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Authors: Sam Holton, Misha Yagudin 

Data collection: David Mathers, Patricia Lim

Note: Arb Research was commissioned to produce this impact assessment by the AISC organizers.

[EDIT] Conflict of interest: Arb's directors, Misha and Gavin, are AISC alumni and have friends in the community. Sam's investigation was independent, but Misha, Gavin, and the current AISC organizers Linda and Remmelt were invited to comment on the report before publishing.

Summary

AI Safety Camp (AISC) connects people interested in AI safety (AIS) to a research mentor, forming project teams that last for a few weeks and go on to write up their findings. To assess the impact of AISC, we first consider how the organization might increase the productivity of the Safety field as a whole. Given its short duration and focus on introducing new people to AIS, we conclude that AISC’s largest contribution is in producing new AIS researchers that otherwise wouldn’t have joined the field. 

We gather survey data and track participants in order to estimate how many researchers AISC has produced, finding that 5–10% of participants plausibly become AIS researchers (see “Typical AIS researchers produced by AISC” for examples) that otherwise would not have joined the field. AISC spends roughly $12–30K per researcher. We could not find estimates for counterfactual researcher production in similar programs such as (SERI) MATS. However, we used the LTFF grants database to estimate that the cost of researcher upskilling in AI safety for 1 year is $53K. Even assuming all researchers with this amount of training become safety researchers that wouldn’t otherwise have joined the field, AISC still recruits new researchers at a similar or lower cost (though note that training programs at different stages of a career pipeline are complements).

We then consider the relevant counterfactuals for a nonprofit organization interested in supporting AIS researchers and tentatively conclude that funding the creation of new researchers in this way is slightly more impactful than funding a typical AIS project. However, this conclusion is highly dependent on one’s particular views about AI safety and could also change based on an assessment of the quality of researchers produced by AISC.

We also review what other impacts AISC has in terms of producing publications and helping participants get a position in AIS organizations.

Approach

To assess impact, we focus on AISC’s rate of net-new researcher production. We believe this is the largest contribution of the camp given their focus on introducing researchers to the field and given the short duration of projects. In the appendix, we justify this and explain why new researcher production is one of the most important contributions to the productivity of a research field. For completeness, we also attempt to quantify other impacts such as:

  1. Direct research outputs from AISC and follow-on research.
  2. Network effects leading to further AIS and non-AIS research.
  3. AISC leading to future positions.

AISC plausibly has several positive impacts that we were unable to measure, such as increasing researcher effort, increasing research productivity, and improving resource allocation. We are also unable to measure the quality of AIS research due to the difficulty of assessing such work. 

Data collected

We used 2 sources of data for this assessment:

  1. Survey. We surveyed AISC participants from all camps, receiving 24 responses (~10% of all participants). Questions aimed to determine the participants' AIS involvement before and after camp as well as identify areas for improvement. To ensure honest answers, we promised respondents that anecdotes would not be shared without their direct permission. Instead, we will summarize common lessons from these responses where possible. 
  2. Participant tracking. To counter response biases in survey data, we independently researched the career path of 101 participants from AISC 4-6, looking at involvement in AI safety research before and after camp. We further identified individuals who increased AIS research after attending camp and assessed whether those individuals would have succeeded without AISC.

Based on this data we:

  1. Estimate how many counterfactually-new researchers AISC produces
  2. Provide a glimpse into "typical researcher produced"
  3. Compare that to other opportunities to produce researchers (specifically, LTFF upskilling grants).
  4. Compare the value of producing a new researcher versus funding an existing project

Impact assessment: new researcher production

Assumptions

  1. We assume that more research in the field of AIS is good. This may not be true if AIS research is ineffective or if such research also increases AI risk.
  2. Relatedly, we assume that there are no negative effects of AISC on participants or the field as a whole.
  3. We assume that already-established researchers get no post-camp benefit.
  4. We assume conversion of new researchers is the most important effect.

Potential Issues

  1. AISC draws from people already interested in AIS, so researchers who appear to have a step-change in participation may not have needed AISC to break into AIS research in the first place.
  2. Survey bias: surveys tend to obtain both highly positive and highly negative responses
  3. Small sample size that makes most estimates noisy

Estimating the rate of new researcher production

To estimate the number of individuals that became AIS researchers after AISC, we examined the publication history of participants in AISC 4–6, looking for individuals who went from no publications before AISC to at least one publication after AISC (not including their AISC project or follow-on work from that project). 

