150 episodes

Unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them.

Subscribe by searching for '80,000 Hours' wherever you get podcasts.

Produced by Keiran Harris. Hosted by Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin The 80000 Hours team

    • Education

Unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them.

Subscribe by searching for '80,000 Hours' wherever you get podcasts.

Produced by Keiran Harris. Hosted by Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.

    #35 Classic episode - Tara Mac Aulay on the audacity to fix the world without asking permission

    #35 Classic episode - Tara Mac Aulay on the audacity to fix the world without asking permission

    Rebroadcast: this episode was originally released in June 2018.


    How broken is the world? How inefficient is a typical organisation? Looking at Tara Mac Aulay’s life, the answer seems to be ‘very’.

    At 15 she took her first job - an entry-level position at a chain restaurant. Rather than accept her place, Tara took it on herself to massively improve the store’s shambolic staff scheduling and inventory management. After cutting staff costs 30% she was quickly promoted, and at 16 sent in to overhaul dozens of failing stores in a final effort to save them from closure.

    That’s just the first in a startling series of personal stories that take us to a hospital drug dispensary where pharmacists are wasting a third of their time, a chemotherapy ward in Bhutan that’s killing its patients rather than saving lives, and eventually the Centre for Effective Altruism, where Tara becomes CEO and leads it through start-up accelerator Y Combinator.

    In this episode Tara shows how the ability to do practical things, avoid major screw-ups, and design systems that scale, is both rare and precious.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    People with an operations mindset spot failures others can't see and fix them before they bring an organisation down. This kind of resourcefulness can transform the world by making possible critical projects that would otherwise fall flat on their face.

    But as Tara's experience shows they need to figure out what actually motivates the authorities who often try to block their reforms.

    We explore how people with this skillset can do as much good as possible, what 80,000 Hours got wrong in our article 'Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism’, as well as:

    • Tara’s biggest mistakes and how to deal with the delicate politics of organizational reform.
    • How a student can save a hospital millions with a simple spreadsheet model.
    • The sociology of Bhutan and how medicine in the developing world often makes things worse rather than better.
    • What most people misunderstand about operations, and how to tell if you have what it takes.
    • And finally, operations jobs people should consider applying for.

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: search for '80,000 Hours' in your podcasting app.

    The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

    • 1 hr 23 min
    #67 Classic episode – David Chalmers on the nature and ethics of consciousness

    #67 Classic episode – David Chalmers on the nature and ethics of consciousness

    Rebroadcast: this episode was originally released in December 2019.


    What is it like to be you right now? You're seeing this text on the screen, smelling the coffee next to you, and feeling the warmth of the cup. There’s a lot going on in your head — your conscious experience.

    Now imagine beings that are identical to humans, but for one thing: they lack this conscious experience. If you spill your coffee on them, they’ll jump like anyone else, but inside they'll feel no pain and have no thoughts: the lights are off.

    The concept of these so-called 'philosophical zombies' was popularised by today’s guest — celebrated philosophy professor David Chalmers — in order to explore the nature of consciousness. In a forthcoming book he poses a classic 'trolley problem':

    "Suppose you have a conscious human on one train track, and five non-conscious humanoid zombies on another. If you do nothing, a trolley will hit and kill the conscious human. If you flip a switch to redirect the trolley, you can save the conscious human, but in so doing kill the five non-conscious humanoid zombies. What should you do?"

    Many people think you should divert the trolley, precisely because the lack of conscious experience means the moral status of the zombies is much reduced or absent entirely.

    So, which features of consciousness qualify someone for moral consideration? One view is that the only conscious states that matter are those that have a positive or negative quality, like pleasure and suffering. But Dave’s intuitions are quite different.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    Instead of zombies he asks us to consider 'Vulcans', who can see and hear and reflect on the world around them, but are incapable of experiencing pleasure or pain.

    Now imagine a further trolley problem: suppose you have a normal human on one track, and five Vulcans on the other. Should you divert the trolley to kill the five Vulcans in order to save the human?

