Progress Open Thread: January 2021

by Aaron Gertler1 min read2nd Jan 20218 comments


Open Thread

The Progress Open Thread is a place to share good news, big or small.

See this post for an explanation of why we have these threads.

What goes in a progress thread comment? 

Think of this as an org update thread for individuals. You might talk about...

  • Securing a new job, internship, grant, or scholarship
  • Starting or making progress on a personal project
  • Helping someone else get involved in EA
  • Making a donation you feel really excited about
  • Taking the Giving What We Can pledge or signing up for Try Giving
  • Writing something you liked outside the Forum (whether it's a paper you've submitted to a journal or just an insightful Facebook comment)
  • Any of the above happening to someone else, if you think they'd be happy for you to share the news
  • Other EA-related progress in the world (disease eradication, cage-free laws, cool new research papers, etc.)
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Toby Ord contributed 7 pages to the latest UN Human Development Report. The material won't be new to anyone who's read The Precipice, but it's heartening to see this kind of thing matter-of-factly added to such a major document.

I like that Ord explicitly tied x-risk management to the concept of sustainability. I've noticed that sustainability is a longtermist concept because it considers the needs of future generations, but I don't think there's been much crosstalk between advocates of sustainability and EA-style longtermism.

At the end of each year, I like to check in on Future Crunch's annual "99 Good News Stories" post. I don't necessarily see every inclusion as good ("China's birthrate fell again!"), but they nicely aggregate a lot of global health and development stories.

Some of my favorite inclusions from this year (note: haven't closely filtered to detect possible exaggerations or cloudy data, would appreciate knowing if anything sounds fishy):

32. Africa announced this year that it is officially free from wild polio. 25 years ago the disease still paralyzed more than 75,000 children across the continent every year. Since then, billions of oral vaccines have been provided, preventing 1.8 million cases. It's one of the greatest healthcare success stories of all time, and an extraordinary human achievement. BBC

33. There was a major breakthrough in 2020 in the fight against AIDS. A new antiretroviral administered as an injection six times a year was shown to be 89% more effective at preventing HIV in women compared to standard ARVs, which are taken as a daily pill. "A major, major advance. I don’t think we can overemphasize its importance." NYT

36. The WHO also published its annual tuberculosis report this year, showing that between 2015 and 2019, global deaths fell by 14%. In fact, progress against TB puts malaria in the shade - since 2000, treatments have averted more than 60 million deaths. 

38. In 2020 we discovered that humanity is winning its fight against the second leading cause of disability in the world - elephantiasis, a horrible parasitic disease causing irreversible disfigurement. In the last 20 years, the number of annual infections has fallen by three quarters, from 199 million to 51.4 million, and last year three countries, Malawi, Kiribati and Yemen, eliminated it altogether. The Lancet

39. The proportion of the world's children under the age of five infected with hepatitis B has now dropped to just under 1%, down from 5% in the early 2000s. 85% of kids around the world are now getting all three doses of the HBV vaccine - and Gavi says it is on track to avert a further 1.2 million infection-related deaths between 2021 and 2035. WHO

43. New research this year showed that the risk of a person developing dementia in the US and Europe is now 13% lower than it was in 2010 (Alzheimer’s is falling too, by 16% per decade). Researchers think it's down to less smoking, better cardiovascular health, and better education. NYT

66. New research this year showed that during the 2000s and 2010s, the global Gini coefficient dropped by 15 points and the earnings share of the world's poorest half doubled. The reason this feels so surprising is that most of us hardly ever read journalism written by people from Asia, Africa and South America. Uppsala

71. A UNICEF report on the Swachh Bharat Mission, India's massive sanitation drive, showed that it has brought major benefits to poor households across the country. The average benefit per household was US$727 per year, mainly from health savings such as reduced diarrhoea incidence (55%) and savings from sanitation access time (45%).

72. Indonesia, the fourth most populated country in the world, reported a significant decline in its number of illiterate people, from 4.63% of the population in 2011 to 1.78% in 2019. That means that almost 8 million adults there have gained the ability to read and write in the last decade. Jakarta Post

74. The IEA's annual report contained a hidden nugget of very, very good news this year. The number of people without access to electricity dropped from 860 million to 770 million, a new record low. Africa has made particularly good progress; the number of people gaining access to electricity doubled from 9 million a year in 2013, to 20 million a year by 2019.

Caution - negative outlook!

The IEA's annual report on access to electricity highlights that the pandemic had a huge negative impact on progress, and raise concerns about the potential for recovery. Furthermore, if the relevant SDG policies would continue as they are then they predict about 62% of people in sub-saharan africa with electricity (today we are at 48%). They suggest that further $35 billion per year is needed to get global worldwide access to electricity by 2030.

Thanks for providing the additional context! Progress Thread or no, it's still useful to hear when we've gone off-track from a progress goal, or seen a trend get worse.

I started a new "What I believe" series on my Sunyshore blog about my ethical beliefs. The first post in the series is about why I believe total utilitarianism is closest to the correct ethical theory and its implications for society. I'm also working on a post about privacy and civil liberties. In the future, I might write a post for the "What I believe" series about effective altruism.

I've already gotten valuable feedback from members of the EA community who've critiqued my use of the Harsanyi original-position thought experiment. The goal of this post wasn't to present a bulletproof argument for utilitarianism but to explain my personal reasons for supporting it. Still, I appreciate all constructive feedback.

I like it, and look forward to see what you write on privacy (I'm feeling somewhat conflicted on this subject, and I'm curious as to how much gains we can have from privacy-preserving computation technologies). I want to encourage you to linkpost these to the forum! Is there a particular reason you aren't doing so?

Yeah, I didn't really linkpost this because I didn't think that a basic introduction to utilitarianism would fit in with the kinds of stuff that people usually post, which deals with philosophical topics at a more sophisticated level. But I can post it and the rest of the series!