We decided to limit our focus to these camps for two reasons; first, these camps were far enough in the past that we can observe participants' subsequent research in AIS, second, all three camps were run virtually, which should ideally reduce variance associated with camp location and organization.

In total, 21 / 101  (20.8%) studied individuals have post-AISC publications relating to AI/AIS while having none before camp. Optimistically, these individuals would not have had AIS publications if it were not for AISC.

To obtain a more conservative estimate, we looked more closely at these 21 individuals to filter out people with prior research experience in AI or related fields. Of these, we identified 8 / 101 (7.9%) individuals who plausibly changed their career trajectory towards AIS after attending AISC.

Turning to our survey, 4 of 24 respondents (16.7%) believed that AISC was pivotal in getting them to start work in alignment research, with 8 / 24 (33.3%) mentioning that AISC provided them with a nudge in that direction (but believed they were already headed towards safety research before starting AISC). Note that survey data can be biased towards extreme positive and negative responses. So the observed rate of researcher conversion in the survey is likely too high. If we take the conservative assumption that none of the non-respondents were converted into AIS due to AISC, we get a conversion rate of 4 / 249 (1.6%).  

Of all these estimates, the 7.9% figure seems like the most reasonable given the biases in survey data. Based on this, I estimate a 5–10% rate of conversion if AISC would be run as is (p=70%).

Dollar cost per new researcher produced by AISC

  • The organizers have proposed $60–300K per year in expenses. 
  • The number of non-RL participants of programs have increased from 32 (AISC4) to 130  (AISC9). Let’s assume roughly 100 participants in the program per year given the proposed size of new camps.
  • Researchers are produced at a rate of 5–10%.

Optimistic estimate: $60K / (10% * 100) = $6K per new researcher

Middle estimate 1: $60K / (5% * 100) = $12K per new researcher

Middle estimate 2: $300K / (10% * 100) = $30K per new researcher

Pessimistic estimate: $300K / (5% * 100) = $60K per new researcher

Typical AIS researchers produced by AISC

Looking at the 5 survey respondents who claimed that AISC was pivotal to their move to AIS, Gavin Leech (also co-founder of Arb research) is representative of a typical AIS researcher produced by AISC, he is currently a PhD in AI at the University of Bristol. The most impactful of these researchers appears to be Lucius Bushnaq, who currently works as a research scientist at the safety organization Apollo Research.

Looking at the 8 studied individuals who plausibly changed their career trajectory towards AIS after attending AISC, Fabien Roger, now at Redwood Research, seems to be representative of the caliber of new AIS researchers produced. On the high end, Alex Mallen, now at EleutherAI, appears to be the most impactful researcher that plausibly had a trajectory change due to AISC.

Several other participants have gone on to have successful careers in AI safety, but it is likely that AISC played a smaller part in their career trajectory. These include Rai (Michael) Pokorny who was a software engineer at Google before AISC and transitioned to the Superalignment team at OpenAI. 

Dollar cost per new researcher produced by other means

When considering other ways to create AIS researchers, we can think of individuals following a sequence of steps (graduate school, research projects, etc.) to increase their ability and experience in AIS. People start with little experience in AIS and develop skills to become an established researcher. At any stage of researcher development there are two ways to encourage people to continue further on the path: pull mechanisms and push mechanisms. 

Push mechanisms directly assist someone in completing a particular stage. This could be via education, financial support for upskilling, or assisting people with applications. On the other hand, pull mechanisms typically offer money or prizes to people who have completed a particular stage, which creates an incentive to complete that stage. For instance, offering high-paying positions to experienced AIS researchers creates an incentive to upskill in AIS research. Naturally, we would like to determine which approach is more cost effective at producing established AIS researchers.

We don’t have comparable data for programs like MATS that “push” new researchers into the field of AIS. However, one way to “pull” researchers into the field is by offering jobs in AIS positions. The annual salary for an AIS researcher ranges from $60K for a junior researcher working independently to $200–300K base salary for a member of technical staff at various private organizations to $1M if equity at OpenAI/Anthropic is priced-in. In net present value terms, the cost to pull a new researcher into AIS is much higher than the cost to push one via AISC. For government funding sources, the cost to support a graduate student is roughly $60K per year (NSF GRFP offers a total of $53K per year, universities often provide additional funding) and AIS projects are roughly $2 million per grant.

However most AIS research is funded by nonprofit entities. Assuming that the number of researchers is a bottleneck, what is the typical cost to “pull” a new researcher into AIS with non-profit grants such as LTFF? A rough calculation on the LTFF database suggests that it costs $80K per year to fund an AIS researcher. 