    Dave firmly believes the answer is no, and if he's right, pleasure and suffering can’t be the only things required for moral status. The fact that Vulcans are conscious in other ways must matter in itself.

    Dave is one of the world's top experts on the philosophy of consciousness. He helped return the question 'what is consciousness?' to the centre stage of philosophy with his 1996 book 'The Conscious Mind', which argued against then-dominant materialist theories of consciousness.

    This comprehensive interview, at over four hours long, outlines each contemporary theory of consciousness, what they have going for them, and their likely ethical implications. Those theories span the full range from illusionism, the idea that consciousness is in some sense an 'illusion', to panpsychism, according to which it's a fundamental physical property present in all matter.

    These questions are absolutely central for anyone who wants to build a positive future. If insects were conscious our treatment of them could already be an atrocity. If computer simulations of people will one day be conscious, how will we know, and how should we treat them? And what is it about consciousness that matters, if anything?

    Dave Chalmers is probably the best person on the planet to ask these questions, and Rob & Arden cover this and much more over the course of what is both our longest ever episode, and our personal favourite so far.

    Get this episode by subscribing to our show on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: search for 80,000 Hours in your podcasting app.

    The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

    • 4 hrs 42 min
    #59 Classic episode - Cass Sunstein on how change happens, and why it's so often abrupt & unpredictable

    #59 Classic episode - Cass Sunstein on how change happens, and why it's so often abrupt & unpredictable

    Rebroadcast: this episode was originally released in June 2019.


    It can often feel hopeless to be an activist seeking social change on an obscure issue where most people seem opposed or at best indifferent to you. But according to a new book by Professor Cass Sunstein, they shouldn't despair. Large social changes are often abrupt and unexpected, arising in an environment of seeming public opposition.

    The Communist Revolution in Russia spread so swiftly it confounded even Lenin. Seventy years later the Soviet Union collapsed just as quickly and unpredictably.

    In the modern era we have gay marriage, #metoo and the Arab Spring, as well as nativism, Euroskepticism and Hindu nationalism.

    How can a society that so recently seemed to support the status quo bring about change in years, months, or even weeks?

    Sunstein — co-author of Nudge, Obama White House official, and by far the most cited legal scholar of the late 2000s — aims to unravel the mystery and figure out the implications in his new book How Change Happens.

    He pulls together three phenomena which social scientists have studied in recent decades: preference falsification, variable thresholds for action, and group polarisation. If Sunstein is to be believed, together these are a cocktail for social shifts that are chaotic and fundamentally unpredictable.Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    In brief, people constantly misrepresent their true views, even to close friends and family. They themselves aren't quite sure how socially acceptable their feelings would have to become, before they revealed them, or joined a campaign for social change. And a chance meeting between a few strangers can be the spark that radicalises a handful of people, who then find a message that can spread their views to millions.

    According to Sunstein, it's "much, much easier" to create social change when large numbers of people secretly or latently agree with you. But 'preference falsification' is so pervasive that it's no simple matter to figure out when that's the case.

    In today's interview, we debate with Sunstein whether this model of cultural change is accurate, and if so, what lessons it has for those who would like to shift the world in a more humane direction. We discuss:

    • How much people misrepresent their views in democratic countries.
    • Whether the finding that groups with an existing view tend towards a more extreme position would stand up in the replication crisis.
    • When is it justified to encourage your own group to polarise?
    • Sunstein's difficult experiences as a pioneer of animal rights law.
    • Whether activists can do better by spending half their resources on public opinion surveys.
    • Should people be more or less outspoken about their true views?
    • What might be the next social revolution to take off?
    • How can we learn about social movements that failed and disappeared?
    • How to find out what people really think.

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript on our site.


    The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

    • 1 hr 43 min
    #119 – Andrew Yang on our very long-term future, and other topics most politicians won’t touch

    #119 – Andrew Yang on our very long-term future, and other topics most politicians won’t touch

    Andrew Yang — past presidential candidate, founder of the Forward Party, and leader of the 'Yang Gang' — is kind of a big deal, but is particularly popular among listeners to The 80,000 Hours Podcast.

