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How to choose a research topic

As you arrive at this website, you’re probably thinking “What is the best way to choose my research topic? What I should be guided by when choosing?” Here are some suggestions and ideas:

When choosing a topic there are two sources of information you can draw from - internal (your own impressions and feelings) and external (what other people say and suggest). First, let’s discuss the internal.

Useful considerations for a topic choice

We think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests. This is because being genuinely interested in a topic will motivate you and will help you develop your research taste, which might be a powerful intellectual tool for orienting in complex and not yet defined waters. However, there are two other considerations we think are important.

First: How valuable would an answer to your research question be? What would the consequences be of having that question answered? Would it have any effect at all? Are there any questions that may elicit more valuable answers? Is there a question that could solve more important, larger, and more neglected problems? How much would answering this question improve the world? By “improving the world” here we don’t necessarily mean doing something applied - you can improve the world by testing interventions and finding answers to very applied questions, but you can also improve the world by improving the theoretical understanding of fundamental parts of some problem. Importantly, however, the extent to which this increased understanding is actually valuable may vary significantly depending on the topic. Gaining an internal sense of how valuable the answers to various questions would be is especially important when you want to make progress on open, not yet defined questions and in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries).

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The second factor is your personal tractability - do you feel that you would be able to make progress on this topic? Even if it is in general possible to make progress on it, are you a good fit to do so? It’s often good to spend about 10 % of your time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away.

These factors are also important to keep in mind when assessing external sources of information. Look at what topics the most prominent researchers are interested in, and listen to what other people and communities think is valuable to work on—paying close attention to their reasoning behind it. Experienced researchers and other well-informed individuals can also be useful resources when determining tractability.

How to compare information from external vs internal sources

Generally, we think it’s good to start with and get inspired by external sources of information, but ultimately let the internal sources have the last word. For example, we think it might be good for you to choose a field/general topic that others have a good reason to say is valuable and that may improve the world more than other fields. Then you can let yourself be guided by your internal impressions on what specifically within this broader domain/general topic feels interesting and tractable.

To give you a head start, we have put together a list of general topics/domains that seem to be very valuable to make progress on from an impartial welfarist perspective (i.e., promoting wellbeing, with every entity’s wellbeing counting equally). Dive in and get inspired!

Explore and get interested

There are several paths we think might be especially high impact in making the world a better place. If you get interested in any of these topics, we can connect you with researchers working in these fields or provide other types of support (scroll down for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching.

You can also check out these notes on careers in high impact history research.


Research approaches:

Generally, there are a couple of approaches to historical research which seems especially useful for questions related to improving the world the most:

Research directions:

Governance of artificial intelligence

Why is this important:
Developments in artificial intelligence algorithms will likely have a large influence on many domains of our societies and lives. Research into how we should govern the creation and deployment of such developments will help us capture the benefits and mitigate the risks stemming from abrupt changes. To learn more, read this guide, watch this and this talk, listen to this, this and this podcast.

How to tackle this:
There are a couple of questions that can help bring a better understanding to this developing field. For example: “What lessons emerge from examining the partial analogies of other general-purpose technologies and economy-wide transformations such as computerization, electrification, and industrialization?” cited from Alan Dafoe’s research agenda.

“What were the features of the human ancestral environment and evolutionary “training process” that contributed the most to our empathy and altruism? What are the analogues of these in our current AI training setups, and how can we increase them?;
What are the features of our current cultural environments that contribute the most to altruistic and cooperative behaviour, and how can we replicate these while training AI?;
In what ways is AI usefully analogous or disanalogous to the industrial revolution; electricity; and nuclear weapons?
What are the most salient features of the history of AI, and how should they affect our understanding of the field today?” cited from this post.

Some other ideas come from AI Impacts. For example:

Checking for discontinuities in historical technological trends
Looking for technologies that may have caused discontinuous progress on any metric. Find data for that metric over the relevant time, and measure the size of any discontinuity in terms of how many years of progress at usual rates happened at once. We have a list of technologies which others purport were discontinuous, to check. A particularly important one is recent Go AI as a discontinuity in Elo rating achievable, adjusted for hardware. This would be an input to our ongoing investigation into how frequently, and when, technological trends undergo discontinuous progress. This should inform our guesses about how likely AI development is to see discontinuous progress, both by providing a base rate, and telling us whether AI technologies seem especially susceptible. We take discontinuous progress in AI to be related to risk of fast takeoff.

Review explanations for humans’ radical success over apes
Humans are radically more successful than other animals, in some sense. This is taken as reason to expect that small modifications to brain design (for instance whatever evolution did between the similar brains of chimps and humans) can produce outsized gains in some form of mental performance, and thus that AI researchers may see similar astonishing progress near human-level AI. Investigate what is known about the likely causes of human success, relative to that of other similar animals. In particular, we are interested in how likely improvement in individual cognitive ability is to account for this (as opposed to say communication and group memory abilities)

Collect data on time to cross the human range on intellectual skills where machines have surpassed us
For intellectual skills where machines have surpassed humans, find out how long it took to go from the worst performance to average human skill, and from average human skill to superhuman skill. This would contribute to this project.