We can also examine the LTFF database for mention of researcher “upskilling”. The annualized average salary for grants that involve upskilling is $53K. Even making the optimistic assumption that every upskilling project creates a new AIS researcher that otherwise wouldn’t have succeeded, AISC’s cost per researcher compares favorably with this value.

Note that it is difficult to directly compare these estimates since they operate at different stages of researcher development. AISC typically operates earlier on the talent pipeline, while industry positions typically pull more experienced researchers into AIS positions.

Counterfactual analysis

Is a new researcher produced by AISC valuable relative to supporting existing projects? A organization considering funding AISC must choose between:

1. Funding an existing researcher for ~$80K for 1 year.

2. Funding the creation of a new AIS researcher for ~$40K.

In option 2, the new researcher then enters the pool of existing researchers, and may get support from academia, industry, or nonprofits. Alternatively, the funder that supported their transition to AIS also has the option of continuing to support their research. 

If the new researcher is able to obtain outside funding from government or industry, then the organization has essentially obtained all of their subsequent research for "free". If the organization chooses to directly support the new researcher, then the net value depends on how much better their project is than the next-most-valuable project. Essentially, this is the marginal value of new projects in AI safety research, which may be high or low depending on your view of the field.

Regardless, a funder wishing to support AIS research may not value the creation of new AIS researchers if the number of researchers is not a bottleneck for the field. In AIS, there are many open questions with no supported researchers working on them. This could indicate that there is either a bottleneck in the number of researchers or in the amount of funding in AI safety. If funding is the bottleneck then producing more researchers will not advance the field. More work is needed to distinguish these possibilities.

Other impacts of AISC

Research outputs from AISC and follow-on research 

Dozens of projects were completed at camp. Paraphrasing their funding case, AISC organizers note that alumni authored several important publications such as:

Goal Misgeneralization 

AI Governance and the Policymaking Process

Detecting Spiky Corruption in Markov Decision Processes

RL in Newcomblike Environments

Using soft maximin for risk averse multi-objective decision-making

Reflection Mechanisms as an Alignment Target

Participants have been hired for dozens of positions in AIS organizations. Quoting the same funding case considering participants across all camps, the organizers list the following jobs:

FHI (1 job+4 scholars+2 interns), GovAI (2 jobs), Cooperative AI (1 job), Center on Long-Term Risk (1 job), Future Society (1 job), FLI (1 job), MIRI (1 intern), CHAI (2 interns), DeepMind (1 job+2 interns), OpenAI (1 job), Anthropic (1 contract), Redwood (2 jobs), Conjecture (3 jobs), EleutherAI (1 job), Apart (1 job), Aligned AI (1 job), Leap Labs (1 founder, 1 job), Apollo (2 founders, 4 jobs), Arb (2 founders), AISS (2 founders), AISL (2+ founders), ACS (2 founders), ERO (1 founder), BlueDot (1 founder)”

Follow-on projects also gathered roughly $600K in outside grants with the median funded project receiving $20K in initial funding and some projects receiving over $100K. 

Survey respondents also note several post-camp projects with collaborators from AISC including: Apollo ResearchAI Safety Fundamentals, and AI Standards Lab. This last project is a direct result of work done during AISC.

Network effects producing further AIS and non-AIS research

AISC also introduced like-minded individuals to one another, leading to follow-on projects both within and outside of AIS. The median respondent has interacted with 5 members of AISC after camp, with several reporting 10–15 such interactions.

In terms of how many people a participant would feel comfortable reaching out to, the median respondent said 5, with several feeling comfortable contacting 10 or more people. 

Beyond the follow-on research noted in the last section, two respondents mention new collaborations in AIS that were unrelated to their AISC project, but with people they met through AISC.

AISC leading to future positions

While it’s not feasible to determine if a participant’s AISC project led to them obtaining a new position in AI/AIS, we can examine a related question: did participants believe their project was substantial enough to include on applications to new jobs? In other words, did they believe that AISC provided a boost to their applications?

In our survey, 14 of 20 (70%) of participants listed their work with AISC on subsequent applications. Two of these 14 believe that their work at AISC was crucial to receiving AIS grants and safety-related jobs.

Additionally, 30% of respondents believed AISC greatly helped their career:

Forms response chart. Question title: How valuable was AISC for your career? . Number of responses: 23 responses. 

5= Greatly helped my career, 1=Not valuable at all

Other data

Fraction that pursue AIS

Of the respondents, 17 / 24 (70.8%) work in AIS or have side projects in AIS.

Forms response chart. Question title: Is your current work and/or side-projects related to AI safety?. Number of responses: 24 responses.

Looking at participants from camps 4-6, 67/101 (66.3%) have some sort of written work related to AI or AI safety (including posts on LessWrong), and of these, 48/101 (48.5%) have some publication in AI or AIS.

  • 8 surveyed were beginning their transition into AIS before camp, using camp to assist that transition. 
  • 1 surveyed left AIS for various reasons while 1 is still aspiring to work on AIS

In-camp experiences: summary of positive and negative experienceForms response chart. Question title: How valuable was AISC for developing research relevant skills and understanding AI safety?. Number of responses: 23 responses.

5= Greatly helped my research skills, 1=Not valuable at all

Looking at the written responses, people generally had a positive experience of camp, appreciating the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals and have the support needed to start on an AIS project. Very few reported negative experiences from camp and these involved frustrations with project success and team organization.

Conclusion

Our all-things-considered assessment

Overall I (Sam) was surprised by the number of researchers who owed their position in AIS research to AISC. My expectation was that virtually all participants would be on a path to AIS without AISC and that evidence of a true trajectory change would be hard to find. However, there are several clear examples of individuals who changed their career trajectory towards AIS after camp and on surveys several respondents claim that this was directly because of AISC.

Programs like AISC and MATS have the effect of “pushing” new researchers into AIS which can be contrasted with programs like corporate, government, and nonprofit roles that “pull” new researchers in by offering funding. In other words, “push” programs tend to support potential researchers by providing them the training and experience to take on roles in AIS research while “pull” programs create a financial incentive for people to take on these roles. These approaches are complementary. The effectiveness of spending on these “push” programs depends on who bears the subsequent costs of supporting a new AIS researcher. If a researcher produced by AISC is able to draw subsequent funding from the government or industry for their work, their subsequent research has been obtained for “free” since an organization only needs to pay the startup cost for creating that researcher. 

However, if their subsequent funding comes from the same organization that activated them, then the organization must trade off between funding new researchers and funding more projects from established researchers. If an organization is funding constrained, it may be better to focus funds on established researchers. If an organization has much more funding than promising projects, producing new researchers may be more valuable. 

Note that it’s difficult to assess the quality of the marginal AIS research produced by these new researchers and this is compounded by the difficulty of assessing the value of a given work in AIS more generally.

I (Sam) would guess that producing more AIS researchers is more valuable to the field than giving more funding to established researchers, especially given the fact that new researchers can help with existing projects and can draw outside support to the field via corporate or government support for their research. The fact that creating a new researcher via AISC is comparable or smaller than the cost of an established researcher’s annual salary, suggests that AISC is an effective way to boost AIS research. 

 Areas for further research

  1. Direct assessment of the quality of research produced at AISC
  2. Assessment of research quality post-AISC
  3. Better comparison to similar training programs like MATS. What counterfactual benefit does MATS provide for producing AIS researchers? At what cost?
  4. Learning why some participants didn’t transition into AIS. Did they lack interest? Did they miss a critical funding source? What could have been done better?

Appendix: Details on our approach

A model for the productivity of a research field

Simple models of economic growth break innovation down into several inputs such as the number of researchers, the stock of ideas, and human capital. These models allow us to account for different sources of economic growth and suggest policies to boost growth.

Conceptually, these models of innovation can apply equally well to a single field and suggest a simple heuristic for that field’s productivity: 

Field productivity = (number of researchers) x (researcher effort) x (researcher productivity) x (researcher allocation)

Number of Researchers is relatively straightforward, referring to the total number of individuals capable of participating in the field. Researcher effort is analogous to research intensity and accounts for things like the number of hours worked per week. Researcher productivity refers to the quality of work produced by a researcher in a unit of time, one could imagine that training and research experience contribute significantly to this factor. Researcher allocation refers to how effectively researchers are assigned to projects, having good signals of researcher skill and ensuring that available researchers have an assigned project would help lower misallocation. It’s usually a factor that ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 denoting a perfect allocation of resources.

Crucially, note that only the number of researchers can increase without limit. There’s a finite number of working hours each day, a maximum level of productivity, and the allocation factor reaches 1 in the best-case. This is analogous to growth models, where Chad Jones notes:

“Many of the sources of growth that have been operating historically—including rising educational attainment, rising research intensity, and declining misallocation—are inherently limited and cannot go on forever. The key source of sustained growth in the semi-endogenous setting is population growth.”

