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Schuyler (sky-ler) Matteson is an avid reader and researcher on existential risks and is fascinated by the philosophical implications of our advancements in the fields of astrophysics, cosmology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and genetics (among others). He has a background working in energy and climate policy with a PhD in Sustainability emphasizing energy system transitions for climate change mitigation, and degrees in applied physics, mathematics, and philosophy.


Maybe it is because I've been reading a lot on biology lately, but the talk of "storing" and "accumulating" potential over time triggered me to think of DNA as an example of this. Over time, DNA "stores" the beneficial traits that have emerged in a given species, while mutations "accumulate" and those with positive impact stick around. Seeing that our capacity to retain and create knowledge, and come up with constructs like "money" in the first place depended in part on our accumulated traits in DNA, an argument could be made that DNA is the original patient long-termist investment. Improvements in our brains tens of thousands of years ago helped us begin thinking these thoughts and expanding our impacts beyond anything any other species has ever been able to do. So what might be coming next? Preserving humans (and their DNA) to see what beneficial traits accumulate into the long-term future may be an enabler to the other patient long-term investments. Better brains leads to faster/better/more knowledge creation, and may even slowly improve our capacity for cooperation by overcoming wiring issues that hinder our ability to play nice with others.

I haven't thought at all about how to frame this as something in which to proactively "invest", but I can already see difficulties arising from a discussion of how to intervene. I was mainly just wanting to point out the similarities in the concepts and there are some pitfalls to avoid in this concept for sure. For example, how actively, do we intervene, if at all, to "preserve DNA" or to make sure beneficial traits are "stored" and allowed to "accumulate". I think a safer interpretation would just be to observe the benefits we have gained from the long-term existence of our DNA and argue for things like the avoidance of existential risks to make sure that the passive storage and accumulation process can continue. Which probably just brings us back to deciding what specific investments, in things like knowledge or coordination as you mentioned, are needed to meet this goal. Don't want this to be read like "let's go update our DNA to be smarter now!"... 

Speaking from personal experience, I believe some of it has to do with the perceived loss of optionality we experience when "documenting" (writing down) our current thinking. People tend to feel committed to, and accountable for, information or opinions captured in writing, which can be uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing when any amount of uncertainty or importance is involved (it's not fun to have proof you were wrong). I agree with the other comments that in-person meetings or phone calls save time in coordinating groups and reaching consensus, but it also allows people to qualify and clarify thinking as they go, resulting in what feels like a smooth evolution of thinking as opposed to the seemingly discontinuous and inelegant show of changing your mind after being corrected or learning new information via asynchronous communication. I think you make a good point about the interpretive freedom in-person meetings provide. I bet this type of research is being done by business or management consultants, who are always trying to find ways to improve coordination make people more productive in groups.

It seems to me that consciousness research could be categorized as "fundamental" research and while it may have a less obvious or near-term altruistic impact, without a full understanding, we may miss something essential in how we work or how we operate. For example, studying consciousness, what it is, how it works, and who/what "has it" to what degree could have strong implications on animal rights discussions. More broadly, I tend to think fundamental research is pretty significantly underfunded and underrepresented, perhaps because the direct application seems fuzzier, but I think it is still very important for formalizing and hardening our understanding of how the world works, which serves to improve our decision making. Cognitive science in general is promising to me too, since it can help us figure out why we feel and act like we do, which can really improve our ability to overcome our potentially negative impulses, support our positive impulses, and be more rational and clear-thinking.

I'd say the same thing about astrophysics or quantum mechanics; they seem to be less directly relevant and don't have an 80,000 hours profile, but people definitely still need to do it, since they are essential to our understanding of the universe and have direct applications in improving the world or avoiding existential risks. Not necessarily saying they need to be on 80,000 hours' "most pressing" list, but I certainly wouldn't want to discourage people from working in these areas if the have the skills and interest. We could let "more capable successors" deal with these issues, but I am of the opinion that we can't let work on fundamental research go to zero, or even close to it, while we wait for the successors to arrive.

Hi there! I'm new to the forum and am excited to learn more and hopefully add value to the group. I currently work on energy and climate policy in a government role (more about me in my bio) and spend most of my free time reading books and articles in the fields of physics, neuroscience, and economics and thinking about what it all means for how we should live our lives. Can't wait to get more involved!