In a nutshell: By helping develop beneficial technologies faster, and deploying existing technologies in new and important ways, engineers — by which we mean all kinds of engineers other than software engineers, which we cover separately — can help contribute substantially to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Sometimes recommended — personal fit dependent
This career will be some people’s highest-impact option if their personal fit is especially good.
Exploratory career profile
How can engineers best make a difference?
Many potential solutions to the top problems we recommend working on include developing and deploying technology — and this often needs engineers.
Below is a list of pressing global problems and how engineers can help with each.
If you’re an engineer, you can read through to see if any of these issues appeal to you — and then aim to speak to some people in each area about how your skills could be applied and what the current opportunities are.
Preventing catastrophic pandemics
A future pandemic that is much worse than COVID-19 could pose a significant risk to society.
This is one of our top recommended areas, and has a clear need for engineers, as argued in Biosecurity needs engineers by Will Bradshaw.
While there is a key role for bioengineers and chemical engineers, physical engineers are also needed. Materials or civil engineers could:
- Help design physical protection from pathogens, like more effective or more affordable PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gloves and masks, better pathogen containment systems for labs, and systems to reduce pathogen spread in buildings or vehicles.
- Help improve technologies for monitoring pathogens, like systems for sampling environments and processes for managing and examining samples.
We expect AI hardware to be a crucial component of the development of AI. Given the importance of positively shaping the development of AI, experts in AI hardware could be in a position to have a substantive positive impact.
Improving civilisational resilience
One very neglected way to reduce existential threats is through generally increasing the resilience of our society to catastrophes.
Engineers can play a big role in this issue by developing alternative foods, refuges, and knowledge stores that will be able to survive a near-apocalypse.
For instance, David Denkenberger is an engineer developing alternative foods that could be rapidly scaled up in the event of a global famine, perhaps caused by nuclear winter or a major volcanic eruption. We have two podcasts with him:
- Using paper mills and seaweed to feed everyone in a catastrophe
- We could feed all eight billion people through a nuclear winter
To learn more about refuges, see this review by Open Philanthropy. Or learn about how to increase the chance of recovery from a catastrophic event in two of our podcast episodes:
- Luisa Rodriguez on why global catastrophes seem unlikely to kill us all
- Paul Christiano on whether we should leave messages for future civilisations
Fight climate change
We think developing and rolling out green energy is one of the best ways to tackle climate change, and engineers have a major role to play in this.
You can further increase your impact by focusing on technology that’s not widely known (e.g. hot rock geothermal) or unsexy (e.g. decarbonising cement rather than developing electric cars).
We have more notes on how to most effectively tackle climate change. We’d also recommend What can a technologist do about climate change? by Bret Victor.
Other problem areas that need engineers
In addition to the top problems mentioned above, there are many other areas where engineers are needed. For example, you could:
- Create alternative proteins through chemical engineering to help reduce meat consumption and prevent the suffering of animals in factory farms.
- Work on tech and logistics for global health, like producing and rolling out vaccines for polio and malaria.
- Try to develop products for the ‘bottom billion‘ — see more about why that can be impactful in our interview with SendWave.
Options outside engineering that can use engineering aptitude
Engineers often have a systems mindset that can make them a particularly good fit for operations management or entrepreneurship. If that work interests you, it’s worth considering whether to retrain and try to make a transition.
Some engineers may also excel at other options that require good quantitative ability, such as:
- Working on AI safety technical research
- Software engineering
- Earning to give in a high-paying role, such as quantitative trading
You can filter our job board by ‘engineer’ to find jobs in this category. Most of these are software engineer positions, but some are for physical engineering.
- Will Bradshaw on why biosecurity needs engineers and materials scientists
- Our career review on working on AI hardware
- A list of potential projects in biosecurity
Read next: Learn about other high-impact careers
Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.
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