The following are some 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 important to work on as our highest-priority issues listed above, but we haven’t investigated them enough to know.
Our best guess is that, at this time, it would be better for more of our readers to work on the issues below than are currently doing so. However, because we are highly uncertain of the impact of working in these areas (and what a career focused on one of them might look like), we don’t recommend that a large number of our readers pursue them — at least until more research is done.
Measures to reduce the chance of ‘great power’ conflicts
A 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 such 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?
Efforts to improve 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.
The Biological Weapons Convention is an example of one way institutions like the UN can help coordinate states to reduce global risks — though it also demonstrates some classic weaknesses of this approach, like underfunding and weak enforcement mechanisms.
There doesn’t seem to be as much work on improving these institutions — especially with an eye toward reducing global risks — as you might expect, and we’d be interested to see more research here. See section III.8 on page 125 here for some preliminary research in this area.
The Global Challenges Foundation recently held a prize competition for proposals for global governance reform — see the winners.
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. Moreover, despite these potential benefits, ideas in this space often get little attention.
To learn more check out resources from the Center for Election Science and our podcast episode with Aaron Hamlin.
Another related issue is the importance of voting security to prevent contested elections, discussed in our interview with Bruce Schneier.
Improving individual reasoning
The case here is similar to the case for improving institutional decision-making: better reasoning and deliberation 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.
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 when it can be targeted toward highly influential people. See the Update Project for an example of this kind of strategy.
Pioneering new ways to provide 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 group 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.
Research into 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.
Shaping the development of 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 or international institutions, making it important that positive values are widespread before this point.
We’re unsure what an impactful career aimed at promoting positive values might involve, but one strategy would be to pursue a position that gives you a platform for advocacy (e.g. journalist, blogger, podcaster, or academic) 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.
Measures to improve the resilience of civilization
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.
Research to identify potential ‘s-risks’
An ‘s-risk’ is a risk of an outcome much worse than extinction. Research to identify these risks and work out how to mitigate them is a subset of global priorities research that might be particularly neglected and important. Read more.
Research into 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.
Improving information security
Researchers at the Open Philanthropy Project have argued that better information security may become increasingly important as powerful technologies like bioengineering and machine learning advance in order to protect them from misuse or tampering.
In a recent podcast episode, Bruce Schneier pushed back on the importance of this specific issue, but argued that other applications of information security are very valuable and will become increasingly crucial. We would like to see more people investigating these questions and pursuing information security careers as a path to social impact.
Research into human enhancement
New strategies and technologies for enabling human enhancement could empower people to make better decisions, as well as be happier and longer-lived. Moreover, over many generations it seems feasible for increasing human cognitive capabilities (e.g., through embryo selection) to have a significant impact on technological and social progress. Read more.
Designing 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.
Investing for the future
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.