Optimal Strategies for Reducing Existential Risk

byFrankAdamek10y31st Aug 200921 comments


I've been talking to a variety of people about this recently, and it was suggested that people (including myself) might benefit from a LessWrong discussion on the topic. I've been thinking about it on my own for a year, which took me through Neuroscience, Computer Science, and International Security Policy. I'm hoping and finding that through discussion, a much greater variety of options can be proposed and considered, and those with particular experience or observations can have others benefit from their knowledge. I've been very happy to find there are a number of people seriously working towards this already (still far fewer than we might need), and their deliberations and learning would be particularly valuable.

This is primarily about careers and other long term focused efforts (academic research and writing on the side, etc), not smaller incremental tools such as motivation and akrasia discussions. Where you should be applying your efforts, now how (much). Unless there's a lot of interest, it might also be good to otherwise avoid discussions on self-improvement in general and how to best realize these long term concerns, bringing those up elsewhere or in a seperate post.

A few initial thoughts:

  • What's the marginal value of one's own contribution? How much less would the "next person" be able to accomplish, i.e. the person who would get that job if you didn't?
  • What are efforts that provide compounding benefit over time, rather than a constant static contribution? Most things are likely to provide some compounding benefit, but where is this most significant?
  • We may not need or desire to do a lot of discussion on this, but it's worth keeping in mind that as time goes on and we learn more, collectively and individually, charitable donations could become much more effective. This suggests that it may be best save money until better applications are discovered, to be balanced of course by the compounding effects earlier donations can have. See Alan Dawrst's paper on the value of making money, which besides being a worthwhile read has a point about this in the 3rd note. If others know of more thorough treatments of this, please mention them.
  • What are the particular existential risks that have the largest expected marginal reduction for a given amount of effort? What dangers are particularly underserved, by society in general and by this community? Is there more marginal use in focusing on particular dangers or in efforts that reduce all of them at once (such as better general institutional treatment of them)?
  • How likely is it to increase the dangers of certain risks by an increased effort to avoid risks? If considerably likely and significant, can it be avoided and how?
  • How should we assess the risk of various efforts? Some efforts might provide small but very likely reductions in risk, and in others you may be likely to accomplish nothing, but a success could be immensely helpful.