AISC’s impacts on the productivity of the AI Safety field

Programs like AISC can plausibly have an impact on all of these factors:

  • It can increase the number of researchers by giving people the training and background to do safety research.
  • It can increase researcher effort by providing the inspiration and community to work more hours per day. AISC temporarily increases working hours in AIS for the duration of the program.
  • It can boost researcher productivity by training students in effective research habits.
  • It can improve researcher allocation by providing subsequent funders with a signal of researcher quality and effectively allocates new researchers to projects.

The relative value of these different contributions depends on how the camp is designed. Given the short duration of AISC, it probably can’t change researcher effort, productivity, or allocation in the long term. These factors are also very difficult to measure, and will have to be ignored for the rest of this assessment.

However, AISC probably does have influence on the total number of AIS researchers, helping people break into the field. This “0 to 1” effect of creating/bringing new researchers is likely the largest impact of AISC.  

As noted above, the other factors are bounded in size, meaning that raising the total number of researchers is one of the most important contributions to long-term productivity. For these reasons, we will focus on estimating the number of new AIS researchers AISC produces per unit of input. 

AISC’s other impacts on AIS

For completeness, AISC also has other direct impacts on the AIS field such as:

  1. Direct research outputs from AISC and follow-on research.
  2. Network effects leading to further AIS and non-AIS research.
  3. Network effects leading to future positions.

We also attempt to quantify these impacts.

Note on the difficulty of assessing research quality

Assessing the value of a particular research work in AI Safety is very challenging. The alignment problem itself may not be solvable and even then, it’s often not clear how much a particular work contributes to safety versus AI capabilities. For these reasons, we will avoid direct assessments of the quality of research produced during or after AISC, focusing instead on simpler (though flawed) metrics such as number of publications.

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Thanks for publishing this, Arb! I have some thoughts, mostly pertaining to MATS:

  1. MATS believes a large part of our impact comes via accelerating researchers who might still enter AI safety, but would otherwise take significantly longer to spin up as competent researchers, rather than converting people into AIS researchers. MATS highly recommends that applicants have already completed AI Safety Fundamentals and most of our applicants come from personal recommendations or AISF alumni (though we are considering better targeted advertising to professional engineers and established academics). Here is a simplified model of the AI safety technical research pipeline as we see it.

    Why do we emphasize acceleration over conversion? Because we think that producing a researcher takes a long time (with a high drop-out rate), often requires apprenticeship (including illegible knowledge transfer) with a scarce group of mentors (with high barrier to entry), and benefits substantially from factors such as community support and curriculum. Additionally, MATS' acceptance rate is ~15% and many rejected applicants are very proficient researchers or engineers, including some with AI safety research experience, who can't find better options (e.g., independent research is worse for them). MATS scholars with prior AI safety research experience generally believe the program was significantly better than their counterfactual options, or was critical for finding collaborators or co-founders (alumni impact analysis forthcoming). So, the appropriate counterfactual for MATS and similar programs seems to be, "Junior researchers apply for funding and move to a research hub, hoping that a mentor responds to their emails, while orgs still struggle to scale even with extra cash."
  2. The "push vs. pull" model seems to neglect that e.g. many MATS scholars had highly paid roles in industry (or de facto offers given their qualifications) and chose to accept stipends at $30-50/h because working on AI safety is intrinsically a "pull" for a subset of talent and there were no better options. Additionally, MATS stipends are basically equivalent to LTFF funding; scholars are effectively self-employed as independent researchers, albeit with mentorship, operations, research management, and community support. Also, 63% of past MATS scholars have applied for funding immediately post-program as independent researchers for 4+ months as part of our extension program (many others go back to finish their PhDs or are hired) and 85% of those have been funded. I would guess that the median MATS scholar is slightly above the level of the median LTFF grantee from 2022 in terms of research impact, particularly given the boost they give to a mentor's research.
  3. Comparing the cost of funding marginal good independent researchers ($80k/year) to the cost of producing a good new researcher ($40k) seems like a false equivalence if you can't have one without the other. I believe the most taut constraint on producing more AIS researchers is generally training/mentorship, not money. Even wizard software engineers generally need an on-ramp for a field as pre-paradigmatic and illegible as AI safety. If all MATS' money instead went to the LTFF to support further independent researchers, I believe that substantially less impact would be generated. Many LTFF-funded researchers have enrolled in MATS! Caveat: you could probably hire e.g. Terry Tao for some amount of money, but this would likely be very large. Side note: independent researchers are likely cheaper than scholars in managed research programs or employees at AIS orgs because the latter two have overhead costs that benefit researcher output.
  4. Some of the researchers who passed through AISC later did MATS. Similarly, several researchers who did MLAB or REMIX later did MATS. It's often hard to appropriately attribute Shapley value to elements of the pipeline, so I recommend assessing orgs addressing different components of the pipeline by how well they achieve their role, and distributing funds between elements of the pipeline based on how much each is constraining the flow of new talent to later sections (anchored by elasticity to funding). For example, I believe that MATS and AISC should be assessed by their effectiveness (including cost, speedup, and mentor time) at converting "informed talent" (i.e., understands the scope of the problem) into "empowered talent" (i.e., can iterate on solutions and attract funding/get hired). This said, MATS aims to improve our advertising towards established academics and software engineers, which might bypass the pipeline in the diagram above. Side note: I believe that converting "unknown talent" into "informed talent" is generally much cheaper than converting "informed talent" into "empowered talent."
  5. Several MATS mentors (e.g., Neel Nanda) credit the program for helping them develop as research leads. Similarly, several MATS alumni have credited AISC (and SPAR) for helping them develop as research leads, similar to the way some Postdocs or PhDs take on supervisory roles on the way to Professorship. I believe the "carrying capacity" of the AI safety research field is largely bottlenecked on good research leads (i.e., who can scope and lead useful AIS research projects), especially given how many competent software engineers are flooding into AIS. It seems a mistake not to account for this source of impact in this review.