    Maybe that's because he's willing to embrace topics most politicians stay away from, like universal basic income, term limits for members of Congress, or what might happen when AI replaces whole industries.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    But even those topics are pretty vanilla compared to our usual fare on The 80,000 Hours Podcast. So we thought it’d be fun to throw Andrew some stranger or more niche questions we hadn't heard him comment on before, including:

    1. What would your ideal utopia in 500 years look like?
    2. Do we need more public optimism today?
    3. Is positively influencing the long-term future a key moral priority of our time?
    4. Should we invest far more to prevent low-probability risks?
    5. Should we think of future generations as an interest group that's disenfranchised by their inability to vote?
    6. The folks who worry that advanced AI is going to go off the rails and destroy us all... are they crazy, or a valuable insurance policy?
    7. Will people struggle to live fulfilling lives once AI systems remove the economic need to 'work'?
    8. Andrew is a huge proponent of ranked-choice voting. But what about 'approval voting' — where basically you just get to say “yea” or “nay” to every candidate that's running — which some experts prefer?
    9. What would Andrew do with a billion dollars to keep the US a democracy?
    10. What does Andrew think about the effective altruism community?
    11. What's one thing we should do to reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    12. Will Andrew's new political party get Trump elected by splitting the vote, the same way Nader got Bush elected back in 2000?

    As it turns out, Rob and Andrew agree on a lot, so the episode is less a debate than a chat about ideas that aren’t mainstream yet... but might be one day. They also talk about:

    • Andrew’s views on alternative meat
    • Whether seniors have too much power in American society
    • Andrew’s DC lobbying firm on behalf of humanity
    • How the rest of the world could support the US
    • The merits of 18-year term limits
    • What technologies Andrew is most excited about
    • How much the US should spend on foreign aid
    • Persistence and prevalence of inflation in the US economy
    • And plenty more

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


    Producer: Keiran Harris
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
    Transcriptions: Katy Moore

    • 1 hr 25 min
    #118 – Jaime Yassif on safeguarding bioscience to prevent catastrophic lab accidents and bioweapons development

    #118 – Jaime Yassif on safeguarding bioscience to prevent catastrophic lab accidents and bioweapons development

    If a rich country were really committed to pursuing an active biological weapons program, there’s not much we could do to stop them. With enough money and persistence, they’d be able to buy equipment, and hire people to carry out the work.

    But what we can do is intervene before they make that decision.

    Today’s guest, Jaime Yassif — Senior Fellow for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) — thinks that stopping states from wanting to pursue dangerous bioscience in the first place is one of our key lines of defence against global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs).

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    It helps to understand why countries might consider developing biological weapons. Jaime says there are three main possible reasons:

    1. Fear of what their adversary might be up to
    2. Belief that they could gain a tactical or strategic advantage, with limited risk of getting caught
    3. Belief that even if they are caught, they are unlikely to be held accountable

    In response, Jaime has developed a three-part recipe to create systems robust enough to meaningfully change the cost-benefit calculation.

    The first is to substantially increase transparency. If countries aren’t confident about what their neighbours or adversaries are actually up to, misperceptions could lead to arms races that neither side desires. But if you know with confidence that no one around you is pursuing a biological weapons programme, you won’t feel motivated to pursue one yourself.

    The second is to strengthen the capabilities of the United Nations’ system to
    investigate the origins of high-consequence biological events — whether naturally emerging, accidental or deliberate — and to make sure that the responsibility to figure out the source of bio-events of unknown origin doesn’t fall between the cracks of different existing mechanisms. The ability to quickly discover the source of emerging pandemics is important both for responding to them in real time and for deterring future bioweapons development or use.

    And the third is meaningful accountability. States need to know that the consequences for getting caught in a deliberate attack are severe enough to make it a net negative in expectation to go down this road in the first place.

    But having a good plan and actually implementing it are two very different things, and today’s episode focuses heavily on the practical steps we should be taking to influence both governments and international organisations, like the WHO and UN — and to help them maximise their effectiveness in guarding against catastrophic biological risks.

