Inspired by: Patrick Collison’s Questions, Y Combinator’s Requests for Startups, Gwern’s Open Questions, Tyler Cowen’s Work on These Things, Luke Muehlhauser’s Projects I Wish I had Time For, and Alexey Guzey’s Research Ideas.
This is a list of ideas for projects I’d like to look into at some point. Some of these I just don’t have time for and others I don’t feel qualified to work on. Many of these are half-baked or are actually bad ideas. Feel free to steal any of them.
Improving explorable explanations. The main problem with reading is that it’s far too passive. Explorable or interactive explanations are ones that you can play around with while you’re reading. Some of the best examples are Kevin Simler’s interactive essays, and Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielson’s Quantum Country, which incorporates spaced repetition into the text. There would be many more of these experiments in new ways of learning if they weren’t so hard to make. It would be great to see a Medium for explorable articles.
An app that allows for partial common ownership of various infrequently used items. The idea here is that you could pay in to own “10% of a lawnmower”, and then the app would take a cut and buy a lawnmower. You would then put in a request to use the lawnmower at a certain time and a schedule would be generated, like a library for things other than books. I would definitely use a service like this so I’m assuming the only reason it doesn’t exist is for legal/regulatory reasons. Still, it’s worth looking into whether there’s any countries in which this would be viable.
An app that prompts you to write a line about your intentions whenever you’re about to switch tasks. You could call it ‘Intent’ or something. In general, I use a lot of services aimed to limit my phone and computer usage, and the focus of almost all of them is to restrict what apps and websites you can use within certain hours, and not on the real goal, which is making sure your intentions line up with reality.
A web extension that selectively disables distracting parts of websites. There are baby steps in the right direction here, for example the web extension UnDistracted, or Facebook News Feed Eradicator. I would like to see more thorough plugins that could remove infinite scrolling, hide suggested content, remove comments and in general remove elements designed to hack your brain’s reward system.
Data scrapers for public health information. In this podcast, Max Roser (founder of Our World in Data) talks about how primitive the data reporting system is for public health. He said that, at the start of the pandemic, he and his team were reading some coronavirus case numbers from obscure sources like screenshots that health ministries posted on Facebook. A lot of other public health information is published in PDFs where the data can’t be easily searched. People have even built machine learning tools to try to recognise coronavirus case numbers from screenshots so that people wouldn’t have to do this manually. Using such an incredibly sophisticated technology to compensate for sloppy reporting seems like a metaphor for civilisation. It would be a huge public benefit to develop tools that could scrape data from health ministries and hospitals and put them into a publicly available dataset.
Can you train people to do mathematics with a non-linear conception of numbers? If you get toddlers, or hunter-gatherers with no exposure to Western mathematics, to say what number is halfway between 1 and 9, they say 3, because the ratio 3:1 is the same as the ratio 9:3. In other words, our intuitive perceptions of numbers are actually logarithmic and not linear. As people get older, their intuitive notion of the halfway point between 1 and 9 shifts from 3 to 5. This raises an obvious question: could people be superhuman maths geniuses if only they weren’t taught about the number line? Probably not, but it’s still an interesting topic worth exploring. For more, see the first few chapters of this book.
How does the subjective perception of time vary across species? Across individuals? Across an individual’s lifetime? One way to measure this is critical flicker-fusion frequency, or how fast you have to flick something on and off before an animal can’t notice that it’s flickering anymore. This may well have ethical implications, because if a species experiences the passage of time 2x faster than another, a given period of its life is presumably more morally important. Yet, research is almost non-existent on this topic. More from Rethink Priorities.
Better datasets about the history of violence. You may know about the infamous back-and-forth between Steven Pinker and Nassim Taleb about whether the world has, on average, been getting more peaceful over time, but you may not know how poor quality the data involved is. Our World in Data is working on this, Max Roser explains that the reason why the data is such poor quality is the standard story of incentives – you don’t really get much prestige as an academic for just generating datasets.
Why is innovation so geographically clustered? Edinburgh in the 1780s, Vienna in the 1920s, Silicon Valley in the 21st century. Even accounting for the benefits of “coffeeshop encounters”, interesting things seem to geographically cluster to a surprising extent. It could be particularly interesting to look at creative and scientific endeavours pursued over the last year, and see whether the pandemic has had the same pattern of geographical clustering.
