Hide table of contents

Most EAs studies math, CS, economics or philosophy in their college. Due to the expectation of AI development, CS seem to be the most popular major for EAs. Some argue that biology major is worse than CS. There are lots of biological cause areas which EA can work in: impactful medicine, mental health, biotech(like transhumanism), wild animal welfare, cultured meat, sentience, brain computer interface... But some still agrues that biology major isn't good enough because:(1)Biology is narrower than CS, CS can be used in any subjects(2)Biology is easier(3)Biology is too broad, you only need to know some expertise for your cause area(4)People in math or CS can easily go in these researches, only needing a few biology self-learnings to make themselves speciailized. I'm not very sure if (2)-(4) are right. I can't imagine the biology professionalism can be replaced that easily. I think CS engineers can cooperate with biologists, like bioinformatics. But biology research professors requires a lot of knowledge of biology in your major. If I want to do these bio research topics, are there other reasons that makes biology a useless major? Do any biologists in EA against that biology is more useless ?




New Answer
New Comment

3 Answers sorted by

Jack - I think EA needs a lot more people trained in biology, for the reasons you mentioned. 

I see a fair number of factual and theoretical errors being made when EA discussions of essentially biological topics (e.g. animal sentience, transhumanism, biotech) are dominated by computer scientists plus moral philosophers, without enough input from bio experts. 

At the individual level, a CS degree might be worth more with regard to expected career income. But at the collective level, EA needs a broader range of expertise, especially in really foundational sciences like evolutionary biology, animal behavior, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary game theory, etc. 

Plus, biology is just endlessly fascinating, rewarding, and grounding -- fun to learn about, fun to share with partners and kids, and awe-inspiring with regard to appreciating the antiquity, diversity, and complexity of life.

You may be interested in this 2021 WSJ article: "A Technology Race to Stop the Mass Killing of Baby Chicks: An estimated six billion newly hatched male chicks are killed world-wide each year. New technologies are being developed to stop that."

I know George Church is a big name in bio/genetics who seems to have interests in transhumanism. 

Another WSJ article just weeks ago: "Scientists at DeepMind and Meta Press Fusion of AI, Biology".  

I would think bio is a great thing to go into! However, I'd guess your point (4) has significant truth to it. If you do bio,  I'd make sure you still learn your math! Math is the language of science. I think there are a lot of people that major in bio and get a kind of "soft" pre-med style bio education which is mostly memorizing stuff. I would see if you can do like a computational bio major or double major with math, applied-math, stats, or CS. I'd try to take several courses in probability/statistics/machine learning.

  1. ^

    If that article is paywalled, try this: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1shcLzlS8qf7ODbqMqiHtwRzFminRpiC3/view

As a person who was a biologist and now does ML:

My impression is EAs (especially 80k) think you will make an impact through research only if you are in the top few percent of researchers in the world. I think that is especially hard to achieve in biology (especially wet-lab biology) because:

  • Success in biology is incredibly resource constrained. So getting into a rich lab is key
  • Success in biology is much more luck-dependent than other fields. Intelligence is secondary.

Other reasons to not do biology:

  • Biology postdocs/PhDs work longer and are paid lesser than CS

  • Feedback cycles in biology have long time windows. This means it can take years to know your project failed. Personally, I found this incredibly demotivating but people’s tolerance for this can differ

  • Option value for other jobs is worse. If you have a CS degree and decide to leave academia it’s easier to get an industry job than it’s for bio

Thank you for answering, some of the points are new that I haven't considered about. What do you work in ML? AI safety? I want to know what EA-related things I can work in CS besides reducing AI x-risks. If I insist in working on those bio-related topics, is it still worth getting a CS major and fewer bio?(for bioinformatics and other CS-related skills)

I work at a startup designing synthetic proteins using deep learning: https://www.evozyne.com/. Even though the products my company works on are impactful, due to counterfactuality, I think my impact is through ETG. You don't need a bio background to work in bio-related ML. Getting a CS degree with some bio-related courses/self-study the side seems enough. Also bioinformatics != bio-ML.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities