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How do you choose a career in technology that benefits humanity?

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The coming decades will be dominated by special new technological innovations. They can bring us huge benefits – or bring us to the brink of disaster. What happens next depends on whether we can figure out how to manage the risks. So, if you’re looking to make a positive impact in your life, one of the best things you can do is join the effort to make sure the most powerful technologies we build work for the benefit of all of humanity.

This is why.

Biotechnology breakthroughs such as CRISPR gene editing and mRNA may empower researchers to fighting genetic disorders and infectious diseasesor even help eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But this same breakneck progress in our power to manipulate biology also makes it considerably easier to unleash catastrophic pandemicseven accidentally. It is already possible for researchers to tune and synthesize viruses known as dangerous. At the moment, only a few dozen trusted scientists are able to do this. But as costs fall, this opportunity could expand to thousands of people. If we continue to build the tools to produce pandemics before building the tools to vigorously defend against them, the consequences could be dire.

The developments in AI will be no less important. AI systems can already explain jokesrecreate artistic stylesand use”common senseacross domains. Soon they can rapid drug discovery and research into green energy. It seems entirely possible that this kind of progress just won’t stop. In that case, the state of the art in AI will surpass human capabilities, not just in certain limited tasks, but much more extensively. Sophisticated AI could then be used to embed discrimination and empower dictators more effectively than ever before — or we could just completely lose control of these systemsjust as they become too powerful to contain.

Here are the two technologies where we think the risks are the greatest combination of: Scale, tractability, and neglect. Forecasters on Metaculus, a community forecasting platform, estimated the risk of a catastrophe in which at least 95% of the world’s population would die from synthetic biology by 2100 at 1%. For AI, that figure is 6%. Yet hardly anyone is working on these issues, and there is a lot we can do. If more committed people make an effort to navigate the risks sensibly and safely, we can make sure they work now and for everyone’s benefit. in the future.

But what does that mean for you? What are the most impactful ways to help?

Your most important decision

If you want to make a positive difference in the world, there is one decision that stands out above all others: how will you use your career?

Think about climate change. Behavioral changes really made a difference: Recycling prevents about 0.15 tons of CO2 emissions per year, avoids driving on water in total just over 2 tons. But there is a limit to the good you can do with simple changes like this. You can’t drive less than never, or recycle more waste than you produce. On the other hand, to donate $1000 for the very best climate-focused charities seems to be turning a little closer 100 tons of CO2 emissions: recycling for over 500 years. That’s an incredible step up. But unless you are extremely wealthy, your most valuable contribution may be your own time, by working straight away about the things you care about. After all, it takes skilled and dedicated people to turn the donations of others into real change, and donations are only useful insofar as they enable people to bring about that change.

More generally, your career is probably your biggest chance to make a difference. It’s true whether you want to work on driving new technologies for good, or some other pressing task.

In 2011, we co-founded a non-profit called 80,000 hours, which offers free advice to people who want to do well in their careers (named after the estimated time you will spend in your working life). The team at 80.00 Hours has spent years researching the question: if you want to use your career to work on a very important topic, how do you have to decide what to do? Based on that research, we suggest you grapple with three key questions. Each question tells us something about how we can best positively influence the impact of AI and biotechnology.

Finding the right problem to work on

First: How urgent is the problem you want to focus on??

In other words, how much impact can people have by choosing to work on it? The world’s most pressing problems combine three factors:

  1. They are large in scale (they have a significant impact on large numbers of people – solving them would be a big problem)
  2. They are neglected (it hasn’t been given enough attention)
  3. They are manageable (progress is possible with extra effort)

Take the risks of biotechnology. They are certainly huge in size: COVID-19 has killed more than one million Americans and more than twenty million people abroadbut engineered pandemics can be significantly more destructive.

Yet they are also neglected: humanity is doing far too little to prevent the next pandemic, natural or otherwise. The US has only modestly increased its investment in pandemic preparedness, leaving many programs unfunded. For example, the Biological Weapons Convention – the UN organization that oversees the development of dangerous bioweapons – less funding than a typical McDonald’s. After 9/11, the US spent a trillion dollars on foreign interventions, established the Department of Homeland Security and radically reshaped its foreign policy. COVID-19 has killed 100 times as many people, and yet the US has done almost nothing. Meanwhile, forecasters estimate the risk of a pandemic killing 95% of the world’s population at unnerving high 1% this century.

What about the AI ​​risk? It could are one of the main problems we face. For example, AI systems could strengthen future totalitarian regimes by increasing dictators’ hold on their populations. Or we could lose control completely to AI systems that don’t share our values. At least according to AI researchers themselves (even those not focused on risk reduction), this isn’t just idle speculation. In a recent research among machine learning expertsgave the average respondent a 5% chance of an outcome in which AI has an impact as big as the extinction of humans.

It’s also shockingly neglected. Currently, for every 100 people researching how to improve the capabilities of AI: only one person exploring how to prevent AI from causing catastrophic damage.

So when we step back and consider what issues look particularly urgent, powerful emerging technologies stand out: They have the potential to jeopardize our future like few other things, but their risks are vastly undervalued.

Make the most of your contribution

Second, how can you have a big impact on the problem?

Some solutions to important problems work much better than other well-intentioned approaches – and some approaches can even be counterproductive. By choosing the right solution that you can focus on, you can increase your impact 100x.

What do the most promising solutions for reducing biological risks look like? Although the field is relatively new, we already know a number of them concrete measures that dedicated people can help scale up. First, we need ongoing monitoring of new pathogen outbreakslike the Nucleic Acid Observatory project that grew out of MIT; it aims to sequence wastewater to recognize exponentially growing new pathogens. Second, when a new outbreak is identified, we need large stockpiles of next-level PPE to empower key workers to keep the economy going; plus customizable rapid flow tests to track the outbreak. Third, we need to maintain production capacity for mRNA vaccines and accelerate the process of testing and deploying new vaccines to bring it to a close.

Alternatively, how could you have a big impact on how AI turns out? To make sure AI development runs smoothly, we need a solution to the technical “alignment problem” – the problem of ensuring that an AI system will perform as intended, even if it becomes more capable than us. We also need progress on AI governancesuch as better proposals for whether and how AI systems should be used.

Finding a fulfilling career

Which brings us to the third and final question: what is your personal match with the career path you are considering?

On the climate side, you may be an excellent writer and public speaker, but you have never enjoyed scientific research. Then you probably make a bigger difference by working in politics or policy to promote green energy than by working on clean tech R&D.

When looking at biotechnology and AI, there are many avenues to impact, all of which involve very different skills. Some of the biggest challenges are highly technical, such as developing defensive technologies for pandemics, or coming up with new insights about the alignment problem.

But we also need new organizations to implement the most promising solutions, and for that we need people with entrepreneurial, management, operations, accounting and fundraising skills. We also need community builders to support people who want to work on all these issues. And we need communicators to spread awareness of the solutions. Navigating the key technologies on the horizon is a team effort. It takes people with a whole range of backgrounds and strengths.

What now?

In biosecurity and AI, and in many other areas, we need people who use their careers to help humanity get its act together.

There are also plenty of other options to do well with your career, including many options that don’t involve shaping new technology. That’s why we made 80,000 hours to help you figure out which high-impact career is best for you. It’s completely free and represents thousands of hours of research on how you can actually make a difference.

You can also indirectly support people working on these themes by donating to organizations that do good work in the area. The Long-term thinking fund is a place to start.

By thinking carefully, people can find a job that is exciting, fulfilling, and that allows them to make a huge positive impact. We have seen this time and time again. And the stakes are high: there’s never been a better time to find the impactful career you can thrive in.

William MacAskill is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Priorities Institute. He is the author of What we owe the future (Basic books, August 2022).

Ben Todd is the president and founder of 80,000 Hours, a nonprofit that researches which careers have the greatest positive social impact.


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