How good is aid? Probably you have heard the many critiques of foreign aid from people like William Easterly; his case, however, is very specific to the US. USAID is known for being particularly ineffective – it does things like give aid out for political rather than humanitarian reasons, and require that many of the products it distributes be made by Americans, despite the fact that this makes them considerably more expensive. UK foreign aid, on the other hand, seems unusually well-directed. How good is aid from other countries?
Why is building infrastructure and nuclear plants more expensive than it used to be? There are some obvious reasons why construction costs have increased in recent decades: the price of labour has risen, so has the price of land. But this can’t be the whole story: China can build highspeed rail remarkably cheaply in a way no other middle-income country can. And costs differ enormously between countries: the South Koreans are actually getting more efficient at building nuclear power plants, and some European countries with similar wages to the US can build tunnels for five times cheaper. Is this unions lobbying for very inefficient building practices? A lack of cultural will to just get things done? Excessive safety regulations? There seems to be remarkably little incentive for politicians to bring down the cost of infrastructure, and the most thorough attempts to make cost comparisons are done by amateurs.
Is there a way to scale education about global problems? When I talk to my friends about global problems, what they believe is often not only wrong, but the opposite of the truth. For instance, they often think that the world is getting poorer – even though the world is twice as rich as it was in 2000. They often think that the world is getting more unequal – even though global inequality has fallen significantly. They think that suicide is rising – even though it’s falling almost everywhere (this is not to say that it isn’t rising within certain demographics in some countries). They think that the world is getting more violent – even though the rate of violent death has plummeted. Even terrorism was more common in the past (thanks, IRA!). The fact that only a small proportion of people know these things is a stunning failure of the education system. There is an occasional TED talk that makes these points, and there is Steven Pinker, but there are remarkably few attempts to scale education about global trends to the masses. Gapminder and Our World in Data are early attempts at this.
How do we create new status markers at a similar level of prestige to degrees? It’s no secret that universities are very wasteful. Studying a philosophy degree for four years just to signal to employers that you are smart and conscientious is clearly inefficient. The problem is: how do you signal prestige as well as an Ivy League degree with something that isn’t a degree? The Thiel fellowship is a step in the right direction, and maybe Emergent Ventures is a baby version of this.
A map of zoning restrictions. Like every other rationalist/EA teenager on the internet, I think that most zoning restrictions are incredibly harmful. When I say this to people, the usual response is to say “oh, so you want us all to live in concrete jungles, then?” or something to that effect. Then I have to explain how, in 75% of residential area in US cities, it’s literally a crime to live with people you aren’t related to, and how in most apartments it’s illegal to not have a parking space even if you don’t own a car. I would like to see someone generate an interactive map of what people can and cannot build where. Probably starting with London, New York and the Bay Area would be most helpful. Update: this exists for the Bay Area.
Does drug legalisation lead to an increase in creativity? One of the more unexpected benefits of drug legalisation is that it could lead to a cultural and scientific Renaissance. Is Portugal’s art scene booming since after it decriminalised drugs? Sigmund Freud and Arthur Conan Doyle famously took cocaine during the apex of their creativity. Francis Crick was high on LSD when he came up with the idea of the DNA double helix. In general, I have a picture where the War on Drugs has led drug dealing to become sufficiently hazardous that you can only sell large, concentrated doses now, and thus we have lost as a society many stimulants that are analogous to caffeine. This accounts for the fact that e.g. heroin used to be prescribed as a cough medicine, and the patients notably didn’t die. How much deadweight loss arises because of drugs being illegal?
The case for deregulating e-cigarettes. The recent tirade against vaping and e-cigarettes has been a circus of bad science and moral error. The evidence is very good that they are significantly less harmful than regular cigarettes, (to be fair, almost everything is) and anecdotal evidence and some surveys indicate that tobacco-to-vaping is a much commoner transition than vaping-to-tobacco. Substitution effects, people! No public intellectuals or bloggers that I know of have taken up a defence of e-cigarettes, probably because it’s a very low-status thing to do that makes you sound like a lobbyist for Big Tobacco. What I’m thinking of here is a very thorough article arguing that restrictions on vaping and e-cigarettes do more harm than good, because while they may be bad, they are not as bad as regular cigarettes, and if we can get people to switch from cigarettes to vaping, we would see massive public health gains.
