Course Syllabus

The Great Problems - Spring 2021 Syllabus

<The exact order of topics and required readings may change depending on guest speaker preferences>

Feb 16  

Feb 23    

Mar 2    

Mar 9   

Mar 16   

Mar 23 

Mar 30  

Apr 6  

Apr 13  

Apr 20    

Apr 27 

May 4 

May 11    

May 18 

Triumphs and tragedies

Technological trajectories

Dealing with uncertainty   

<no class>   

Incentives and biases

<no class>

What about nonhumans?

Mid-term project presentations

Today and tomorrow

<no class>

Reweaving perception

Shaping future generations

Extended intelligence

Final project presentations

Feb 18       

Feb 25      

Mar 4  

Mar 11

Mar 18

Mar 25

Apr 1 

Apr 8 

Apr 15 

Apr 22   

Apr 29

May 6

May 13   

May 20

Great Problem: Mental Health

Great Problem: Global Health & Development

Great Problem: Inequality

Great Problem: Energy

Great Problem: Cooperation

Project brainstorming

Great Problem: Animal Well-Being

Great Problem: Climate

Great Problem: Physical Catastrophe

Great Problem: Civilizational Resilience

Project brainstorming

Great Problem: Exponential Biology

Great Problem: Artificial Intelligence

Final project presentations

Students will complete two group projects: a mid-term project and a lengthier final project at the end of the class.

Example project: engineering/solutions (reducing infectious disease transmission in buildings)

Example project: research/analysis (assessing the contribution of feeder rodents to animal suffering)


Introduction: Triumphs and tragedies (Feb 16)

Who has had the greatest positive impact on the world? Which inventions and ideas were critical? Conversely, which ideas and inventions were most harmful? We’ll generate a list of great problems and discuss what we may be missing.


Great Problem: Mental Health (Feb 18) with Professor Rosalind Picard, MIT

An estimated 20% of people suffer from mental illness at any given time. Many more are miserable. How many of these problems are biological, and how many environmental? Do people care more about subjective happiness or fulfillment? What are the most effective treatments today? What could we invent to improve mental well-being?




Technological trajectories (Feb 23)

Can we influence the trajectory of technological development, or at least the timeline? How are outcomes dependent on the nature of the invention, and how much on the way it was introduced? What can we learn from past examples? 




Great Problem: Global Health and Development (Feb 25) with Dr. Neil Buddy Shah, GiveWell

Development improves health, improving health fosters economic development, and at least one of them seems to improve well-being. Which solutions were the most effective historically, and what are the outstanding problems today? How can we measure what we care about? What are the side-effects of metrics? What do we lose by relying on them?


Questions to ponder:

  • Should we save lives or improve them?
    • Is it more important to save children, save adults, or double income? 
  • Does the number of lives matter? Do they have to be different from each other?
    • What about mitigating suffering?

Recommended reading:


Predicting the future (Mar 2)

What will the world be like in 30 years? Dare we speculate beyond that timeframe? How accurate were past futurists? How can we calibrate our predictions?


Recommended reading:


Great Problem: Inequality (Mar 4) with Professor Amy Smith, MIT

Extreme inequality. Boundaries and categories. Indifference. Prejudice. Dehumanization. No known society has ever substantially decreased inequality without some kind of catastrophe. Between societies, we have. Can that be extended?


Recommended reading:


Great Problem: Energy (Mar 11) with Professor Anne White, MIT

Advances in computation, which are unquestionably the most transformative of the last fifty years, are noteworthy for requiring minimal energy. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is an oft-heard mantra. But if we had access to unlimited clean energy, almost every material problem could, in principle, be solved.




Incentives and Biases (Mar 16)

The actions of rational agents are constrained by incentives, and people aren’t purely rational due to the cognitive heuristics evolved in the ancestral environment. Understanding the constraints imposed by evolutionary game theory and cognitive biases may be important for addressing Great Problems.


Recommended reading: 


Great Problem: Cooperation (Mar 18)

“We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” - Ben Franklin 


Recommended reading:


Project Brainstorming (Mar 25)

Discuss ideas and assemble into groups for the first project.


What about nonhumans? (Mar 30) 

People value human lives and human suffering more than the lives and suffering of animals. The proffered reasons run the gamut from consciousness and theory of mind to straightforward speciesism. Still, even if the moral worth of animals is less than that of humans, few would argue that they have zero worth; the arc of moral concern has moved from bear-baitings and burning cats to laws against animal cruelty. Even given reduced moral worth on an individual level, there are many more animals than humans – and someday, software may become worthy of moral concern. To those who accept these premises, nonhuman well-being may be the most important neglected challenge of our time.



