Find inspiration and discover a research topic that makes a difference.

How to choose a research topic

Below are research directions that we think have high potential to improve the world by helping to solve pressing global problems that would particularly benefit from further research.

Several factors we suggest you consider when choosing a topic are:

If you're studying for an undergraduate or master's degree we often recommend focusing on developing your skills and knowledge in an area in order to contribute to solving a pressing problem later in your career.

If you're a PhD student you may be more able to contribute to solving a problem through your research already. You may also need to give consideration to building your reputation in academia and to whether your topic will 'lock you in' to an area long-term. The more likely this is, the more important it is that you choose an impactful topic which is a good fit for you! 

Check out our key ideas for more detail on how to choose a research topic. If you find a topic that you're interested in pursuing further, get in touch — we can help you make progress.

Explore and get interested

Check out all our recommended research directions here or click the disciplines below to see our profiles for your field of study.

There are several research directions 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 to the bottom for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching. Our list of prioritised research directions is not exhaustive, so there may well be some other high impact research directions that we have not yet covered. However, we aim to select impactful topics, so that chances of any of the topics we covered being highly impactful are higher than chances of average/randomly selected topic that we have not covered. If you know about research directions that could be similarly impactful to those we have covered, please, let us know.

You can also check out these notes on careers in high impact history research and this list of ideas of topics that it might be particularly valuable to investigate. For an overview of some of the research directions that we expand on below, you can also watch the conference talk 'From the neolithic revolution to the far future.'

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 significant impact on many aspects of our societies and lives. Research into how we should govern the development and deployment of AI will help us capture the potential 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.

You can also watch the conference talk below for an introduction to the transformative potential of AI, the risks advanced AI may pose, and the value of building the research field. Read the AI Index 2021 Annual Report for an overview of recent data and insights about AI.

How to tackle this

There are various research directions that could improve understanding in 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.

This post on technical AI safety research also suggests several research directions that a history student could pursue, such as:

“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?”

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."

Consider applying to the AI Safety Camp to be connected with a research mentor and work on an open problem in AI safety from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

See AI Impact’s research into Historic trends in technological progress for an example of work done in this area.

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Most important historical trends

Why is this important?

There are many trends that we can observe today telling us where humanity is going, but it’s often not easy to decide which of them are most relevant or what they reveal about the long-term future of humanity. We might understand this better through research into what the most important trends were historically, which were most consequential for large and important events, and which trends are most counterfactually responsible for humanity being where it is now.

See the talk below for one approach to using historical trends to predict future events using cliodynamics.

How to tackle this?

Some guiding questions might be:

  • Which trends seem to have been most important for humanity, for example from the perspective of welfare history
  • Which trends have had the greatest impact on where humanity is now, compared to where it could have been if those trends had developed differently, or if some other trends played a significant role?
  • Are there trends that predict large-scale catastrophes, great power conflicts or civilisation collapses?
  • Are there trends correlated with the development of certain values? What factors affect the speed at which values develop?
  • What has been the rate of change of important metrics throughout history? Is the assumption that change is speeding up correct?

Our World in Data lists 12 key metrics that may be useful for this type of research, and other potentially useful metrics are explored in Luke Muehlhauser’s post.

It could also be helpful to explore the work of David Christian.

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Modes and causes of sudden economic growth in the past

Why is this important?

Economic growth has brought significant increases in human welfare. Some arguments suggest there were sudden leaps in economic growth (e.g. agricultural revolution, industrial revolution), putting us on a different growth trajectory. Examining what caused increases in economic growth throughout history and how these increases happened (e.g. how sudden they were) might help us better understand how we reached our current level of prosperity, and could also help us better predict the likelihood of further increases in economic growth and what form they might take.

How to tackle this

Looking into what sort of curve we can map on 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?

See also Ben Garfinkel and David Roodman on this topic.

You can also watch David Roodman discuss his research on this topic further below.

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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 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.

Watch the video below for more discussion of some reasons why this research could be valuable.

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.

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History of civilisation collapses

Why is this important?

From a longtermist perspective, one of the worst things that could happen would be all sentient beings dying and all the potential value of the future being lost. Alternatively, either after some specific event (e.g. a large-scale catastrophe) or in a gradual process, global civilisation may collapse and never recover, which would also mean the loss of much of the potential value of the future.

From a more short-term perspective, civilisation collapses could cause significant immediate suffering and decreases in welfare, as most systems people are used to use would cease to exist.

Looking into how civilisation collapses happened historically could help us safeguard against harmful scenarios in the future. Exploring historical civilisation collapses could also give us a better understanding of how likely civilisations are to recover.

In the video below, researcher Luke Kemp discusses historical civilisation collapses and what they can tell us about the future.

How to tackle this

A valuable approach could be looking into questions such as:

  • How did civilisation collapses happen?
  • What caused historical civilisations to collapse?
  • Are there any examples of the same factors not causing civilisation collapse?
  • How gradual vs sudden was the process of collapsing?
  • What happened in the immediate aftermath of collapse?
  • What were the welfare implications?
  • How did people who survived respond to the new state of things?
  • How did civilisation recovery happen, if it happened?
  • Are there any protective factors guarding against civilisation collapses?
  • Are there any factors that speed up or increase the likelihood of the recovery process?

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Luke Muelhauser, Luke Kemp; Joseph Tainter; the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

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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?

To see an example of this kind of research, see the talk below in which Jason Crawford examines the relationship between science and technological innovation.

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Preventing great power conflict

Why is this important

War has a major humanitarian impact through direct loss of life and violence as well as other indirect impacts such as disruption to food supplies. A war between great powers could be particularly deadly and could potentially pose an extinction risk (or be a risk factor). 

Although the frequency of war has declined over the past 500 years and there has not been a conflict between great powers since WWII, the ‘Long Peace’ we are currently experiencing may only be a gap between major wars. In 2015, a poll of 50 international relations experts estimated a median 5% chance of a nuclear great power conflict killing at least 80 million people in the next 20 years. At the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in 2008, academics predicted a median 1% chance of extinction caused by nuclear war in the 21st century.

The use of nuclear weapons could pose an extinction risk by causing a nuclear winter, however there are other reasons great power conflict might increase the chance of human extinction. First, countries competing to develop and use powerful technologies during conflict may de-emphasise safety considerations, increasing risks from technologies such as misaligned AGI. Second, countries may develop and use engineered pathogens as biological weapons which may cause a global pandemic that kills billions and leads to civilizational collapse. Finally, great power conflict may undermine diplomacy, institutions, trade, and other mechanisms of international cooperation required for humanity to coordinate on tackling catastrophic risks (such as from pandemics or climate change).

For more information you could listen to this podcast on great power competition from China, Russia and the United States. You could also watch the conference talk below for a more detailed introduction to this issue.

How to tackle this

You could take a broad approach and study the general dynamics of great power conflicts (e.g. risk factors, paths to war). Research could also be done on the research directions suggested in this conference talk, such as whether and when promoting international trade decreases the risk of war.

Some books in this area recommended by 80000 hours in this area are: After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, and Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Who is already working on this?

See the EA Forum Wiki page on ‘Great Power Conflict.’

Researchers in this area include Josyln Barnhart; Allan Dafoe; Graham Allison; Robert Trager; Michael Horowitz and Paul Scharre.

Organisations include the Project for the Study of the 21st Century; SIPRI; Rethink Priorities; Global Challenges Foundation; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

*The introduction to this profile is based on a conference talk given by Brian Tse. Thanks to Darius Meissner for help with writing this profile.

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

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