A central directory for open research questions
Quite wonderfully, there has been a proliferation of research questions EAs have identified as potentially worth pursuing, and now even a proliferation of collections of such questions. So like a good little EA, I’ve gone meta: this post is a collection of all such collections I’m aware of. I hope this can serve as a central directory to all of those other useful resources, and thereby help interested EAs find questions they can investigate to help inform our whole community’s efforts to do good better.
Some things to note:
It may be best to just engage with one set of questions that are relevant to your skills, interests, or plans, and ignore the rest of this post.
It’s possible that some of these questions are no longer “open”.
I’ve included some things that aren’t explicitly written as collections of research questions, as long as research questions could very easily be inferred from them (e.g., from the problems people identify, or the posts people want written).
Various EA-related topics
List of EA-related thesis topics—Effective Thesis, no date
You can also contact them for discussion, help, or coaching.
A collection of researchy projects for Aspiring EAs—EdoArad, 2019
What questions could COVID-19 provide evidence on that would help guide future EA decisions? - Michael Aird (i.e., me) and others, 2020
Technical and Philosophical Questions That Might Affect Our Grantmaking—Open Philanthropy Project, 2017
What are the key ongoing debates in EA? - various, 2020
What posts do you want someone to write? - various, 2020
2018 list of half-baked volunteer research ideas and its comments—Jacy Reese and others, 2018
EA Summit Project Ideas (specifically the “Research Projects”) - various, no date
What are some lists of open questions in effective altruism? - Aaron Gertler and others, 2019
This and the following list are roughly the same sort of “meta collection” as this post, and I think I took everything relevant from them already.
The most important questions and problems—Pablo Stafforini
Some history topics it might be very valuable to investigate—Michael Aird, 2020
What are the highest impact questions in the behavioral sciences? - Abby Hoskin, 2021
Mostly focused on longtermism, existential risks, or GCRs
The Precipice, Appendix F: Policy and research recommendations—Toby Ord, 2020
Research questions that could have a big social impact, organised by discipline - Arden Koehler & Howie Lempel (80,000 Hours), 2020
Crucial questions for longtermists—Michael Aird for Convergence Analysis, 2020
Legal Priorities Research: A Research Agenda—Legal Priorities Project, 2021
Project Ideas in Biosecurity for EAs—David Manheim (“In conjunction with a group of other EA biosecurity folk”), 2021
Politics, Policy, and Security from a Broad Longtermist Perspective: A Preliminary Research Agenda—Michael Aird for Rethink Priorities, 2021
Humanities Research Ideas for Longtermists—Lizka for Rethink Priorities, 2021
80 Questions for UK Biological Security—Luke Kemp et al., 2021
Open Research Questions—Center on Long-Term Risk, no date
Open Research Questions—Center for Reducing Suffering, no date
Some history topics it might be very valuable to investigate—Michael Aird, 2020
Michael Aird_Research statement [FHI RSP] - Michael Aird, 2020
Mostly focused on AI
Fairly technical (I think)
“clusters of ideas that we believe warrant further attention and research”—Center for Human-Compatible AI (CHAI), no date
Agent Foundations for Aligning Machine Intelligence with Human Interests: A Technical Research Agenda—Nate Soares and Benya Fallenstein (MIRI), published originally in 2014, and in 2017 in The Technological Singularity
Alignment for Advanced Machine Learning Systems—Jessica Taylor et al. (MIRI), 2016
Research Agenda v0.9: Synthesising a human’s preferences into a utility function—Stuart Armstrong, 2019
Related talk here
The Learning-Theoretic AI Alignment Research Agenda—Vanessa Kosoy, 2019
FLI AI Safety Research Landscape—Future of Life Institute, 2018
Associated paper here
Concrete Problems in AI Safety—Amodei et al., 2016
AI Safety Research Project Ideas—Evans and Armstrong, 2021
Some things by or related to Paul Christiano that some people have indicated serve as research agendas, collections of questions, or supporting materials:
There may be other research agendas listed here
Less technical / AI strategy / AI governance
Some AI Governance Research Ideas—the Centre for the Governance of AI, 2021
Promising research projects—AI Impacts, 2018
They also made a list in 2015; I haven’t checked how much they overlap
Cooperation, Conflict, and Transformative Artificial Intelligence (the Center on Long-Term Risk’s research agenda) - Jesse Clifton, 2019
Open Problems in Cooperative AI—Dafoe et al., 2020
Problems in AI risk that economists could potentially contribute to—Michael Aird, 2021
Technical AGI safety research outside AI—Richard Ngo, 2019
Artificial Intelligence and Global Security Initiative Research Agenda—Centre for a New American Security, no date
A survey of research questions for robust and beneficial AI—Future of Life Institute, no date
“studies which could illuminate our strategic situation with regard to superintelligence”—Luke Muehlhauser, 2014 (he also made a list in 2012)
A shift in arguments for AI risk—Tom Sittler, 2019
Longtermist AI policy projects for economists—Risto Uuk (this doc was originally just made for Risto’s own use, so the ideas shouldn’t be taken as high-confidence recommendations to anyone else)
Mostly focused on biorisk or coronavirus
Cause prioritisation/global priorities
The most important unsolved problems in ethics—Will MacAskill, 2012
I’m guessing this is mostly superseded by GPI’s agenda, but I haven’t checked.