Thanks for writing this, its great to hear your thoughts on talent pipelines in AIS.

I agree with your model of AISC, MATS and your diagram of talent pipelines. I generally see MATS as a "next step" after AISC for many participants. Because of that, its true that we can't cleanly compare the cost-per-researcher-produced between programs at different points in the pipeline since they are complements rather than substitutes. 

A funder would have to consider how to distribute funding between these options (e.g. conversion vs. acceleration) and that's something I'm hoping to model mathematically at some point. 

I believe the "carrying capacity" of the AI safety research field is largely bottlenecked on good research leads (i.e., who can scope and lead useful AIS research projects), especially given how many competent software engineers are flooding into AIS. It seems a mistake not to account for this source of impact in this review.

Good idea, this could be a valuable follow-up analysis. To give this a proper treatment, we would need a model for how students and mentors interact to (say) produce more research and estimate how much they compliment each other. 

In general, we assumed that impacts were negligible if we couldn't model or measure them well in order to get a more conservative estimate. But hopefully we can build the capacity to consider these things!

Thanks for this comment. To me this highlights how AISC is very much not like MATS. We're very different programs doing very different things. MATS and AISC are both AI safety upskilling programs, but we are using different resources to help different people with different aspects of their journey. 

I can't say where AISC falls in the talent pipeline model, because that's not how the world actually work. 

AISC participants have obviously heard about AI safety, since they would not have found us otherwise. But other than that, people are all over the place in where they are on their journey, and that's ok. This is actually more a help than a hindrance for AISC projects. Some people have participate in more than one AISC. One of last years research leads are a participants in one of this years projects. This don't mean they are moving backwards in their journey, this is them lending their expertise to a project that could use it.

So, the appropriate counterfactual for MATS and similar programs seems to be, "Junior researchers apply for funding and move to a research hub, hoping that a mentor responds to their emails, while orgs still struggle to scale even with extra cash."

This seems correct to me for MATS, and even if I disagreed you should trust Ryan over me. However this is very much not a correct counterfactual for AISC.

If all MATS' money instead went to the LTFF to support further independent researchers, I believe that substantially less impact would be generated. 

This seems correct. I don't know exactly the cost of MATS, but assuming the majority of the cost is stipends, then giving this money to MATS scrollas with all the MATS support seems just straight up better, even with some overhead cost for the organisers.

I'm less sure about how MATS compare to funding researchers in lower cost locations than SF Bay and London. 

I believe the most taut constraint on producing more AIS researchers is generally training/mentorship, not money.

I'm not so sure about this, but if true then this is an argument for funnelling more money to both MATS and AISC and other upskilling programs. 

Some of the researchers who passed through AISC later did MATS. Similarly, several researchers who did MLAB or REMIX later did MATS. It's often hard to appropriately attribute Shapley value to elements of the pipeline, so I recommend assessing orgs addressing different components of the pipeline by how well they achieve their role, and distributing funds between elements of the pipeline based on how much each is constraining the flow of new talent to later sections (anchored by elasticity to funding). For example, I believe that MATS and AISC should be assessed by their effectiveness (including cost, speedup, and mentor time) at converting "informed talent" (i.e., understands the scope of the problem) into "empowered talent" (i.e., can iterate on solutions and attract funding/get hired). 

I agree that it's hard to attribute value when someone done more than one program. They way we asked Arb to adress this is by just asking people. This will be in their second report. I also don't know the result of this yet.

I don't think programs should be evaluated based on how well they achieve their role in the pipeline, since I reject this framework.

This said, MATS aims to advertise better towards established academics and software engineers, which might bypass the pipeline in the diagram above. Side note: I believe that converting "unknown talent" into "informed talent" is generally much cheaper than converting "informed talent" into "empowered talent."

We already have some established academics and software engineers joining AISC. Being a part-time online program is very helfull for being able to include people who have jobs, but would like to try out some AI safety research on the side. This is one of several ways AISC is complementary to MATS, and not a competitor. 

Several MATS mentors (e.g., Neel Nanda) credit the program for helping them develop as research leads. Similarly, several MATS alumni have credited AISC (and SPAR) for helping them develop as research leads, similar to the way some Postdocs or PhDs take on supervisory roles on the way to Professorship. I believe the "carrying capacity" of the AI safety research field is largely bottlenecked on good research leads (i.e., who can scope and lead useful AIS research projects), especially given how many competent software engineers are flooding into AIS. It seems a mistake not to account for this source of impact in this review.

Thanks. This is something I'm very proud of as an organiser. Although I was not an organiser the year Neal Nanda was a mentor, I've heard this type of feedback from several of the research leads from the last cohort.

This is another way AISC is not like MATS. AISC has a much lower bar for research leads than MATS has for their mentors, which has several down stream effects on how we organise our programs.

MATS has very few, well known, top talent mentors. This means that for them, the time of the mentors is a very limited resource, and everything else is organised around this constraint.

AISC has a lower bar for our research leads, which means we have many more of them, letting up run a much bigger program. This is how AISC is so scalable. On the other hand we have some research leads learning-by-doing, along with everyone else, which creates some potential problems. AISC is structured around addressing this, and it seem to be working.

I don't like this funnel model, or any other funnel model I've seen. It's not wrong exactly, but it misses so much, that it's often more harmfull than helpful. 

For example:

  • If you actually talk to people their story is not this linear, and that is important. 
  • The picture make it looks like AISC, MATS, etc are interchangeable, or just different quality versions of the same thing. This is very far from the truth. 

I don't have a nice looking replacement for the funnel. If had a nice clean model like this, it would probably be as bad. The real world is just very messy.

This is insightful, thanks!

In my view the basic problem with this analysis is you probably can't lump all the camps together as one thing and evaluate them together as one entity. Format, structure, leadership and participants seem to have been very different.

Yes, we were particularly concerned with the fact that earlier camps were in-person and likely had a stronger selection bias for people interested in AIS (due to AI/AIS being more niche at the time) as well as a geographic selection bias. That's why I have more trust in the participant tracking data for camps 4-6 which were more recent, virtual and had a more consistent format. 

Since AISC 8 is so big, it will be interesting to re-do this analysis with a single group under the same format and degree of selection.

When producing the main estimates, Sam already uses just the virtual camps, for this reason. Could emphasise more that this probably doesn't generalise.

The key thing about AISC for me was probably the "hero licence" (social encouragement, uncertainty reduction) the camp gave me. I imagine this specific impact works 20x better in person. I don't know how many attendees need any such thing (in my cohort, maybe 25%) or what impact adjustment to give this type of attendee (probably a discount, since independence and conviction is so valuable in a lot of research).

Another wrinkle is the huge difference in acceptance rates between programmes. IIRC the admission rate for AISC 2018 was 80% (only possible because of the era's heavy self-selection for serious people, as Sam notes). IIRC, 2023 MATS is down around ~3%. Rejections have some cost for applicants, mostly borne by the highly uncertain ones who feel they need licencing. So this is another way AISC and MATS aren't doing the same thing, and so I wouldn't directly compare them (without noting this). Someone should be there to catch ~80% of seriously interested people. So, despite appearances, AGISF is a better comparison for AISC on this axis.

Another data point: I got my start in alignment through the AISC. I had just left my job, so I spent 4 months skilling up and working hard on my AISC project. I started hanging out on EleutherAI because my mentors spent a lot of time there. This led me to do AGISF in parallel.