Great Problem: Animal Well-Being (Apr 1) with Kai Steinmetz, New Harvest

The animal well-being movement has focused on factory farming, which consumes more than sixty billion birds each year. Corporate campaigns pressuring producers to improve conditions have been increasingly successful. Meat substitutes and cultured meat appear quite promising, but only for a fraction of animal products. There are further complications: what about fish, more of which are farmed each year than chickens, and still more caught wild? 



Project Presentations (Apr 6)

All groups will present their projects on potential solutions or a new cause for discussion.


  • Mid-term group projects


Great Problem: Climate and Geoengineering (Apr 8) with Professor David Keith, Harvard

Most now agree that anthropogenic climate change is a major problem, with most realists assuming that warming of 2oC is unavoidable. That degree of warming will substantially worsen water and food shortages and gradually submerge land occupied by a nontrivial fraction of humanity. The tail-end feedback risks may be much worse. What can we do? What should we do?



Today and Tomorrow (Apr 13)

Population ethics, the moral worth of future people, catastrophic and existential risk, and related concerns.



Great Problem: Physical Catastrophe (Apr 15) with Professor Toby Ord, Oxford

Volcanoes and asteroid impacts are thought to have been responsible for all historical mass extinction events. The reduction of the human population to just ten thousand people and the fall of Rome as well as many other ancient civilizations are thought to have resulted from climatic shifts. More recently, humanity has built devices capable of comparable devastation: in 1983, a billion people nearly died from an all-out nuclear exchange.


Recommended reading:


Great Problem: Civilizational Resilience (Apr 22) with Dr. Danny Hillis, Applied Invention

There appears to be an inherent tradeoff between efficiency and robustness. By definition, a maximally efficient system has no redundancy. Just-in-time manufacturing minimizes warehouse storage time and wasted materials, but is maximally fragile to supply chain disruptions. How can we enhance resilience against market forces? In the worst-case scenario of a total civilizational collapse, can we help our successors rebuild? Better?


Recommended reading:


Potential Game Changer: Reweaving Perception (Apr 27)

The world we experience is not the world we live in. Everything we know is mediated through our senses… which can be modulated or replaced. What will happen when fiction and the virtual are so good that we cannot distinguish them from reality? 




Project Brainstorming (Apr 29)

    Discuss ideas and assemble into groups for final projects


Potential Game Changer: Shaping Future Humans (May 4)

People have always tried to control who their children will become. The goal may be a child who is bolder or meeker, kinder or harsher, more obedient or more creative, but they have largely failed. The genes that play a major role in shaping our behavioral patterns and capabilities were themselves shaped by evolution in the ancestral environment. For the first time, technology could change them. 


Recommended reading/watching:


Great Problem: Exponential biology (May 6) with Professor Megan Palmer, Stanford

The greatest catastrophes in human history were all pandemics. In 13th-century Europe, the Black Death killed one out of every two people. It recurred so frequently that Britain’s population did not recover until the 17th century. Relatively speaking, COVID-19 is comparatively mild, but it has turned virtually every global development indicator negative. Security researchers note that any system vulnerable to happenstance is helpless in the face of deliberate attack. Given COVID-19 and the fact that an increasing number of people can make viruses from synthetic DNA, what happens when we learn to make – and weaponize – pandemics?




Potential game-changer: Extended intelligence (May 11)

The working memory of the human brain is quite constrained, imposing a major limitation on cognitive processing. Our sensory inputs are optimized for visual and auditory acuity, which are not optimized for bandwidth when searching for and retrieving information or identifying patterns. Methods of overcoming these problems to create more effective “computational exoselves” may substantially change the basal capabilities of people who already exist.


Recommended reading:


Great Problem: Artificial General Intelligence (May 13)

Chimpanzees are nearly extinct and mostly reside in zoos. What happens when we create agents more capable than we are? Even given perfect alignment with human interests, machines with significantly superhuman competence will upend the strategic gameboard, creating potentially dangerous incentives for great powers.


  • “Of Myths and Moonshine” (S. Russell)

Recommended reading:

Human compatible: Artificial intelligence and the problem of control (S. Russell)


Project Presentations (May 18)

Presentations and discussions by the first set of groups.


  • Final project group write-ups (in Google Docs or Overleaf)


Project Presentations (May 20)

Presentations and discussions by the second set of groups (if applicable)


  • Read all project write-ups and offer comments/suggestions