Summary

Sentience Institute is a 501(c)3 nonprofit think tank aiming to maximize positive impact through longtermist research on social and technological change, particularly moral circle expansion. This approach is detailed in our new paper in the journal Futures, “Moral Circle Expansion: A Promising Strategy to Impact the Far Future,” and the updated Our Perspective page on our website.

Because moral circle expansion is such a broad topic, when we launched in 2017, we decided to focus on farmed animals, an important, tractable, and neglected cause area. In late 2020 we incorporated a second focus area (alongside our continued work on farmed animals), artificial sentience. While sentient beings today are almost entirely biological, there are compelling arguments that artificial sentience will be much more common in the far future. Few, if any, other organizations have prioritized their moral and social inclusion. For more detail, see our recent blog post, “The Importance of Artificial Sentience.”

We hope to raise $90,000 this giving season to continue working on the most important, outstanding questions in farmed animal research[1] and to solidify our artificial sentience research program. We are highly funding-constrained, with multiple excellent researchers whom we would be thrilled to hire with each call for applications but do not do so because of limited funding. The academic literature on the moral consideration of artificial entities is undergoing rapid growth, so we believe there is currently a unique, time-sensitive opportunity to positively influence the direction of this field. (For more detail, see our new literature review published in Science and Engineering Ethics, “The Moral Consideration of Artificial Entities.”) With additional funding, we are prepared to more rapidly and thoroughly take on this opportunity. We believe that we could absorb, with similar cost-effectiveness, at least $240,000 this giving season and potentially much more. Please consider making a donation or reach out for collaboration, feedback, or questions.

Output in 2021

Completed Research

  • A paper titled “Moral Circle Expansion: A Promising Strategy to Impact the Far Future” published in Futures, the flagship journal of futures studies. This paper makes a conceptual and empirical case for moral circle expansion and discusses the most important frontiers of moral circle expansion in the future, including artificial sentience.
  • A report on the third iteration of our Animals, Food and Technology (AFT) survey. Overall, we found stable trends in animal farming opposition and support for animal product alternatives between 2017 and 2020. However, the number of people who consider animal farming to be one of the most important social issues fell from 2017 to 2019 and remained at this lower level in 2020.
  • A literature review titled “The Moral Consideration of Artificial Entities: A Literature Review” published in Science and Engineering Ethics. We identified 294 relevant research items and found rapid growth in academic interest in this topic, as well as a broad agreement that artificial entities could warrant moral consideration, though for a wide variety of reasons. The review also found that there is a gap in empirical, social science research on this topic, which we plan to help address.
  • A preprint of a preregistered online experiment titled “Extending Perspective Taking to Non-Human Groups.” We found no overall effects of encouraging people to take the perspective of either a farmed pig or an artificial entity on moral attitudes (measured by indicators including speciesism and substratism), though we did find evidence of pathways between perspective taking and moral attitudes via empathic concern and psychological closeness.
  • A case study titled “Social Movement Lessons from the Fair Trade Movement.” This study aimed to assess whether the Fair Trade movement achieved its goals, the factors that led to its failures and successes, and to draw strategic lessons for present-day social movements, particularly those focused on moral circle expansion. The findings included evidence in favor of transforming existing supply chains instead of building new ones and prioritizing the defense of product certifications against dilution.
  • A blog post titled “Key Lessons From Social Movement History” that synthesizes social movement research by us and others. We found evidence for prioritizing institutional over individual tactics, diversifying institutional tactics, bypassing public opinion, and focusing less on issue salience. While this research has oriented towards moral circle expansion to include farmed animals, we also touch on artificial sentience and comparable movements, mainly finding evidence in favor of starting with a credible, professional movement before engaging in broad social movement tactics.
  • A blog post outlining our social movement case studies methodology, our reasoning behind our methodological decisions, and caveats to bear in mind when interpreting our findings.
  • A literature review titled “Effective Strategies for Changing Public Opinion: A Literature Review” that considered whether activists can influence public opinion, and if so, what the best strategies to do so are. The findings suggest that policy change and reframing issues are more effective strategies than direct persuasion attempts.
  • Several blog posts detailing issues on artificial sentience as a cause area: “The Importance of Artificial Sentience,” “Psychological Perspectives Relevant to Artificial Sentience,” “Prioritization Questions for Artificial Sentience,” and “The Terminology of Artificial Sentience.”

In-progress Research

More detail on our in-progress research is available in our Research Agenda.

  • An online experiment testing the effects of reading about welfare reforms (cage-free eggs) and current animal farming conditions on animal farming opposition. This will speak to a longstanding debate in effective animal advocacy about the extent to which reforms cause momentum and complacency (preregistration).
  • An online survey that looks at the psychological predictors (e.g., future orientation, social dominance orientation, sci-fi identity) of moral concern for artificial entities (preregistration).
  • An online experiment that estimates the relative effects of 11 features of artificial entities (e.g., emotion expression, physical embodiment, intelligence) on their moral consideration (preregistration).
  • A US nationally representative survey titled “Artificial Intelligence, Morality, and Sentience” that gathers information on people’s current moral attitudes towards artificial entities. We intend to administer this survey every few years to measure changes in attitudes over time (preregistration).
  • The fourth iteration of the Animals, Food, and Technology (AFT) survey, for which we are currently collecting data. We’re particularly interested in opinion changes happening due to Covid-19.
  • A paper on the nature of consciousness and how this can help us understand non-human minds.
  • A large-scale text analysis and interview project on values and goals in the field of artificial intelligence, including moral consideration of artificial entities, though that is not the primary focus.
  • A case study on the intellectual history of the moral consideration of artificial entities, particularly the notion of “robot rights.” This study considers how the academic field of study began and how it evolved into its present-day form, and draws lessons for the artificial sentience and other social movements.
  • We are collaborating with other institutions on a large-scale online experiment testing the effects of a range of different messaging strategies on promoting plant-based diets and more positive attitudes towards nonhuman animals.
  • We are researching and writing additional blog posts detailing issues on artificial sentience as a cause area, and hope after approximately 10 of these to culminate them in a “cause profile” in 2022 or 2023.

