The Great Problems - Spring 2021 Syllabus
<The exact order of topics and required readings may change depending on guest speaker preferences>
Triumphs and tragedies
Dealing with uncertainty
Incentives and biases
What about nonhumans?
Mid-term project presentations
Today and tomorrow
Shaping future generations
Final project presentations
Great Problem: Mental Health
Great Problem: Global Health & Development
Great Problem: Inequality
Great Problem: Energy
Great Problem: Cooperation
Great Problem: Animal Well-Being
Great Problem: Climate
Great Problem: Physical Catastrophe
Great Problem: Civilizational Resilience
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?
- “Finland is the happiest country in the world, and the Finns aren’t happy about it” (F. Martela)
- “Burden of Depressive Disorders by Country, Sex, Age, and Year” (Ferrari et al)
- “Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007)” (Inglehart et al)
- "How to be happy" (L. Muehlhauser)
- "A nihilist's guide to meaning" (K. Simler)
- “How bad are things?” (S. Alexander) <trigger warning: depressing and offers no solutions>
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?
- Spend 45-60 minutes discussing mental health strategies and the readings with at least two others in the class
- "The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing and Briefly Saved Lives" (R. Davis)
- "Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch" (C. Flavell-While)
- "Leaded Gas Was a Known Poison the Day It Was Invented" (K. Eschner)
- "Why Your Car Isn't Electric" (M. Koerth-Baker)
- The Alchemy of Air (T. Hager)
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?
- A review of "How to Measure Anything" (Luke Muehlhauser)
- "Moral Weights" (GiveWell)
- “The man who helped feed the world” (Harford)
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?
- "Categorizing variants of Goodhart’s Law"
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- How to Measure Anything (D. Hubbard)
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?
- Make a list of the technologies that you think will define the future (at least 10 items)
- “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts” (Kahneman and Lovallo)
- “What may happen in the next hundred years” (Watkins, Jr)
- "Visit to the world’s fair of 2014" (Asimov, 1964)
- Superforecasting (Philip Tetlock)
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?
- Letter from Birmingham Jail (M.L. King, Jr)
- “Your ancestors, your fate” (G. Clark)
- "How Poverty Ends" (E. Duflo A. Banerjee)
- "Trials and Tribulations" (J. Sachs)
- “The only thing that’s curbed inequality: catastrophe” (W. Scheidel)
- Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu and Robinson) (A review for those with insufficient time)
- "Institutions rule" (D. Rodrik A. Subramanian F. Trebbi)
- The Great Leveler (W. Scheidel)
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.
- Read the UN Human Development reports and consider which metrics are particularly related to energy
- "Oil, conflict, and U.S. national interests" (J.D. Colgan)
- "Energy" (Our World in Data)
- Review of Energy and Civilization (B. Gates)
- “The Kardashev scale”
- Energy and Civilization (V. Smil)
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.
- “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” (Benson)
- “50 Cognitive biases in the modern world” (Lu)
- Posters and card decks on fallacies and biases
- Tools and mini-courses
- “Effective Choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma” (Axelrod)
- The Elephant in the Brain (Simler and Hanson)
- “Is Tit-for-Tat the answer?” (Rapoport et al)
- Thinking from A to Z (N. Warburton)
Great Problem: Cooperation (Mar 18)
“We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” - Ben Franklin
- “From extortion to generosity, evolution in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma” (Stewart et al)
- Why Can't We All Just Get Along? (C. Fry and H. Lieberman)
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.
- “All animals are equal” (P. Singer)
- “The life cycle of software objects”, in Stories of Your Life and Others (T. Chiang)
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?
- "Cellular agriculture: the future of food" (Cellular Agriculture blog)
- “The backlash against Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers going mainstream” (K. Piper)
- "The humaneness of rodent pest control" (Mason and Littin)
- “When are we obligated to edit wild creatures?” (K. Esvelt)
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?
- Evaluating climate geoengineering proposals in the context of the Paris Climate Agreement temperature goals (Lawrence et al)
- Marine cloud brightening (Latham et al)
- Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards (Irvine et al)
- How green sand could capture billions of tons of carbon dioxide (Temple)
Today and Tomorrow (Apr 13)
Population ethics, the moral worth of future people, catastrophic and existential risk, and related concerns.
- Existential risk prevention as global priority (N. Bostrom)
- The overwhelming importance of the far future (N. Beckstead)
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.
- The Precipice Chapters 1-2 (T. Ord)
- Watch Dr. Strangelove
- "1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident" (Wikipedia)
- “Human extinction from natural hazard events” (A. Sandberg)
- The Dead Hand (D. Hoffman)
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?
- The Precipice Chapter 7 (T. Ord)
- "The fragility of interdependency" (A. Vespignani)
- “Supply chains and the coronavirus” (L. O’Leary)
- “Manual for civilization” (A. Rose)
- The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (B. Ward-Perkins)
- The Collapse of Complex Societies (J. Tainter)
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?
- Watch The Thirteenth Floor
- "How to use the experience machine" (E. Lin)
- "The Brave New World of Wireheading" (R. Meadows)
- "A nihilist's guide to meaning" (K. Simler) (yes, this was recommended reading in February)
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.
- “A proposal to use gamete cycling in vitro to improve crops and livestock” (Murray et al)
- “Embryo selection for cognitive enhancement” (Shulman et al)
- "At 71, she's never felt pain or anxiety" (H. Murphy)
- “Embryo selection: overview of the major approaches” (focus on cognitive enhancement)
- Watch GATTACA
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?
- “Inoculating science against potential pandemics and information hazards” (K. Esvelt)
- “The Unilateralist's Curse” (N. Bostrom et al)
- The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (B. Ward-Perkins)
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.
- “Physical principles for scalable neural recording” (Marblestone et al)
- This Alien Shore (C.S. Friedman)
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)
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
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