What if you were in a position to give away billions of dollars to improve the world? What would you do with it? This is the problem facing Program Officers at Open Philanthropy – people like Dr Nick Beckstead.

Following a PhD in philosophy, Nick works to figure out where money can do the most good. He’s been involved in major grants in a wide range of areas, including ending factory farming through technological innovation, safeguarding the world from advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and spreading rational compassion.

This episode is a tour through some of the toughest questions ‘effective altruists’ face when figuring out how to best improve the world, including:

  • Should we mostly try to help people currently alive, or future generations? Nick studied this question for years in his PhD thesis, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. (The first 31 minutes is a snappier version of my conversation with Toby Ord.)
  • Is clean meat (aka in vitro meat) technologically feasible any time soon, or should we be looking for plant-based alternatives?
  • To stop malaria is it more cost-effective to use technology to eliminate mosquitos than to distribute bed nets?
  • What are the greatest risks to human civilisation continuing?
  • Should people who want to improve the future work for changes that will be very useful in a specific scenario, or just generally try to improve how well humanity makes decisions?
  • What specific jobs should our listeners take in order for Nick to be able to spend more money in useful ways to improve the world?
  • Should we expect the future to be better if the economy grows more quickly – or more slowly?

We also cover some more personal issues like:

  • Nick’s top book recommendations.
  • How he developed (what is in my view) exceptional judgement.
  • How he made his toughest career decisions.
  • Why he wants to see less dilettantism and more expertise in the effective altruism community.

Don’t miss it.


Dr Beckstead’s view, after studying the topic in his philosophy PhD thesis, is that we should care about future generations about as much as the present generation. Because few people are trying to do things that specifically benefit future generations, there are many neglected and important things to fund in this area.

A distinction Nick developed is that when trying to improve the future people can go for targeted changes that will be very important in a narrow range of scenarios, or general changes that are useful in a broad range of cases. Over time, Nick has become less sceptical about targeted changes.

Some archetypal paths that Nick is particularly keen for more people to take include:

…[being] really interested in deep learning, very quantitatively oriented, caring about AI safety, and just generally crushing it in their study of that, I think that’s an archetype that’s really useful. I’d encourage that person to apply for the Google Brian Residency Program as a way of learning more about deep learning and getting into the field. I think it could go more quickly than going through a PhD. It’s a quick way into the industry.

The other category was AI strategy work. … They need to be very sharp, and they need to have a good judgment, and they need to be interested in thinking about how institutions and politics work. I would love to see more people getting jobs in the US government that could be relevant to AI and to other cause areas.

In biosecurity…I think there’s two paths; one of which is the side of more policy, and one, which is more like learning the science. Getting a PhD in some area of biology, perhaps focused on immunology, or vaccine R&D would be a natural place to go, or getting a PhD, or doing a fellowship at one of the places that do work on biosecurity, perhaps the Center for Health Security that Open Phil funds.

Another category would be jobs in the Effective Altruism Community. I don’t think there’s a super natural background for that, other than majoring in a serious discipline, and studying it seriously, doing well, and thinking about the issues that the Effective Altruist Community cares about and getting to know it, and debate it in person I think would be my advice for that category.

Nick’s top audiobook recommendations include The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey by Steven Goldman (The Great Courses), The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman, with an honorable mention for the podcast EconTalk by Russ Roberts.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

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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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