    Jaime and Rob explore NTI’s current proposed plan for reducing global catastrophic biological risks, and discuss:

    • The importance of reducing emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances
    • How we can make it a lot harder for anyone to deliberately or accidentally produce or release a really dangerous pathogen
    • The importance of having multiples theories of risk reduction
    • Why Jaime’s more focused on prevention than response
    • The history of the Biological Weapons Convention
    • Jaime’s disagreements with the effective altruism community
    • And much more

    And if you might be interested in dedicating your career to reducing GCBRs, stick around to the end of the episode to get Jaime’s advice — including on how people outside of the US can best contribute, and how to compare career opportunities in academia vs think tanks, and nonprofits vs national governments vs international orgs.

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


    Producer: Keiran Harris
    Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
    Transcriptions: Katy Moore

    • 2 hrs 15 min
    #117 – David Denkenberger on using paper mills and seaweed to feed everyone in a catastrophe, ft Sahil Shah

    #117 – David Denkenberger on using paper mills and seaweed to feed everyone in a catastrophe, ft Sahil Shah

    If there's a nuclear war followed by nuclear winter, and the sun is blocked out for years, most of us are going to starve, right? Well, currently, probably we would, because humanity hasn't done much to prevent it. But it turns out that an ounce of forethought might be enough for most people to get the calories they need to survive, even in a future as grim as that one.

    Today's guest is engineering professor Dave Denkenberger, who co-founded the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED), which has the goal of finding ways humanity might be able to feed itself for years without relying on the sun. Over the last seven years, Dave and his team have turned up options from the mundane, like mushrooms grown on rotting wood, to the bizarre, like bacteria that can eat natural gas or electricity itself.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    One option stands out as potentially able to feed billions: finding a way to eat wood ourselves. Even after a disaster, a huge amount of calories will be lying around, stored in wood and other plant cellulose. The trouble is that, even though cellulose is basically a lot of sugar molecules stuck together, humans can't eat wood.

    But we do know how to turn wood into something people can eat. We can grind wood up in already existing paper mills, then mix the pulp with enzymes that break the cellulose into sugar and the hemicellulose into other sugars.

    Another option that shows a lot of promise is seaweed. Buffered by the water around them, ocean life wouldn't be as affected by the lower temperatures resulting from the sun being obscured. Sea plants are also already used to growing in low light, because the water above them already shades them to some extent.

    Dave points out that "there are several species of seaweed that can still grow 10% per day, even with the lower light levels in nuclear winter and lower temperatures. ... Not surprisingly, with that 10% growth per day, assuming we can scale up, we could actually get up to 160% of human calories in less than a year."

    Of course it will be easier to scale up seaweed production if it's already a reasonably sized industry. At the end of the interview, we're joined by Sahil Shah, who is trying to expand seaweed production in the UK with his business Sustainable Seaweed.

    While a diet of seaweed and trees turned into sugar might not seem that appealing, the team at ALLFED also thinks several perfectly normal crops could also make a big contribution to feeding the world, even in a truly catastrophic scenario. Those crops include potatoes, canola, and sugar beets, which are currently grown in cool low-light environments.

    Many of these ideas could turn out to be misguided or impractical in real-world conditions, which is why Dave and ALLFED are raising money to test them out on the ground. They think it's essential to show these techniques can work so that should the worst happen, people turn their attention to producing more food rather than fighting one another over the small amount of food humanity has stockpiled.

    In this conversation, Rob, Dave, and Sahil discuss the above, as well as:

    • How much one can trust the sort of economic modelling ALLFED does
    • Bacteria that turn natural gas or electricity into protein
    • How to feed astronauts in space with nuclear power
    • What individuals can do to prepare themselves for global catastrophes
    • Whether we should worry about humanity running out of natural resources
    • How David helped save $10 billion worth of electricity through energy efficiency standards
    • And much more

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


    Producer: Keiran Harris
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
    Transcriptions: Katy Moore

    • 3 hrs 8 min

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