Thank you to Frances Lorenz for writing this post and Daniel Braun for his comments.
AI Safety has a pool of research talent working via three main avenues: industry, academia, and independent research. Unfortunately, independent researchers and, depending on the lab, those in academia can be physically isolated from others in the community. Thus, they lose out on incidental feedback: bumping into coworkers at lunch or labmates in the office and having continuing, casual discussions on research ideas, progress updates, points of uncertainty, etc. Alternative sources of feedback are largely constrained and intimidating: you can share drafts with people, write a blog post, email/message back and forth, or schedule video calls with other researchers. These sources can be difficult to find and typically follow a, “provide context, receive feedback” structure that prevents deep exploration of particular ideas or avenues, and unless scheduled regularly, will lack the familiarity that can elevate the quality of a discussion.
Building community through feedback events
AI Safety Support would like to try hosting feedback/discussion events. Ideally, these could run for a longer duration (maybe 90 minutes) with participants allowed to pop out at any time (there could be a scheduled break after 45 minutes so those who feel uncomfortable exiting can do so at that time). The event would involve a host individual or group briefly presenting their work, followed by free-form discussion between participants and the hosts, rather than one-way feedback. If there is some rough continuity in the group of people who frequent such discussions, there is increased potential for familiarity between participants and hosts. Additionally, AISS relieves the burden of requesting feedback and can help encourage a friendly, collaborative atmosphere.
The challenge of feedback events
In particular, AISS would like participants to have a working knowledge of AI Safety research to facilitate high-level discussions. One challenge with this is convincing such participants that feedback events are worth their time. This is difficult because:
- Participants are providing most of the value in these events. Though AI Safety researchers may provide incidental feedback regularly throughout their working lives, committing to a scheduled zoom session seems to be calculated as a greater time loss than such encounters. This could perhaps be attributed to a lack of familiarity or context (you may not know the hosts or quality of the project).
- For participants to see such an event as worthwhile they need:
- Some amount of confidence in the project and those working on it.
- Some amount of confidence that other participants are knowledgeable and will ask higher-level questions rather than seek clarifications.
This presents a real challenge for getting feedback events up and running, but we believe they have the potential to be quite valuable to the field as a whole. Our first event went well, both participants and hosts seemed quite engaged with ample back-and-forth. The hosts concluded that the event was encouraging and stimulating. One of our participants provided the following feedback:
“The format of having authors present their work live is very refreshing - I'm tired of reading all the time. I'm also hungry for discussions because I have too little contact with AI safety people.”
Conversely, we had another participant state that they couldn’t regularly attend such events due to the time commitment. We hope to determine whether a significant portion of researchers relate to the first participant; thus, we want to give feedback events a real shot.
We would like to kindly emphasize that your decision to attend feedback events as a participant will (in part) determine the success of such events. We would be very happy if readers like you could consider giving them a try, even if your initial instinct says it’s not worth it given the difficulties we’ve stated above. If after doing so, you feel the events are not worthwhile, we will have an anonymous feedback form available for you to share.
What can you do?
Join our mailing list and receive invites to feedback events
Please fill out this short form to join the mailing list (you can always unsubscribe later):
*Signing up is not a commitment to anything and comes with no obligations, we will simply add you to our mailing list for feedback events. Every time we host one, we’ll email you an invitation and you can decide whether you’d like to attend or not! You can always unsubscribe.
(Note: We’re particularly seeking non-beginners with concrete knowledge in AI Safety).
Sign up to host a feedback event
If you’d like to host a feedback event and present your work (with AISS taking on all the organization and facilitation), please fill out this form:
We will email you with the suggested date and details for your feedback event. If you approve, we’ll email our mailing list to invite participants.
Finally, If you have any ideas on how to best run feedback events, please let us know!
Kudos for the initiative! I think it makes sense to crosspost this to LessWrong.
Good idea :) thank you!
I think moderated video calls are my favorite format, as boring as that is. I.e. you have a speaker and also a moderator who picks people to ask questions, cuts people off or prompts them to keep talking depending on their judgment, etc.
Another thing I like, if it seems like people are interested in talking about multiple different things after the main talk / QA / discussion, is splitting up the discussion into multiple rooms by topic. I think Discord is a good application for this. Zoom is pretty bad at this but can be cajoled into having the right functionality if you make everyone a co-host, I think Microsoft Teams is fine but other people have problems, and other people think GatherTown is fine but I have problems.