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Underrated Research Areas
Author: Sam Harsimony
Sam Harismony is a writer and independent researcher trying to find and promote impactful ideas in science, governance, and altruism.
Note: This is a list of research areas that I find interesting, but I am likely misguided about the relevance or importance of several areas. I don’t necessarily endorse conducting research on all of these areas, as they may have dual-use concerns, ethical issues, or prove intractable. Instead, consider this as a brainstorming session held in public, and treat everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Changing length of childhood. Is it possible to influence people's development socially, pharmacologically, or medically to change the length of childhood?
Smart drugs for the elderly. What causes cognitive decline? Might it be possible to boost the intelligence of the elderly? Keeping innovators sharp into their old age would have huge benefits.
Sleep research. Can we improve people’s sleep to make them more productive? Can we reduce the total amount of sleep people need to be productive?
Idea acceleration. Can we automate or accelerate the production of good ideas? Can we more efficiently search for good ideas? Can we streamline the process of refining them and putting them into practice?
VR for productivity. Can VR be used to boost productivity? Can VR become a tool for thought?
Welfare Biology. Can we measure animal welfare? How do we improve it? Can we trade off between the needs of different species and make decisions on their behalf? What is the welfare level of wild animals and farmed animals?
Secure hardware. Is it possible to make truly secure hardware? Can hardware be verified? This is the most under-theorized part of the computational stack as we have methods for secure communication, secure software, and secure computation, but all of these require some amount of trusted hardware.
Social network cryptography. Having your social network verify your identity seems like a flexible, highly secure way to protect your digital life. Combined with passwords and biometrics, nobody has to have their identity stolen again.
In vivo hypermutation. It looks like it’s possible to continuously modify living organisms and evolve them. This could accelerate directed evolution, allow for enhanced gene editing, and open the door to evolving new organisms.
Blood filtering. Is it possible to remove toxins from the blood and slow aging? Could we filter triglycerides from the blood to eliminate cardiovascular disease? Could we filter cancer cells to slow metastasis? (related: “Young Blood, Old Monsters and Rejuvenated Rodents”)
Artificial dairy and eggs. Would make the vegetarian diet suffering-free.
Cryonics and cryobiology. Can we safely freeze tissues and revive them? This would be highly valuable for food storage, organ donation, and cryonics.
In vitro gametogenesis. This would allow anyone to create sperm and egg cells from their own cells, removing the need to surgically remove eggs, donate eggs, or donate sperm. It would also allow for multiplex parenting and increase the number of embryo’s parents could choose from.
Safe, multi-implantation IVF. The costs of pregnancy could be dramatically reduced if parents had the option to safely implant multiple embryo’s and carry a multiple pregnancy to term.
Variolation/Challenge Trials. Can we infect people in a controlled manner to induce immunity and reduce the severity of pandemics? Consider Robin Hanson’s proposal:
“This isn’t just a theory. The medical literature consistently finds strong relations, in both animals and humans, between initial virus dose and symptom severity, including death. The most directly relevant data is on SARS and measles, where natural differences in doses were associated with factors of 3 and 14 in death rates, and in smallpox, where in the 1700s low “variolation” doses given on purpose cut death rates by a factor of 10 to 30. For example, variolation saved George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge...
...Just as replacing accidental smallpox infections with deliberate low dose infections cut smallpox deaths by a factor of 10 to 30, a factor of 3-30 is plausible for Covid19 death rate cuts due to replacing accidental Covid19 infections with deliberate small dose infections. Observed mortality differences due to natural dose variations give only a lower bound on what is feasible via controlled doses. Of course we can’t be sure until we get more direct evidence. But systematic variolation experiments involving at most a few thousand volunteers seem sufficient to get evidence not only on death rates, but also to verify immunity and to learn ideal infection doses, delivery methods, entry points, and strains, and also the value of complementary drugs to slow viral replication (e.g., remdesivir). (Even a hundred volunteers could find a good low dose.)”
Long-term effects of minor infections. MS has been linked to Epstein-Barr virus, and some diseases are known to cause cancer. Paul Ewald theorized that many human diseases are actually caused by minor infections (heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, neurological disorders, etc.). To what degree is this true? Can we prevent these infections?
Methane clathrates. These are a potentially large source of energy. On the other hand, they could get released suddenly and lead to a climate catastrophe. Either way, they seem important to study. How much is out there? Is it accessible?
Trash Gasification. How do we break down waste into its component atoms and recycle it?
Wastewater treatment technologies. Can we efficiently recycle the water and atoms in our wastewater?
Marine cloud brightening. Is it possible to create artificial clouds to cool the planet, create rainfall, and control local weather?
City-wide climate control. Might it be possible to manufacture clouds, raise solar sails, or change air composition to control a city’s climate?
Explosive magnetic confinement fusion. Can clever magnetic confinement using explosive flux compression make fusion power possible? Can we use this for space propulsion?
Induced gamma emission from halfnium. A disputed result in nuclear physics. Offers up the possibility of storing and transferring massive amounts of energy with lower proliferation risks. Are there other nuclei which could support such nuclear states? Could these nuclear states be used for computing?
Space tethers. What materials would work well as space tethers? Logistically, what is required for these to work? Could they be useful for solar system commerce?
High-entropy alloys: A relatively new set of materials with interesting properties and a large, continuous space to explore. This type of disorder might present new avenues for materials science and condensed matter research.