Animal Advocacy Research Fund’s Focus Areas—Animal Charity Evaluators, no date
“Less explored” foundational questions in effective animal advocacy—Sentience Institute, 2019
Alternative Proteins: 2020 Consumer Research Priorities—Good Food Institute, 2019
(Perhaps Charity Entrepreneurship and Rethink Priorities have relevant collections or research agendas?)
Global health and development
Important unresolved research questions relevant to macroeconomic policy—Open Philanthropy Project, 2014
(Perhaps Charity Entrepreneurship and GiveWell have relevant collections or research agendas?)
Other areas many EAs are interested in
Improving institutional decision-making & forecasting
Research Directions on Improving Policymaking—EA Geneva, probably 2020
What are the open problems in Human Rationality? - Raemon, 2019
Note: I haven’t read this and don’t know how well it fits here.
Mental health, happiness, etc.
Happier Lives Institute’s research agenda—Michael Plant, 2019
Health and happiness: some open research topics—Derek Foster, 2019
I’d guess there are other relevant areas for which research questions have been collected somewhere.
Potential lists of lists which I haven’t properly taken the lists from yet
What are EA project ideas you have? - Mati_Roy and others, 2020
What new EA project or org would you like to see created in the next 3 years? - Ozzie Gooen and others, 2019
Concrete project lists—Richard Batty, 2017
What this could become (with your help!)
[Edited to add in April 2021: I’ve now drafted a post that goes into more detail on a better version of the sorts of ideas given below.]
As noted earlier, I hope this can help some of the many wonderfully curious EAs out there to find important questions they can start plugging away at, to help guide us all in our various efforts to improve the world.
But I’m sure that:
I’ve missed various collections of questions, especially for cause areas other than longtermism (my personal focus)
New collections will be made in future
There are many individual questions that haven’t yet been collected anywhere, or new individual questions that could be suggested (I’ve added some as “Comments” in the google doc already)
Some people would find this more useful if someone actually pulled out all of the questions from those collections and organised them, by topic and subtopic and so on (with the original source of each question referenced).
This could be in one central document, in a “family” of interlinked documents (e.g., one for each broad cause area), in a spreadsheet, or in a wiki-style page.
And I think we could do more to inspire and support people to actually investigate these questions than just assemble a big list. For example, we could somehow “attach” to each question, perhaps as comments or indented bullet points, things like:
thoughts on how to approach the question
potential breakdowns into subquestions
links to relevant resources
links to draft documents where someone has begun answering certain questions
“tags” indicating what sort of skills or backgrounds are required for answering each question or set of questions
offers of “prizes” (payment) for sufficiently high quality explorations of the questions
Ideally, it’d be easy to offer the prizes, stipulate the terms, and see the total amount offered by everyone for a particular question
And this could all be done collaboratively. (Plus, I don’t expect to have time to do it myself.)
So here’s a Google Doc version of this post. [Edit: I’m no longer updating that when I update the post version.] Anyone can comment and make suggestions. Please do so, to make this as useful as it can be! (You can either say “someone should probably do X”, or just do go do X yourself.)
Also feel free to:
Duplicate the doc
Create other docs and suggest links to them from this central directory
Let me know if you want to get full editing permissions and be the person “in charge” of this doc
I’d be really excited to see this develop into something that can really help people advance our movement’s collective knowledge, and to see people actually executing on that—actually making those advancements.
Thoughts from Aaron Gertler
I emailed Aaron Gertler of the Centre for Effective Altruism to ask his thoughts on how valuable something like this would be, and what its ideal eventual form might be. His reply, which he confirmed it was ok for me to quote here, included the following:
I’m not sure how often people actually look at these “open question” lists to decide on research priorities, so I don’t know what kind of return you’d get on your time. However, some kind of Google Doc for this should exist, and if your post is what causes that to happen, I think it will be valuable (over time, some number of people will eventually go looking for this sort of thing—I’ve been asked for it before, and it will be nice to have a good place to send people).
A really comprehensive list of open questions (which is regularly updated both with new questions and with new resources relevant to old questions) would be an interesting resource, and is the kind of thing one could apply for an EA Funds grant to support; however, I think you’d first have to make a case that such a thing would be used by at least a few people who otherwise wouldn’t have picked very good research topics (the Effective Thesis use case is a classic example of this). It seems to me like any such list should be research-oriented (pointing out where work can be done to resolve confusion) more than debate-oriented (pointing out what different people believe), though of course your ability to emphasize that will vary from question to question.
Hopefully that can provide food for thought for people who might want to develop this idea further.
Thanks to all the people who created all the lists I’ve shown and/or taken from here. And thanks to Aaron Gertler for his above-quoted thoughts, to David Kristoffersson for helpful feedback and additions, and to Remmelt Ellen for helpful comments.
This post is related to my work with Convergence Analysis.