What visionary project would you fund?

by RichardKennaway1 min read9th Nov 201171 comments


Personal Blog

I have just received a survey questionnaire regarding future directions in EU (European Union) research funding, and thought it would be interesting to see how LessWrong would answer the main question:

Imagine that EU funding is available for one ambitious, visionary project extending beyond 2020.

  • What kind of research challenges should such a project address in your area?
  • What would be the most urgent research tasks?

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Off the top of my head (and assuming arbitrary political/resource requisitioning powers) I might aim for Profoundly Self Sufficient Habitats.

This would basically be a kind of space exploration program on earth. The goal would be to develop a suite of technologies and practices to enable small groups of humans (less than 500) to survive and thrive with a technological civilization for centuries in extreme environments and cultural isolation. We should know how to build a habitat capable of supporting a group of humans generation over generation with construction of more habitat using ambient resources in (1) the Sahara, (2) the Antarctic, (3) deep underground, (4) at sea, (5) near Fukushima or Chernobyl, (6) at the top of Everest, (7) at the bottom of Lake Superior, (8) near deep sea vents, (9) in the upper atmosphere, etc.

You would need a bunch of new technology/culture and it would have to be relatively simple and self supporting, like 3D printers that can print their own components, highly efficient recycling systems, expertise in managing closed ecologies, cultural awareness of the dangers of culture loss/drift in small communities, etc, etc. This technology would probably ha... (read more)

5Curiouskid10yI think that the Seasteading institute is looking into this already. More generally, I think the idea is called permaculture. I agree with you. This is a close second to education reform for me.
5JenniferRM10yNo idea. I would expect that to be part of the research... especially if you were trying (for instance) to set up three well running habitats initially and come back 100 years later and find seven habitats that were running with additional optimizations that the initial three lacked. You want persistence, growth, and innovation instead of just grim survival. If you seeded them with "astronaut quality" people then you'll probably get regression to the mean in subsequent generations, and if the initial group was barely surviving then their descendants would probably run out of luck. It seems likely to me that you'd get a more robust trajectory if you start with mostly average people from scratch, but with a seed culture that was optimized by a vastly smarter community to be something they can teach their basically normal kids to use, maintain, and augment in the course of living. The personal satisfaction question loops back more brutally when you think intergenerationally, because the kids certainly never gave informed consent to be part of a traumatic science project. But if lives in such habitats are highly rewarding it stops being such an ethical dilemma. One way to look at it would be to have people live in weird places in exchange for having been given ownership of millions or billions of dollars worth of awesome technology... if they aren't "stuck in a lousy experiment" but instead "inherit stewardship of a treasure" then the ethical question mostly evaporates.
1dlthomas10yYou just need to find a couple hundred for each habitat - seems easy enough.
[-][anonymous]10y 17

Sens is a good anti-ageing initiative - that has the potential to really get rejuvenation research off the ground - I'd like see get more funding.

Although the academy is slowly starting to realize that defeating aging is worth pursuing indirectly by trying to solve standard age related diseases, it is dose by no means put in the effort I liked to see, of course this would require additional funding from "outside" unless we want to stop doing other kinds of medical research. . .

7Mercurial10yI daresay that most reasonably well-funded medical research would become almost entirely obsolete if SENS were to work. It's hard to justify researching more effective heart attack medication when no one gets biologically old enough for heart attacks to be a serious problem anymore.
4[anonymous]10yYou are certainly right that a lot of big pharma research would become obsolete if "robust rejuvenation" (i.e. 30 years extended life with treatment starting in middle age) is achieved but we don't want to stop doing basic medical research even if SENS works, You might not be that interested in producing more efficient calcium channel blockers [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_channel_blocker], but you are probably still interested in calcium channels in smooth muscle. Aside from the aspect of treating non-age related diseases, we need to understand biology in order to make SENS work long term; one of Aubrey De Grey's key claims is that we know (in principal) enough about the aging we see today in order to know what to treat, but that probably isn't true for the kind of aging we would see in a 150-year-old. (This is not something De Grey is disputing).
2Mercurial10yI totally agree with you. What I mean is that most of the money currently being poured into, say, repairing heart disease damage could instead be poured into researching the nature of metabolism in general. Trying to manage the symptoms for heart disease, morbid obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and all the other diseases associated with aging just doesn't seem nearly as efficient as fixing the common problem causing all of these. We would still want to explore the nature of biology once something like SENS succeeds, true, but we wouldn't need to do so by dumping tons of money into repairing people who are dying right now of those diseases. It becomes "How does this work?" research instead of "How do we keep these people from dying tomorrow?" research.
3[anonymous]10yI do agree that medical research focuses too much on managing age related disease - sweeping under the carpet strategy - rather than curing (might just be a too bit fastidious about this, we might mean the same thing) but viewing aging as unitary process - that can be cured in a single stroke "fixing the common problem" - is probably not an accurate description. Aging is a number of different processes from miss-folded protein build up to an increase in number of mutations, that have in common that they build up over time and have a negative effect on our health. SENS aims to solve each of these problems separately.
2Mercurial10yI agree. Any impression I give otherwise is an artifact of my brevity.
1machrider10yDoesn't that depend on heart attacks being a function of age rather than a function of time? Anti-aging doesn't necessarily mean anti-arterial-plaque-buildup. I do agree that entire classes of problems might go away though, which would be amazing.
3[anonymous]10yArteriosclerosis is a condition that is considered a part of aging/age related disease. Since it arise probably partly due to macrophages inability to break down extracellular aggregates (oxidised cholesterol) and lipids reacting with calcium that build up over time, as well as loss of elasticity of the arterial wall.

