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Take a trip to Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s, when going to space sounded like a good way to get around environmental limits, people started cryogenically freezing themselves, and nanotechnology looked like it might revolutionise industry – or turn us all into grey goo.

In this episode of the 80,000 Hours Podcast Christine Peterson takes us back to her youth in the Bay Area, the ideas she encountered there, and what the dreamers she met did as they grew up. We also discuss how she came up with the term ‘open source software’ (and how she had to get someone else to propose it).

Today Christine helps runs the Foresight Institute, which fills a gap left by for-profit technology companies – predicting how new revolutionary technologies could go wrong, and ensuring we steer clear of the downsides.

We dive into:

  • Can technology ‘move fast and break things’ without eventually breaking the world? Would it be better for technology to advance more quickly, or more slowly?
  • Whether the poor security of computer systems poses a catastrophic risk for the world.
  • Could all our essential services be taken down at once? And if so, what can be done about it? Christine makes a radical proposal for solving the problem.
  • Will AIs designed for wide-scale automated hacking make computers more or less secure?
  • Would it be good to radically extend human lifespan? Is it sensible to cryogenically freeze yourself in the hope of being resurrected in the future?
  • Could atomically precise manufacturing (nanotechnology) really work? Why was it initially so controversial and why did people stop worrying about it?
  • Should people who try to do good in their careers work long hours and take low salaries? Or should they take care of themselves first of all?
  • How she thinks the the effective altruism community resembles the scene she was involved with when she was young, and where it might be going wrong.


A similar social scene to the effective altruism community existing in the Bay Area in the 70s focussed on moving humans into space to deal with environmental limits. In the late 80s, as space colonisation seemed increasingly far-off, some people in that scene moved on to thinking about the risks posed new technologies. The focus was initially nanotechnology, and later biotechnology and artificial intelligence as further analysis suggested nanotechnology was not such a large risk. Some of those people, including Christine, work at the Foresight Institute. They try to fill the gap left by for-profit companies that push for rapid technological advances, by trying to foresee and avert the dangers future technologies will pose, while also promoting positive uses of these technologies.

Present day computer systems are fundamentally insecure, allowing hacking by state-level actors to take down almost any service on the internet, including essential services such as the electricity grid. Automated hacking by algorithms in future could allow computer systems around the world to be rapidly taken down. Christine believes the only way to effectively deal with this problem is to change the operating systems we all use to those that have been designed for maximum security from the ground up. Christine and two colleagues recently released a paper on tackling this issue.

It’s important to take care of your own health and welfare in order to be able to continue working hard on useful things for decades. Christine also advocates young people making risky bets on difficult projects to tackle the world’s biggest problems while they still have the flexibility to do so. Her impression was the effective altruism used to be too focussed on maximising easily measured outcomes, but this is improving now.

We also discuss life extension research, cryonics, and how to choose a life partner.

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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