“It’s my job to worry about any way nukes could get used”

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

Rogue elements within a state’s security forces enrich dozens of kilograms of uranium. It’s then assembled into a crude nuclear bomb. The bomb is transported on a civilian aircraft to Washington D.C, and loaded onto a delivery truck. The truck is driven by an American citizen midway between the White House and the Capitol Building. The driver casually steps out of the vehicle, and detonates the weapon. There are more than 80,000 instant deaths. There are also at least 100,000 seriously wounded, with nowhere left to treat them.

It’s likely that one of those immediately killed would be Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, who works only one block away from the White House.

Samantha serves as Senior Director of The Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and warns that the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack are alarmingly high. Terrorist groups have expressed a desire for nuclear weapons, and the material required to build those weapons is scattered throughout the world at a diverse range of sites – some of which lack the necessary security.

When you combine the massive death toll with the accompanying social panic and economic disruption – a nuclear 9/11 would be unthinkably bad. And yet, Samantha reminds us, we must confront the possibility.

Clearly, this is far from the only nuclear nightmare. We also discuss:

  • In the case of nuclear war,

Continue reading →

Dr Cameron fought Ebola for the White House. Now she works to stop something even worse.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: search for 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts.

“When you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have to ask for money, you’re already too late.”

That’s Dr. Beth Cameron, and she’s someone who should know. Beth runs Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

She has years of experience preparing for and fighting the diseases of our nightmares, on the White House Ebola Taskforce, in the National Security Council staff, and as the senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

Unfortunately, the nations of the world aren’t prepared for a crisis – and like children crowded into daycare, there’s a real danger that something nasty will come along and make us all sick at once.

During previous pandemics, countries have dragged their feet over who will pay to contain them, or struggled to move people and supplies to where they needed to be. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t happen again today. And at the same time, advances in biotechnology may make it possible for terrorists to bring back smallpox – or create something even worse.

In this interview we look at the current state of play in disease control, what needs to change, and how you can work towards a job where you can help make those changes yourself.

Continue reading →

Podcast: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: search for 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts.

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 the Open Philanthropy Project – 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?

Continue reading →

Our computers are fundamentally insecure. Here’s why that could lead to global catastrophe.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: search for 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts.

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?

Continue reading →

Podcast: We aren’t that worried about the next pandemic. Here’s why we should be – and specifically what we can do to stop it.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

What natural disaster is most likely to kill more than 10 million human beings in the next 20 years?

Terrorism? Famine? An asteroid?

Actually it’s probably a pandemic: a deadly new disease that spreads out of control. We’ve recently seen the risks with Ebola and swine flu, but they pale in comparison to the Spanish flu which killed 3% of the world’s population in 1918 to 1920. If a pandemic of that scale happened again today, 200 million would die.

Looking back further, the Black Death killed 30 to 60% of Europe’s population, which would today be two to four billion globally.

The world is woefully unprepared to deal with new diseases. Many countries have weak or non-existent health services. Diseases can spread worldwide in days due to air travel. And international efforts to limit the spread of new diseases are slow, if they happen at all.

Even more worryingly, scientific advances are making it easier to create diseases much worse than anything nature could throw at us – whether by accident or deliberately.

In this in-depth interview I speak to Howie Lempel, who spent years studying pandemic preparedness for the Open Philanthropy Project. We spend the first 20 minutes covering his work as a foundation grant-maker, then discuss how bad the pandemic problem is,

Continue reading →

Podcast: How to train for a job developing AI at OpenAI or DeepMind

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

Just two years ago OpenAI didn’t exist. It’s now among the most elite groups of machine learning researchers. They’re trying to make an AI that’s smarter than humans and have $1b at their disposal.

Even stranger for a Silicon Valley start-up, it’s not a business, but rather a non-profit founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman among others, to ensure the benefits of AI are distributed broadly to all of society.

I did a long interview with one of its first machine learning researchers, Dr Dario Amodei, to learn about:

  • OpenAI’s latest plans and research progress.
  • His paper Concrete Problems in AI Safety, which outlines five specific ways machine learning algorithms can act in dangerous ways their designers don’t intend – something OpenAI has to work to avoid.
  • How listeners can best go about pursuing a career in machine learning and AI development themselves.

If you subscribe to The 80,000 Hours Podcast, you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and find out about future episodes. You can do so by searching for ‘80,000 Hours’ in your podcasting app (include the comma).

The audio, summary, extra resources and full transcript are below.

Continue reading →

Podcast: The world desperately needs AI strategists. Here’s how to become one.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

If a smarter-than-human AI system were developed, who would decide when it was safe to deploy? How can we discourage organisations from deploying such a technology prematurely to avoid being beaten to the post by a competitor? Should we expect the world’s top militaries to try to use AI systems for strategic advantage – and if so, do we need an international treaty to prevent an arms race?

Questions like this are the domain of AI policy experts.

We recently launched a detailed guide to pursuing careers in AI policy and strategy, put together by Miles Brundage at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

It complements our article outlining the importance of positively shaping artificial intelligence and a podcast with Dr Dario Amodei of OpenAI on more technical artificial intelligence safety work which builds on this one. If you are considering a career in artificial intelligence safety, they’re all essential reading.

I interviewed Miles to ask remaining questions I had after he finished his career guide. We discuss the main career paths; what to study; where to apply; how to get started; what topics are most in need of research; and what progress has been made in the field so far.

The audio, summary and full transcript are below.

Continue reading →