Microbe ecology. It's a huge subject, and we've barely started to understand it.

1RichardKennaway10yCan you expand on that? I hadn't heard of it before, and the wiki article [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbial_ecology] isn't much more than a stub. What are the fundamental questions, and what difference would it make if we knew the answers?
3NancyLebovitz10yThere are a lot of kinds of plants and animals. They interact. Their current and future distribution makes a difference, and it takes both general principles and detailed local knowledge to have any idea of what's going on. Discordant Harmonies is about the idea of balance and stability of Nature, and that it's just something people made up. There isn't a reliable pattern of succession when a forest is destroyed, and that cute pattern of opposing sine curves between predators and prey has never been observed in the real world, not even for microbes in a test tube. Microbes are smaller and more numerous and weirder and faster changing than plants and animals, and people have done much less to observe them in the wild, for tolerably obvious reasons. Microbes make a difference to disease, to digestion, to soil formation, and probably to a number of things I haven't thought of. It would be very cool transhumanism if people could watch bacteria (probably with machine augmentation, I suspect there would be optical problems, and I'm sure there would be information processing problems) as easily as they watch birds. At least, that's what I mean by microbe ecology.
1billswift10yI've actually been thinking about this, rather casually, for a couple of decades. For one thing, this kind of understanding would be necessary for a long-term closed environment, like for a large space colony. Also, it would be useful, like a seed bank, in restoring the earth if there was a sufficiently bad catastrophe.
0JenniferRM10yAre you aware of bioreacter/chemostat research [https://controls.engin.umich.edu/wiki/index.php/Bacterial_Chemostat_Model]? If so, could you suggest some "best of breed" review articles or a textbook on the subject? I know of the research but haven't read into its literature, and would appreciate an educated pointer :-)

A world-wide ABC sensor network.

Mobile phones are becoming cheaper and more widespread all the time. All new mobile phones could in future be equipped with sensors to detect biological pathogens, hazardous chemical agents and a Geiger counter for measuring radioactivity. The data could then be anonymzed and uploaded to be analyzed and used for the early detection of biological, chemical or nuclear risks.

Such a network could thwart the outbreak of infectious diseases, chemical accidents or nuclear terrorism (e.g. dirty bombs).

1[anonymous]10yHmm the question is if you actually could construct something that has the potential to detect unknown biological pathogens and then fit it in a phone. . . well worth a try i guess.
1XFrequentist10yABC=Atomic, Biological, Chemical? That's much better than CBRNE (Chem, Bio, Rad-Nuke, Explosive), which seems to be the common phrase.
1knb10yI'm familiar with NBC, (nuclear, biological, chemical) for current catastrophic risk and GNR (genetics, nano, robotics) for possible future ones.
[-][anonymous]10y 7


A comprehensive world-wide database of medical records, along with a legal framework to enable use of such records in medical research. Software that uses such records to advance medical knowledge.

Research into treatments that reliably prevent in-group bias and can be cheaply, easily, and effectively implemented (preferably at school or similar setting).

3Jayson_Virissimo10yAnecdotally, I find watching this video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xN1WN0YMWZU&feature=player_embedded] helps me correct for in-group bias (especially nationalism [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nationalism/] and other forms of tribalism [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Tribalism]) on the margin.
0lessdazed10ygwern has an insight: http://lesswrong.com/lw/7xr/not_by_empathy_alone/58vc [http://lesswrong.com/lw/7xr/not_by_empathy_alone/58vc]
0TimS10yI'm not sure I understand the relevance. In-group bias predicts one of the experimental results: forming groups leads to increased conflict. My point was that a treatment that reduced this effect would do a lot to reduce human suffering.

I urge that, with full knowledge of our limitations, we vastly increase our knowledge of the Solar System and then begin to settle other worlds.