How do we increase acceptance of clean meat? One of the animal welfare movement’s top goals is to accelerate to the adoption of clean (aka lab-grown) meat. Eventually, clean meat will probably be tastier, more nutritious, and cheaper than regular meat. However, we want people to adopt it before then, and a large fraction of people say that they would not eat lab-grown meat even if it tasted exactly the same and was the same price (!). Are there scalable educational interventions, or advertising campaigns, that can increase the social acceptance of clean meat? Why is it that people have an obsession with naturalness?
To what extent can we automate the process of moving country? People who live in the EU or who have never moved country may not realise how much of a stressful pain it is to do so. How much of this process can be automated? Why has no-one started a company I’ve heard of to streamline the process of immigrating?
Patreon for intellectuals. The last few years have seen a boom in voluntary funding to support artists, filmmakers, and other creative endeavours. But we haven’t seen nearly the same increase in funding for independent intellectuals and technical blogs and books that do not fit the traditional university mould. I am thinking here of people like Alexey Guzey, Gwern, Jose Luis Ricón and Jason Crawford. These people are not just popularising science the way, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson does – this is valuable but there is clearly a large-ish market for it. I want there to be an online repository in which I can browse through academic projects that are being run from outside universities, or within universities but not incentivised by the current system.
Why isn’t counterfeit money more common? I could understand if there was no counterfeit money – because no-one could figure out how to forge the security seal, for example. And I could understand if counterfeit money was incredibly common and it crashed the financial system. But how is that we have a steady (I assume) but small percentage of the money supply as counterfeit? Is it because it’s physically hard to print a lot of money? Because the verification procedures are regularly updated? Are criminals solving the coordination problem involved in printing money?
Is depression a form of altitude sickness? Some evidence points to height above sea level as explaining a surprisingly high percentage of the variance in mood disorders, through some poorly understood effect that oxygen has on the brain. Is this true in every country? Does it mean the Dutch are really happy? Does it mean that oxygen tanks might be a potentially promising treatment for depression?
Why don’t the Chinese win every team sport? Intuitively, you would expect China to absolutely dominate every sport due to its massive population, but in many sports it actually does very poorly. In football, China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is currently ranked below Antigua and Barbuda, a country with 90,000 people! And it’s not like the interest in team sports isn’t there: you may know that the NBA gets more viewers from China than they do from the US.
Why don’t more companies use internal prediction markets? I’ve written before about prediction markets, which is effectively just betting on world events in much the same way we do sports, and using this to generate probability estimates. While they are, on paper, a great idea, they have been largely banned in the US because of politicians that were hysterical because they could theoretically be used to “make money from terrorist attacks.” Most developed countries have followed the lead of the US. If I’m CEO of a company, my employees personally have quite a strong incentive to just say all my ideas are great, whereas in an anonymous prediction market, the only incentive is for accuracy. The reason why companies don’t use internal prediction markets seem to be because of SEC regulations about insider trading. But, which countries don’t have these regulations? Why can’t GM set up a plant in some Caribbean country whose president has never heard of a prediction market, and set up their oil futures market there? Update: Tyler Cowen has already blogged about this.
Why can schizophrenics tickle themselves? This is a serious question. The reason why you can’t tickle yourself is that it can’t come as a surprise: your brain has an internal map of where your limbs are, and it “subtracts out” this information. But schizophrenics can tickle themselves. This implies that some severe forms of mental illness are related to errors in our predictive models of our bodies. An even more speculative hypothesis is that this is what’s going on with transgenderism – someone who has all the outward appearances of a boy, but “expects”, at a neurological level, to be a girl.
How useful are time limits for standardised tests? In this podcast, Malcolm Gladwell is critical of the LSAT for being too fast and implies that its infamously harsh time limits are actually counterproductive, because people at the same level of ability vary greatly in how quickly they do things. What does speed in finishing tests predict? How predictive is how quickly you finish an IQ test compared to the test itself?
Why didn’t female labour force participation change male wages that much? Why doesn’t adding 50% of the population to the labour force cause a depression in wages? Did women really add just as much demand as they did supply?
Automated donation swapping. Donation swapping is the process of negotiating with someone so that they donate to a charity of your choice and you donate to a charity of their choice, in order to minimise tax by donating to charities that are tax-deductible in your respective countries. Right now this is very informal. This probably isn’t great for PR because it’s literally a way to get around paying tax, but for people in the effective altruism movement, this could be very useful. Update: this exists!
Thanks to Applied Divinity Studies for giving me relevant links.