risks, then how we can learn about things that have never happened before, then finishing with what a great future for humanity might look like and how it might be achieved.

Toby is a famously good explainer of complex issues — a bit of a modern Carl Sagan character — so as expected this was a great interview, and one which my colleague Arden Koehler and I barely even had to work for.

For those wondering about pandemic just now, this extract about diseases like COVID-19 was the most read article in the The Guardian USA the day the book was launched.

Some topics Arden and I bring up:

  • What Toby changed his mind about while writing the book
  • Asteroids, comets, supervolcanoes, and threats from space
  • Why natural and anthropogenic risks should be treated so differently
  • Are people exaggerating when they say that climate change could actually end civilization?
  • What can we learn from historical pandemics?
  • How to estimate likelihood of nuclear war
  • Toby’s estimate of unaligned AI causing human extinction in the next century
  • Is this century be the most important time in human history, or is that a narcissistic delusion?
  • Competing visions for humanity’s ideal future
  • And more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Ben Todd on the key ideas of 80,000 Hours

Potentially, due to technology and all the amazing wealth that we find ourselves with, and potentially the moment of history that we’re in, our actions today actually can have these really big effects on the long-term wellbeing of large numbers of people.

Ben Todd

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is about “the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them”, and in this episode we tackle that question in the most direct way possible.

Last year we published a summary of all our key ideas, which links to many of our other articles, and which we are aiming to keep updated as our opinions shift.

All of us added something to it, but the single biggest contributor was our CEO and today’s guest, Ben Todd, who founded 80,000 Hours along with Will MacAskill back in 2012.

This key ideas page is the most read on the site. By itself it can teach you a large fraction of the most important things we’ve discovered since we started investigating high impact careers.

But it’s perhaps more accurate to think of it as a mini-book, as it weighs in at over 20,000 words.

Fortunately it’s designed to be highly modular and it’s easy to work through it over multiple sessions, scanning over the articles it links to on each topic.

Perhaps though, you’d prefer to absorb our most essential ideas in conversation form, in which case this episode is for you.

If you want to have a big impact with your career, and you say you’re only going to read one article from us, we recommend you read our key ideas page.

And likewise, if you’re only going to listen to one of our podcast episodes, it should be this one. We have fun and set a strong pace, running through:

  • The most common misunderstandings of our advice
  • A high level overview of what 80,000 Hours generally recommends
  • Our key moral positions
  • What are the most pressing problems to work on and why?
  • Which careers effectively contribute to solving these problems?
  • Central aspects of career strategy like how to weigh up career capital, personal fit, and exploration
  • As well as plenty more.

One benefit of this podcast over the article is that we can more easily communicate uncertainty, and dive into the things we’re least sure about, or didn’t yet cover within the article.

Note though that our what’s in the article is more precisely stated, our advice is going to keep shifting, and we’re aiming to keep the key ideas page current as our thinking evolves over time. This episode was recorded in November 2019, so if you notice a conflict between the page and this episode in the future, go with the page!

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Anonymous contributors answer: What are the biggest flaws of the effective altruism community?

The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

This entry is most likely to be of interest to people who are already aware of or involved with the effective altruism (EA) community.

But it’s the thirteenth in this series of posts with anonymous answers — many of which are likely to be useful to everyone. Four of the most popular entries have been:

  1. “What’s some underrated general life advice?”?
  2. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  3. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  4. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”

A list of all entries can be found at the bottom of the page.

Did you just land on our site for the first time? After this you might like to read about 80,000 Hours’ key ideas.

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Bonus episode: Arden & Rob on demandingness, work-life balance and injustice

Today’s bonus episode of the podcast is a quick conversation between me and my fellow 80,000 Hours researcher Arden Koehler about a few topics, including the demandingness of morality, work-life balance, and emotional reactions to injustice.

You can get it by subscribing to the 80,000 Hours Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about the show.

Arden is about to graduate with a philosophy PhD from New York University, so naturally we dive right into some challenging implications of utilitarian philosophy and how it might be applied to real life. Issues we talk about include:

  • If you’re not going to be completely moral, should you try being a bit more moral or give up?
  • Should you feel angry if you see an injustice, and if so, why?
  • How much should we ask people to live frugally?

So far the feedback on the post-episode chats that we’ve done have been positive, so we thought we’d go ahead and try out this freestanding one. But fair warning: it’s among the more difficult episodes to follow, and probably not the best one to listen to first as you’ll benefit from having more context!

If you’d like to listen to more of Arden, you can find her in episode 67 — David Chalmers on the nature and ethics of consciousness, or episode 66 – Peter Singer on being provocative, effective altruism & how his moral views have changed.

Here’s more information on some of the issues we touch on:

I mention the call for papers of the Academic Workshop on Global Priorities in the introduction — you can learn more here.

And finally, Toby Ord — one of our founding Trustees and a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University — has his new book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity coming out next week. I’ve read it and very much enjoyed it. Find out where you can pre-order it here. We’ll have an interview with him coming up soon.