Outreach

  • We gave several talks, including on our paper "Extending Perspective Taking to Non-Human Groups" at University of Kent's Animal Advocacy Conference and on our upcoming paper on the psychological predictors of moral concern for artificial entities at the American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind, and Society Conference.
  • We gave several interviews, including in the documentary “A Climate For Change” and the podcast channels “Sentientism,” “Bold Conjectures,” and “Animalistic.”
  • We released four podcast episodes: two on farmed animal advocacy and two on longtermism, artificial sentience, and s-risks.
  • As in previous years, we had conversations with many stakeholders to share our research findings and advise them on specific strategic decisions.
  • We updated the Our Perspective page on our website with more detail on our approach of effective altruism and longtermism, the reasons we prioritize moral circle expansion, and our theory of change, which is shown below.


Note: Higher opacity indicates higher priorities.

2021 Spending

So far this year we’ve spent $109,825, broken down approximately as follows (88.9% research, 5.4% outreach, 5.6% admin):

Room for more funding

We are currently aiming to raise $90,000 this giving season (November 2021–January 2022) to continue our research on animal farming and to solidify our artificial sentience research program. Given that our current work lies at the intersection of multiple areas — animal farming, artificial intelligence, social change, longtermism — it is outside of the scope of many traditional funding systems. 2021 is a year of particular financial uncertainty for us, so we particularly appreciate your consideration this year.

If we raise our target amount, we plan to make an additional research hire. If we raise above this amount, we will consider hiring additional researchers, the annual cost of which is generally around $60,000 (including all costs, e.g., operations, taxes). We are highly funding-constrained. Our previous hiring round received 123 applications with 5–15 candidates we would have been thrilled to hire, but we only had funding for one at that time. We believe we can absorb funding of up to $240,000 this giving season with similar cost-effectiveness, concurrently hiring several researchers and taking advantage of time-sensitive opportunities for research on artificial sentience. This is a relatively conservative estimate, and we would be very open to a more ambitious plan if funding becomes available.

If you have questions, feedback, or would like to collaborate, please email me at ali@sentienceinstitute.org. If you would like to donate, you can do so from our website via PayPal or by check. Thank you for your consideration of our work.


  1. We conduct specific research projects that are “low-hanging fruit” in farmed animal research, such as case studies of social movements that have often been referred to in farmed animals strategy without in-depth study (e.g., Social Movement Lessons from the Fair Trade Movement) and experiments that have been suggested many times over the years but not yet run (e.g., The Effects of Animal-Free Food Technology Awareness on Animal Farming Opposition). ↩︎

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:29 AM

I've enjoyed reading your work occasionally throughout the year—interesting stuff.

As a general point, posts like this push back against the seeming increasingly popular narrative that EA isn't funding constrained right now. Or more specifically, this post speaks to the fact that we can have a load of money but not be distributing it adequately to all the small non-profits (like SI) that could make good use of it.

Thanks, Haven. Yes, it could be a distribution issue. As noted to Max, we get quite a bit of funding, but each hiring round SI receives a large pool of very strong researcher applicants, and we would love to hire more of them. Also, our approach isn't very well-established in the cause areas of either longtermism or animal advocacy, and it can be particularly challenging to fundraise at the intersection of cause areas (as noted by New Harvest here).

This Awesome! I'm a big fan of your work. There really aren't any other organizations like Sentience Institute, so it's a pity you're not getting more funding .

I'm curious about your reasoning for the greater focus specifically on artificial sentience? Does it seem like the right time now?

Thanks Max! We get a good amount of funding, but each hiring round we receive multiple very strong applicants (e.g., recently graduated PhDs in a very challenging academic job market who are vegetarian or care about MCE-ish issues and would love to unite their passion and their day job) that we would love to hire. We believe we can absorb additional funding to do so, but it can be challenging to fundraise since our work lies at the intersection of animal advocacy and longtermism, and there is also uncertainty with our increased focus on artificial sentience over the last year.

To your question on focusing more on artificial sentience, there are several reasons: when SI was founded in 2017 they didn't think they could get much funding if their focus was on artificial sentience; the farmed animal field, especially EAA and food technology, were in a period of a lot of uncertainty and growth, which seemed important to support; there were a lot of farmed animal research projects that were discussed but nobody was getting around to doing (e.g., social movement case studies, a nationally representative survey), and SI was well-positioned to do them; farmed animal research has taken off a lot since 2017 (e.g., ACE, Faunalytics, Rethink Priorities), and Utility Farm, Wild Animal Suffering Research, Animal Ethics, and now Wild Animal Initiative are doing great work building the field of welfare biology, but basically no organization had emerged to do field-building for artificial sentience, which SI seems well-positioned to do.

I've read some of the work from the historical case studies project and it seems like a project that has the potential to be extremely useful for anyone interested in movement building. I did a comparatively shallow dive into the Neoliberal movement a while ago and found it very useful for my own thinking about movement building and this project seems like it is of substantially better quality. 

In fact, I'm surprised no one started a project of reviewing historical movement-building cases until now.