Inducement prizes are cash prizes awarded to people who accomplish a particular feat specified ahead of time. Inducement prizes offer advantages over traditional hiring practices since the prize is allocated according to a post-hoc evaluation of performance, rather than upfront to a specific worker. Here, I propose a specific model for a small inducement platform intended to facilitate the creation of high quality effective altruism research.
Inducement prizes have experienced a long history; accordingly, economics literature going back over a century has provided empirical evidence that inducement prizes can spur innovation more efficiently than hiring researchers or engineers directly in certain circumstances (for some examples see this paper and this one).
Many existing organizations, such as the X Prize Foundation, have enjoyed some success by facilitating the creation of large inducement prizes. However, most inducement prizes are not facilitated on content-specific platforms. Rather, companies, non-profits, governments, and rich individuals interested in creating inducement prizes generally go through their own media, such as for the Brain Preservation Technology Prize and the Methuselah Mouse Prize.
Facilitating your own inducement prize contest makes sense for large bounties, but I'm currently unaware of any specific platforms dedicated to the procurement of smaller prizes, such as those with sums less than $10,000.
The closest platform that I'm currently aware of is the private Facebook group Bountied Rationality. However, there are a number of problems I see with Bountied Rationality, which should provide some indication for how I think an alternative platform could be improved,
- The group visibility is set to private, which makes it harder to share research value created inside the group.
- The integrity of the group itself is held up by the personal trust of those within the rationalist/effective altruism community, rather than a market-driven model of reputation.
- There is no means of arbitrating disputes, and therefore there is no guarantee that people will be paid fairly for accomplishing the task as specified.
I still think that the group Bountied Rationality creates a lot of value. But the issues I've outlined above plausibly limit its ability to grow larger, and hamper its status as a reliable engine for producing outsourced insights and research.
My proposed alternative is a public, market-driven bounty system aimed at procuring small inducement prizes, targeted at the effective altruism community. Below, I'll list a specific set of features which I think could help the platform to thrive.
The first main difference between my model and the group Bountied Rationality is that content on the platform would be public. This feature makes the platform less suitable for personal requests, but more suitable for public research, such as inducing mathematics results, well-crafted bibliographies, well-sourced research summaries for a given topic, and in-depth investigations into potential interventions.
The Effective Altruist Forum, Lesswrong and Stackexchange already allow for something similar, in that they allow users to ask public questions, and the community answers are then curated via upvotes and downvotes. This model has been helpful to many, but in my experience, people are often hesitant to provide long-form and well-sourced answers to questions, probably due to the lack of strong incentives offered to those who give good answers.
Escrow and arbitration
The second main feature I propose is a requirement that people put their money in escrow, and that they must name someone as the arbitrator for the bounty. Escrow ensures that the bounty offerers cannot simply keep their money long after someone has already satisfied the conditions of the bounty (a problem with which I have personally been acquainted with).
The purpose of requiring people to name someone as an arbitrator serves a similar purpose as escrow. By naming a trusted third party to settle disputes, bounty offerors would be encouraged outline very specific conditions under which they want their bounty to be distributed. This incentive, and the fact that the offerors cannot simply unfairly refuse to pay, provides bounty hunters assurance that they will get paid if they perform the task successfully.
My own experience on Metaculus made me realize just how important it is for platforms to build solid mechanisms to build community trust. Even though people on Metaculus are not trading with real money, disputes can become agonizing and people can get angry when questions do not resolve in the way that they thought it would. As a result of these issues, Metaculus moderators and admins have become very careful in the way that they write questions, to ensure that questions are resolved unambiguously whenever possible.
One market-driven way of ensuring community trust is to openly allow users to bid to become arbitrators of particular bounties. In effect, the role of arbitrator could be something like a paid position: they would provide the services of trust and reliability, which could then flow through the platform, promising a fair environment for the bounty offerors and bounty hunters.
Targeted at the effective altruism community
My limited research suggests that some bounty-like services already exist. The most common bounty platforms are bug-bounty platforms, which at the moment far esclipse the size of the Facebook group Bountied Rationality.
However, even as some of these platforms exist -- and perhaps even one exists that uses the arbitration system I described above -- a large potential drawback comes from networking effects. If an EA tried to induce complex research using an existing platform, they would be unlikely to attract the people best suited to doing that research. As a result, an EA would be better off just trying to induce the research more informally, either by asking for people to collaborate with them in the community, or by hiring someone to perform the research directly.
My hope is that creating a platform that facilitates small-scale inducement prize contests would help solve this problem, better allowing EAs in need of research solutions to target people most likely to provide them.
I am pretty excited about the potential for this idea, but I am a bit concerned about the incentives it would create. For example, I'm not sure how much I would trust a bibliography, summary, or investigation produced via bounty. I would be worried about omissions that would conflict with the conclusions of the work, since it would be quite hard for even a paid arbitrator to check for such omissions without putting in a large amount of work. I think the reason this is not currently much of a concern is precisely because there is no external incentive to produce such works - as a result, you can pretty much assume that research on the Forum is done in good faith and is complete to the best of the author's ability.
Potential ways around this that come to mind:
Good ideas. I have a few more,
another incentive system/component I have seen is that forums will allow users not only to upvote but to give other incentives to good answers. stackoverflow has bounty, and reddit coins
I would find this useful. But:
- What is the likely market size for this platform?
- How much would it cost to develop? (Including escrow infrastructure?)
- What would the fees for use be / need to be to keep the platform afloat?
I'm not sure, but I just opened a Metaculus question about this, and we should begin getting forecasts within a few days.
I‘d also be really interested to see more attempts in this direction. I suspect that there are a many smaller research projects and people interested in working on such projects and this could being those together and result in interesting insights and learning opportunities.
Just in case you weren’t aware, LessWrong has tags on open and closed bounties that also might provide some interesting data: https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/bounties-closed https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/bounties-active
Somewhat related, and potentially relevant if someone sets this up:
I think I'm not super optimistic about this idea, mainly because it seems like it's somewhat common for coordination platforms to be built but then people don't actually coordinate to all start using them. But:
(This is related to the general point that if you try something and it fails, you can stop putting resources into it, but if it works you can continue putting resources in and getting value out for a while.)
I've drafted a post (which I'll publish in ~3 weeks) proposing "A central, editable database to help people choose and do research projects". This would have something similar as one of its components. But it's possible that what I propose is overly complicated and it would be better to do one or more components from it in a separate, simplified way (which could then look like your proposal). In any case, anyone interested in a longwinded draft without an MVP can check it out (and leave comments if they want) here :)
Thank you for this great post. In the past I have looked for such platforms and concepts, but was unaware of the term 'inducement prize' and did not find much.
Two extensions to the concept you presented could make it even more interesting, especially for the EA community. Firstly, rather than just requests being supplied to such a platform, offers to conduct e.g. research could be posted first by qualified researchers in order to gauge interest. Secondly, there is no reason why there couldn't be several parties/individuals who pay the bounty collectively. Essentially, this would be a "reverse kickstarter" use case, where payment is made after completion rather than in the beginning.
It seems that there a lot of potential projects in the community with distributed interest and willingness-to-pay : literature reviews, evaluations of possible cause areas, research into personal Covid-19 risks etc.