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Anonymous contributors answer: What are the biggest flaws of 80,000 Hours?

The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect most of it is more broadly useful.

This is the twelfth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Four of the most popular entries have been:

  1. “What’s some underrated general life advice?”?
  2. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  3. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  4. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”

A list of all entries can be found at the bottom of the page.

Did you just land on our site for the first time? After this you might like to read about 80,000 Hours’ key ideas.

Continue reading →

Anonymous contributors answer: Should the effective altruism community grow faster or slower? And should it be broader, or narrower?

The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

This entry is most likely to be of interest to people who are already aware of or involved with the effective altruism (EA) community.

But it’s the eleventh in this series of posts with anonymous answers — many of which are likely to be useful to everyone. Other entries have asked:

  1. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  2. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  3. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
  4. “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?” And other personal career reflections.”
  5. “How risk averse should talented young people be?”
  6. “What bad habits do you see among people trying to improve the world?”
  7. “What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?”
  8. “What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?”
  9. “How honest and candid do you think high-profile people ought to be?”
  10. “What’s some underrated general life advice?”?

Continue reading →

Anonymous contributors answer: What’s some underrated general life advice?

The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect most of it is more broadly useful.

This is the tenth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Other entries have asked:

  1. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  2. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  3. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
  4. “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?” And other personal career reflections.”
  5. “How risk averse should talented young people be?”
  6. “What bad habits do you see among people trying to improve the world?”
  7. “What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?”
  8. “What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?”
  9. “How honest and candid do you think high-profile people ought to be?”

Did you just land on our site for the first time?

Continue reading →

Dr Cassidy Nelson on the twelve best ways to stop the next pandemic (and limit COVID-19)

…it showcases that even in a state like China, where you can enact these measures, maybe 19th century public health responses just don’t work, and maybe we need a drastically different approach.

Dr Cassidy Nelson

COVID-19 (previously known as nCoV) is alarming governments and citizens around the world. It has killed more than 1,000 people, brought the Chinese economy to a standstill, and continues to show up in more and more places.

But bad though it is, it’s much closer to a warning shot than a worst case scenario. The next emerging infectious disease could easily be more contagious, more fatal, or both.

Despite improvements in the last few decades, humanity is still not nearly prepared enough to contain new diseases. We identify them too slowly. We can’t do enough to reduce their spread. And we lack vaccines or drugs treatments for at least a year, if they ever arrive at all.

This is a precarious situation, especially with advances in biotechnology increasing our ability to modify viruses and bacteria as we like.

In today’s episode, Cassidy Nelson, a medical doctor and research scholar at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, explains 12 things her research group think urgently need to happen if we’re to keep the risk at acceptable levels. The ideas are:

Science

1. Roll out genetic sequencing tests that lets you test someone for all known and unknown pathogens in one go.
2. Fund research into faster ‘platform’ methods for going from pathogen to vaccine, perhaps using innovation prizes.
3. Fund R&D into broad-spectrum drugs, especially antivirals, similar to how we have generic antibiotics against multiple types of bacteria.

Response

4. Develop a national plan for responding to a severe pandemic, regardless of the cause. Have a backup plan for when things are so bad the normal processes have stopped working entirely.
5. Rigorously evaluate in what situations travel bans are warranted. (They’re more often counterproductive.)
6. Coax countries into more rapidly sharing their medical data, so that during an outbreak the disease can be understood and countermeasures deployed as quickly as possible.
7. Set up genetic surveillance in hospitals, public transport and elsewhere, to detect new pathogens before an outbreak — or even before patients develop symptoms.
8. Run regular tabletop exercises within governments to simulate how a pandemic response would play out.

Oversight

9. Mandate disclosure of accidents in the biosafety labs which handle the most dangerous pathogens.
10. Figure out how to govern DNA synthesis businesses, to make it harder to mail order the DNA of a dangerous pathogen.
11. Require full cost-benefit analysis of ‘dual-use’ research projects that can generate global risks.

12. And finally, to maintain momentum, it’s necessary to clearly assign responsibility for the above to particular individuals and organisations.

Very simply, there are multiple cutting edge technologies and policies that offer the promise of detecting new diseases right away, and delivering us effective treatments in weeks rather than years. All of them can use additional funding and talent.

At the same time, health systems around the world also need to develop pandemic response plans — something few have done — so they don’t have to figure everything out on the fly.

For example, if we don’t have good treatments for a disease, at what point do we stop telling people to come into hospital, where there’s a particularly high risk of them infecting the most medically vulnerable people? And if borders are shut down, how will we get enough antibiotics or facemasks, when they’re almost all imported?

Separately, we need some way to stop bad actors from accessing the tools necessary to weaponise a viral disease, before they cost less than $1,000 and fit on a desk.

These advances can be pursued by politicians and public servants, as well as academics, entrepreneurs and doctors, opening the door for many listeners to pitch in to help solve this incredibly pressing problem.