After those 4 months, I attended MATS 2.0 and 2.1. I've been doing independent research for ~1 year and have about 8.5 more months of funding left.

I did not know this. Thank you for sharing all the details!

It's interesting to read about the paths you went through:
 AISC --> EleutherAI --> AGISF
             --> MATS 2.0 and 2.1
              --> Independent research grant

I'll add it as an individual anecdote to our sheet.

This was very informative, thanks for sharing. Here is a cost-effectiveness model of many different AI safety field-building programs. If you spend more time on this, I'd be curious how AISC stacks up against these interventions, and your thoughts on the model more broadly. 

Thank you for the pointer! I hadn't seen this before and it looks like there's a lot of interesting thinking on how to study AI safety field building. I appreciate having more cost-effectiveness estimates to compare to.

I haven't given it a full read, but it seems like the quality-adjusted researcher year is very similar to the metric I'm proposing here.

To do a comparison between our estimates, lets assume a new AIS researcher does 10 years of quality adjusted, time-discounted AIS research (note that timelines become pretty important here) then we get:

(10 QARY's/researcher) / ($30K/researcher) = 3.33E-4 QURY's per dollar = 333 QURY's per $1M

That seems similar to the CAIS estimates for MLSS, so it seems like these approaches have pretty comparable results!

In the future I'm also interested in modelling how to distribute funding optimally in talent pipelines like these.

I think 333 QARYs/$1m via the CAIS framework is significantly too optimistic, for two reasons:

  1. The CAIS framework would probably make several adjustments downwards that you have not considered here, in particular for scientist-equivalence (where research engineers are valued at 0.1x research scientists).
  2. At the 20% time discount rate that CAIS uses for default estimates, 10 years of time-discounted research is implausible (the infinite geometric sum of time-discounted years is equal to 5 non-discounted years).

Thanks for the clarification, a 20% changes things a lot, I'll have to read into why they chose that.

Let's try to update it. I'm not sure how to categorize different roles into scientists vs engineers, but eyeballing the list of positions AISC participants got, assume half become scientists and disregard the contributions of research engineers. With a 20% discount rate,  10 years of work in a row is more like 4.5. so we get:

333 * 0.45 / 2= ~75 QARY's / $1M

The real number would be lower since AISC focuses on new researchers who have a delay in their time to entering the field, e.g. a 3 year delay would halve this value. 

Thanks for doing this and publicly posting the results! I was surprised / impressed by the number of graduates who got jobs at relevant organizations.

How much did this impact assessment cost to commission? Are you open to others reaching out to commission similar assessments?

(Feel free to DM your responses if you prefer, though I expect others might benefit from this info too)

Yes we're definitely interested in doing more work along these lines! Personally, I think there are returns-to-scale to doing these kinds of assessments across similar programs since we can compare across programs and draw more general lessons.

Probably the best way for people to contact us in general is to email us at hi@arbresearch.com. Misha and I can have a few meetings with you to determine if/how we can help.

I'm going to refrain from giving you a cost estimate since it's not really my department and depends pretty heavily on how many participants you have, the kinds of things you want to measure, etc. But we have flexibility and work with orgs of all budgets/sizes.

For transparency, we organisers paid $10K to Arb to do the impact evaluation, using separate funding we were able to source.

If the organization chooses to directly support the new researcher, then the net value depends on how much better their project is than the next-most-valuable project.

This is nit-picky, but if the new researcher proposes, say, the best project the org could support, it does not necessarily mean the org cannot support the second-best project (the "next-most-valuable project"), but it might mean that the sixth-best project becomes the seventh-best project, which the org then cannot support. 

In general, adding a new project to the pool of projects does not trade off with the next-best project, it pushes out the nth-best project, which would have received support but now does not meet the funding bar. So the marginal value of adding projects that receive support depends on the quality of the projects around the funding bar.

Another way you could think about this is that the net value of the researcher depends on how much better this bundle of projects is than the next-most-valuable bundle.

Essentially, this is the marginal value of new projects in AI safety research, which may be high or low depending on your view of the field.

So I still agree with this next sentence if marginal = the funding margin, i.e., the marginal project is one that is right on the funding bar. Not if marginal = producing a new researcher, who might be way above the funding bar.

I completely agree! The definition of marginal is somewhat ambiguous the way I've written it. What I mean to say is that the marginal project is the one that is close to the funding bar, like you pointed out.

Thanks for writing this up and sharing. I strongly appreciate the external research evaluation initiative and was generally impressed with the apparent counterfactual impact.