Implosion fabrication for better lithography. Could implosion fabrication be used to shrink photo-masks and create better, cheaper computer chips?
Public goods funding experiments. Only a few public goods funding mechanisms have been studied theoretically, experimentally, and in the real-world.
Gravity-based energy sources. The gravitational potential energy of the moon is roughly 1031 Joules, almost 1 trillion times global energy consumption. Might it be possible to lower pieces of the moon slowly towards earth and generate energy? Moving 1 millionth of the moon while generating energy at 1% efficiency would last us almost 1000 years. If feasible, this approach could be extended to other astronomical bodies.
Black hole engineering. Black holes may be an ideal way to produce, store, and transfer energy. They may also provide thrust for interstellar travel and ideal computers. Are these systems feasible? Black holes are almost like fundamental particles, with mass, charge, and spin. Is it possible to make black hole compounds? Black hole condensed matter physics?
Dark-energy based energy production. Is it possible (on cosmological scales) to use dark energy to generate energy? This would be important for interstellar civilizations.
Mad-dog Everettianism. It’s possible that our notion of distance comes directly from quantum entanglement.
RuBisCo engineering. The enzyme that turns CO2 into food is actually pretty bad at its job. Might we be able to engineer better plants? Alternatively, can we switch inefficient plants to a more efficient type of photosynthesis?
Small hydrogen zeppelins. Hydrogen is an easy-to-produce lifting gas. Might we be able to use hydrogen balloons in conjunction with drones for international shipping?
Enhanced geothermal. Geothermal energy anywhere on the planet would ensure access to cheap, clean energy while providing heat to important chemical processes. Advanced drilling techniques might also improve mining.
Supercritical water gassification. Splitting water becomes much more efficient when the water is in a supercitical state. Producing supercritical water might be easy with enhanced geothermal. Supercritical water might also enable new chemical processes.
Cooling spacecraft. What are scalable, cheap ways to release heat in space? This will be important for space manufacturing since dissipating heat in space is difficult.
Standardizing science. Can we standardize scientific experiments, materials syntheses, data workups, and publications in order to do research more quickly? This would make science more repeatable, transparent, and efficient.
Supervolcano mitigation. Are there ways to prevent supervolcanic eruptions?
Genetic resurrection. Is it possible to clone someone using only their DNA? What if they have passed away? What are the limitations? Can we resurrect John von Neumann?
Population-level changes in work desire. There is some evidence that the decline in physically demanding jobs has caused people to increase their working hours. This could be good because it makes people more productive, but bad because it encourages people to work rather than socialize, contributing to a social recession. Should we help or hinder this trend? Is it ethical for a person to change their desire to work?
Obesity contaminants. Could some chemicals in our environment be responsible for obesity or other diseases? (See SlimeMoldTimeMold’s A Chemical Hunger series)
Alternative cattle feed. Some cow feed additives can dramatically reduce methane emissions, but can this scale? It's possible to synthesize volatile fatty acids from fuel, could these be added to cow feed to replace food crops? Some bacteria eat methane and can be added to cattle feed, might this be a more efficient way to produce food from fuel?
Monetary theory of competing cryptocurrencies. What kinds of cryptocurrencies will evolve under monetary competition? What monetary rules will they use? What niches will different currencies fill?
Seawater resource capture. Seawater may become a great source of atoms as energy becomes cheaper and may be especially useful for CO2 capture. Desalination brine may be another useful source of raw materials.
Electrochemical nitrogen reduction. Enables cheap production of ammonia using energy, water, and air. This could be used to make fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, or carbon capture agents. This is especially important for developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where agricultural productivity is poor and fertilizer is expensive to ship.
Wireless power transfer. Has the potential to create a global energy market.
Lifestyle Nootropics. How do exercise, diet, sleep, sex, music, leisure, and other activities affect measurable productivity?
Nootropic Protocol. Psychiatrists often have heuristics for which medications to start a patient on and which ones to try next. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an agreed-upon sequence of nootropics to try in order to increase productivity?
Online collaboration. How can we make online teams more productive? Could dramatically increase the value of remote work and boost the world economy.
Vertical farming. Cheaply grow food and biologics anywhere with only energy and a few chemical inputs.
Solar spirulina farming. It looks like it's possible to grow nearly nutritionally-complete food from some chemical inputs and sunlight. Why not make this so cheap that everyone can synthesize food in their own backyard?
Improving mammalian cell culture. Culturing mammalian cells is difficult but critical for biology research and the production of certain medicines. Improvements to the cell culture process could enable organ printing, cultured meat, and artificial wombs.
Cancer-like cells for mammalian cell culture. Some cancer cells are very robust. Could we modify healthy cells to be more like cancer and improve mammalian cell culture?
Solar pumped lasers. Materials that convert sunlight directly into laser light. Could be useful for efficient power transfer, optical computing, and photocatalysis.
Optical computing. Might we be able to convert sunlight directly into computation? Could this make computers more efficient?
Nuclear strategy. Are there ways to incentivize states to reduce stockpiles? Can stockpiles be verified? Could states commit fully to nuclear second-strike capabilities? Could technological developments accelerate this change?
Grabby aliens model. How can we update this model with new information and strategic insights? What are the implications for long-term strategy?
Self-funding public goods. Might it be possible to borrow from the future to increase the growth rate?