In the episode Rob and Cassidy also talk about:

  • How Cassidy went from clinical medicine to a PhD studying novel pathogens with pandemic potential
  • The pros, and significant cons, of travel restrictions
  • Whether the same policies work for natural and anthropogenic pandemics
  • Where we stand with nCoV as of today.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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Anonymous contributors answer: How honest & candid should high-profile people really be?

The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect most of it is more broadly useful.

This is the ninth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Other entries have asked:

  1. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  2. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  3. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
  4. “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?” And other personal career reflections.”
  5. “How risk averse should talented young people be?”
  6. “What bad habits do you see among people trying to improve the world?”
  7. “What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?”
  8. “What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?”

Did you just land on our site for the first time?

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China, its AI dream, and what we get wrong about both

There’s this assumption that because you have an AI plan, you’ve solved the problem. Whereas actually central forecasting, and planning about complicated, uncertain technological developments is oftentimes flawed and doesn’t solve anything. It may actually be counterproductive.

Jeff Ding

The State Council of China’s 2017 AI plan was the starting point of China’s AI planning; China’s approach to AI is defined by its top-down and monolithic nature; China is winning the AI arms race; and there is little to no discussion of issues of AI ethics and safety in China. How many of these ideas have you heard?

In his paper ‘Deciphering China’s AI Dream’ today’s guest, PhD student Jeff Ding, outlines why he believes none of these claims are true.

He first places China’s new AI strategy in the context of its past science and technology plans, as well as other countries’ AI plans. What is China actually doing in the space of AI development?

Jeff emphasises that China’s AI strategy did not appear out of nowhere with the 2017 state council AI development plan, which attracted a lot of overseas attention. Rather that was just another step forward in a long trajectory of increasing focus on science and technology. It’s connected with a plan to develop an ‘Internet of Things’, and linked to a history of strategic planning for technology in areas like aerospace and biotechnology.

And it was not just the central government that was moving in this space; companies were already pushing forward in AI development, and local level governments already had their own AI plans. You could argue that the central government was following their lead in AI more than the reverse.

What are the different levers that China is pulling to try to spur AI development?

Here, Jeff wanted to challenge the myth that China’s AI development plan is based on a monolithic central plan requiring people to develop AI. In fact, bureaucratic agencies, companies, academic labs, and local governments each set up their own strategies, which sometimes conflict with the central government.

Are China’s AI capabilities especially impressive? In the paper Jeff develops a new index to measure and compare the US and China’s progress in AI.

Jeff’s AI Potential Index — which incorporates trends and capabilities in data, hardware, research and talent, and the commercial AI ecosystem — indicates China’s AI capabilities are about half those of America. His measure, though imperfect, dispels the notion that China’s AI capabilities have surpassed the US or make it the world’s leading AI power.

Following that 2017 plan, a lot of Western observers thought that to have a good national AI strategy we’d need to figure out how to play catch-up with China. Yet Chinese strategic thinkers and writers at the time actually thought that they were behind — because the Obama administration had issued a series of three white papers in 2016.

Finally, Jeff turns to the potential consequences of China’s AI dream for issues of national security, economic development, AI safety and social governance.

He claims that, despite the widespread belief to the contrary, substantive discussions about AI safety and ethics are indeed emerging in China. For instance, a new book from Tencent’s Research Institute is proactive in calling for stronger awareness of AI safety issues.

In today’s episode, Rob and Jeff go through this widely-discussed report, and also cover:

  • The best analogies for thinking about the growing influence of AI
  • How do prominent Chinese figures think about AI?
  • Cultural cliches in the West and China
  • Coordination with China on AI
  • Private companies vs. government research
  • How are things are going to play out with ‘compute’?
  • China’s social credit system
  • The relationship between China and other countries beyond AI
  • Suggestions for people who want to become professional China specialists
  • And more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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What we do and don’t know about the 2019-nCoV coronavirus

UPDATE: Please also see our more recent episode Dr Cassidy Nelson on the twelve best ways to stop the next pandemic (and limit nCoV). It has a more recent update on nCoV and evidence backed ways to prevent pandemics from arising or spreading.

Two 80,000 Hours researchers, Robert Wiblin and Howie Lempel, just recorded a discussion about the 2019-nCoV virus.

You can get it by subscribing to the 80,000 Hours Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about the show.

In the 1h15m conversation we cover:

  • What is it?
  • How many people have it?
  • How contagious is it?
  • What fraction of people who contract it die?
  • How likely is it to spread out of control?
  • What’s the range of plausible fatalities worldwide?
  • How does it compare to other epidemics?
  • What don’t we know and why?
  • What actions should listeners take, if any?
  • How should the complexities of the above be communicated by public health professionals?

Below are some links we discuss in the episode, or otherwise think are informative:

Advice on how to avoid catching contagious diseases

Forecasts

General summaries of what’s going on

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