Also check AI Impact’s research into Historic trends in technological progress.


Most important historical trends

Why is this important:
There are many trends that we can watch out for today telling us where humanity is going and it’s often not easy to decide which of them are most relevant. One clue might be brought by research into what were the most important trends historically, which trends were most consequential for large and important events and which trends are most counterfactually responsible for humanity being where it is now.

How to tackle this:
Some of the guiding questions might be:
Which trends seem to be most important for humanity, e.g. from the perspective of welfare history? Which trends would be best at explaining where humanity is now in comparison where it could have been if these trends developed differently, or if some other trends played a significant role?
Are there any trends that can predict historical large catastrophes; great power conflicts and wars or civilisation collapses?
Are there any trends correlated with the development of values in humanity? What makes the value development faster and what slows it down?
What has been the rate of change on these important metrics throughout history? Is the assumption that humanity is speeding up correct?
You can compare e.g. to these 12 key metrics chosen by Our World in Data and some ideas for what these metrics could be are also mentioned in this Luke Muehlhauser’s post.
It also could be useful to check the work of David Christian.


Modes and causes of sudden economic growth in the past

Why is this important:
Economic growth brought significant increase in welfare to humanity. Some arguments suggest that there were sudden leaps in economic growth (e.g. agricultural revolution, industrial revolution), putting us on a different growth trajectory. Looking into what has caused the increases in economic growth throughout the history and how these increases happened (e.g. how sudden they were) might help us understand better how we got into the level of prosperity we are at now and perhaps could also help us better predict how likely are further increases in economic growth and what form they might take.

How to tackle this:
Looking into what is the sort of curve we can map on the historical economic growth (see e.g. Robin Hanson arguing for a sequence of exponential modes vs Paul Christiano arguing for hyperbolic growth)

If there were multiple sudden increases in economic growth, what were the causes of such increases? Can they be explained by the previous levels of growth rate, cultural changes, some new specific inventions, changes in natural conditions (e.g. climate) or something else?


History of social change

Why is this important:
One important thing to track in history might be the changes in values. This might be helpful for getting a more outside view on how stable the values of humanity actually are, and thus how certain we should be in the values we hold today. Many attempts at “improving the world” also aim to change people’s values. Looking at how values changed historically could provide us with some arguments about the tractability of such attempts.
Further, as our economic growth steepens, we as a humanity are becoming increasingly able to change our environment and world around us to match our values. Some further developments (e.g. progress in artificial intelligence) might make it even easier and more tractable to preserve the values we hold today and “lock us in” the current state. If we could find some parallels of these lock-in events in the past, this could potentially prepare us for some challenges we might soon face.

How to tackle this:
Looking into questions such as:
What were the largest changes in values historically? How did they happen? Were there any cases of value lock-in in the history of humanity? How did these value lock-ins happen and how did they come to an end?
What has been the rate of change in values throughout history? Is the rate of change increasing?
For some discussion, see e.g. these pieces looking into the rise of Christianity and decline of Mohism.



History of civilisation collapses

Why is this important:
From a long termist perspective, one of the worst things that could happen is that all sentient beings die off and the value of all the potential future will be lost. Alternatively, either after some specific event (e.g. large scale catastrophe) or in a gradual process, global civilisation may collapse and never recover which would also bring much of the loss of value hidden in the future.
From a more short termist perspective, civilisation collapses might bring about a lot of immediate suffering and decreases in welfare, as most systems people were used to use would cease to exist.
Looking into how civilisation collapses happened historically could help us safeguard against some of the harmful scenarios in the future. Some of these questions could give us a better understanding of how likely civilisations are to recover.

How to tackle this:
Looking into questions such as:
How did civilisation collapse happen? What caused them to collapse? Are there any examples of the same factors not causing civilisation collapse? How gradual vs sudden was the process of collapsing? What were the immediate aftermaths of the collapse? What were the welfare implications? How did people who survived deal with the new state of things? What did they do?
How has the civilisation recovery happened, if it happened at all?
Are there any protective factors guarding against civilisation collapses? Are there any factors increasing the chances that civilization will recover or speeding up the recovery process?

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Luke Muelhauser


History of scientific progress and innovation

Why is this important:
It is sometimes argued that scientific progress and innovation caused humanity to improve on many levels, including economic growth and value development. If that is true, it might be valuable to get a better understanding of how science itself developed, worked and influenced the world.

How to tackle this:
Looking into questions such as:

What were the path-dependent routes of innovation in the past?
How did the scientific method evolve, what is the rate of change in developing the scientific methods? What were the factors causing significant advances in scientific methods? What was the role of political, natural, social environments?
How did various scientific fields arise? Are there any developmental patterns for scientific fields? What are the factors that cause scientific fields to decrease in importance or respect from the scientific community?

If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

  • Connect you with researchers working in these fields who can provide feedback on your ideas
  • Help you develop more specific topic ideas
  • Connect you with other students working on the same questions
  • Help you with publishing your thesis

This service is free and paid for by grants from charitable foundations. There are no terms and conditions connected with this service. We only want to help talented students have more impact with their research and support research on the most important problems.