These are the missing practical arguments: safeguarding the Earth from otherwise inevitable catastrophic impacts and hedging our bets on the many other threats, known and unknown, to the environment that sustains us. Without these arguments, a compelling case for sending humans to Mars and elsewhere might be lacking. But with them - and the buttressing arguments involving science, education, perspective, and hope

... (read more)
0billswift10ySpace and Human Survival: My Views on the Importance of Colonizing Space [http://www.sylviaengdahl.com/space/survival.htm] Achieving Human Commitment to Space Colonization: Is Fear the Answer? [http://www.sylviaengdahl.com/space/lifeboat.htm] ADDED: Also she has an Amazon Listmania Why We Must Colonize Space [http://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Must-Colonize-Space/lm/15QM4CUBDSMAF/ref=cm_lmt_fvlm_f_2_rlrsrs0] that has some interesting reading.
0Jayson_Virissimo10yFair enough.

I admit that I stole this one from Sam Harris.

He suggests that if you improved the neuroscience of lie detection and then implemented it in politics that the implications would be huge. Even if it weren't 100% effective, the threat of using it would be enough to deter many. Current lie detection is based on thing like thermal and electrical readings of the skin. However, these are really inaccurate compared to a potential neuroscientific approach.

I can think of two concepts of lie detection. In the first, the statement is compared with objective truth (i.e. Omega says, "Contrary to the Senator's assertion, this tax credit will not create jobs"). In the second, the statement is compared with the contents of the speaker's mind (i.e. Omega says, "The Senator does not believe that this tax credit will create jobs").

The first type of lie detection would be really awesome, but unlikely to be developed based on physiological study because (to paraphrase from X-Files) the truth is not in there.

The second type probably would not be useful in politics because politics is the mindkiller and I predict that most politicians believe the fundamentals of the principles they assert (based on motivated cognition, to some extent). That said, a truly reliable lie detector would be great in litigation. No more he said, she said issues. Of course, there is still the risk that the witness honestly believes some false facts.

0NancyLebovitz10yYou could ask politicians how much they've researched various questions and (in detail) how thoroughly they've considered alternative possibilities.
1TimS10yThere are lots of interesting questions that I would like to be able to force politicians to answer truthfully. I'm just not sure that any answer would matter to the politician's political followers.
0wedrifid10yActually admit to having considered other possibilities? That sounds dangerous!
-1Curiouskid10yI still think that it would be highly beneficial. Think about Bill Clinton. Think about 9/11. Think about area 51. We could set a lot of conspiracy theories to rest.
6TimS10yI respectfully suggest that you are underestimating the power of motivated cognition. For example, if you believe a conspiracy thoery, then any Omega-verified denial can be explained because the speaker was not in on the truth (i.e. plausible deniability was set up in advance). Actually, I also think you overestimate the importance of fringe theories in partisan politics. (and just to satisfy my curiosity, what Bill Clinton thing are you referring to?)
0Curiouskid10yBill Clinton and Monica Lowinsky. Which reminds me of another application: Lie detection in relationships.
2lessdazed10yPerhaps a few existing ones would be made slightly less popular. Maybe. Say, did you hear about where the technology for the lie detectors came from? The manufacturer that's reproducing the original artifact has ties to the political elite that secretly...
4wedrifid10ySo the old faithful "their lips are moving" isn't sufficient any more?
0Morendil10yCheck out Halperin's The Truth Machine [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truth_Machine].
2gwern10yActually, I just read that for some reason. My take was that it was way too utopian, didn't give much thought to the endless ways people would try to circumvent it, and in retrospect its forecasts for American crime and global nuclear terrorism were hilariously wrong. (Although I am generally in favor of massively increased honesty and truth machines.) The writing was kind of wooden, but apparently it was Halperin's first novel.
0Curiouskid10yOr maybe "the invention of lying". Probably less philosophical though.
0cousin_it10yExcept it won't be regular people using lie detectors on politicians. It will be government officials and big corps using lie detectors on regular people. Also, if/when reliable lie detection tech appears, it probably won't take long for someone to develop a counter: a means of making oneself (or another person) truly believe a given statement. Of course, the first customers of such counter tech will also be governments and big corps.
3dlthomas10yThis actually overstates the difficulty - you don't need to make people truly believe the statement, although that would work. You just need to make the analogues examined mimic those of someone who does truly believe the statement. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see an arms race, with artificial belief driven toward honest belief in the long run.
0Vladimir_Nesov10yI find it implausible for your level of certainty (and/or focus on listed scenarios) to be correct.
0cousin_it10yI agree about the second part. But the first part is pretty obvious, isn't it?
0Vladimir_Nesov10y"Regular people using lie detectors on politicians" does seem impossible, but "government officials and big corps using lie detectors on regular people" (to any interesting extent) is far from clear, it's easy to see how it could be successfully resisted by appealing to human rights intuitions, or channeled towards significantly different forms of use, escaping your description. (Even China's regime is not certain to persist in relevant respects on this timescale.)
0dlthomas10yThis seems apropos. [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3554]

I've been leaning towards the conclusion that better innovations in education (this includes both technology and cultural/institutional) would be a huge, multiplicative high level action that would benefit most other initiatives people favor. I strongly doubt we've come close to exhausting the low-hanging fruit in education technique (and in the flexibility to apply techniques as needed to different types of people)

Programs like KIPP applied one major overhaul to the existing system... and then stopped. I'd like to donate to an organization that systematically tries out radically different systems and technological innovations and then attempts to replicate the ones that work.

3djcb10yImproved ways to educate people would indeed be a very worthy goal; sadly, there seems to be little consensus (let alone controlled experiments) as to what makes a good education to whom. Is it the quality of teachers, the size of classes, the availability of technology (or the lack thereof), the homogeneity (or heterogeneity) of the subjects-to-be-taught, rigidity of the school system (or freedom the follow one's own path), etc. etc. that help teaching/learning the most? The research points in opposite ways, and what actually happens in practice seems, to some extent, and maybe not surprising, driven by what's fashionable rather than research. So - improving education is very important, but existing, EU-wide, and worldwide, programs seem to have a lot of trouble to come up with clear answers.
1Raemon10yEssentially, my problem is that the charity I would like to support doesn't actually exist. (Yes, I'm aware of this). This is why I specified it for an "ambitious, visionary project extending beyond 2020."
1Curiouskid10yI agree with you. You should check out Some of the Thiel Fellows. A few of them are dealing with education. http://thielfoundation.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15&Itemid=21 [http://thielfoundation.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15&Itemid=21]
[-][anonymous]10y 3
  • Improvement in cryonics technology and storage.
  • Fully online (accredited by European universities) education
  • Brain scanning technology that can detect sociopaths
  • Improved tools for online anonymity
  • Major study into the genetics of intelligence to complement the work currently done by BGI
1Dr_Manhattan10yPerhaps valuable, but we should first figure out what we'd do with them after detection - I do not see a handy moral solution, and without one we can quickly come to overreaction or atrocities.
2TheOtherDave10yIt's probably worth distinguishing between people in the following scenarios being scanned and found to be a sociopath: a) a suspect in a crime b) someone found guilty of a crime by other means c) very young child d) adult with no criminal record not currently suspected for a crime
0wedrifid10yIn which cases would you most prefer such scans be made?
0TheOtherDave10yb. I expect that in that case we'd use it primarily to inform sentencing and parole decisions, and that might actually improve those decisions. (I'm not particularly confident that it will, though... say 30%?) I'd actively prefer we avoid scanning in cases d and a, except perhaps as research on populations, as I don't trust us to do anything even remotely sensible with the data. I'm not sure about c... it depends mostly on whether we have any way of intervening usefully in their subsequent development.
0Dr_Manhattan10yWhile b sounds useful, it's hardly the visionary project called for. I suspect Konkvistador had something broader in mind.
-1Prismattic10yThis [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127888976] seems relevant.
0NancyLebovitz10yWe should also first figure out how we're going to keep sociopaths from taking over the program.
0wedrifid10yEnsure the role doesn't allow much in the way of status, money, power or any other form of personal gain. Unfortunately that is hard to do given the possibility to gain the aforementioned goods via the opportunity to accept bribes. The most obvious way to go about prevention would be to institute excessively redundant amounts of transparency.
2NancyLebovitz10yRunning a big, important research project which will shape decisions about what to do with a large number of people? There's no way to keep money, status, and power away from that.
  • Brain Computer Interfaces
  • Fully online education

Approximately how much funding are we talking about? Different projects have widely different funding costs.

4RichardKennaway10yFramework Programme 7 (the principal source of government funding for scientific research in the EU) had a total budget of €53.2 billion over I forget how many years, while individual research projects within that have typically had anywhere from 100,000s to tens of millions each. The questionnaire is soliciting views about the directions for the successor to FP7. So imagine you're the one at the top, deciding the areas to allocate this huge pile of money.

Small scale fusion power.

Research challenges: How to get hydrogen to fuse into helium using only 500kg of machinery and less energy than will be produced.

Urgent Tasks: (In-)Validate the results of the fusor people, scale up / down as neccessary.

Reasons: Enormous amounts of energy goes into everything. If energy costs drop significantly, I expect sustained, fast and profound economic growth, in this case without too much ecological impact. Also, a lot of high-energy technology will become way more feasible, e.g. space missions.