I hear two conflicting voices in my head, and in EA:
- Voice: it's highly uncertain whether deworming is effective, based on 20 years of research, randomized controlled trials, and lots of feedback. In fact, many development interventions have a small or negative impact.
- Same voice: we are confident that work for improving the far future is effective, based on <insert argument involving the number of stars in the universe>.
I believe that I could become convinced to work on artificial intelligence or extinction risk reduction. My main crux is that these problems seem intractable. I am worried that my work would have a negligible or a negative impact.
These questions are not sufficiently addressed yet, in my opinion. So far, I've seen mainly vague recommendations (e.g., "community building work does not increase risks" or "look at the success of nuclear disarmament"). Examples of existing work for improving the far future often feel very indirect (e.g., "build a tool to better estimate probabilities ⇒ make better decisions ⇒ facilitate better coordination ⇒ reduce the likelihood of conflict ⇒ prevent a global war ⇒ avoid extinction") and thus disconnected from actual benefits for humanity.
One could argue that uncertainty is not a problem, that it is negligible when considering the huge potential benefit of work for the far future. Moreover, impact is fat-tailed, and thus the expected value dominated by a few really impactful projects, and thus it's worth trying projects even if they have low success probability. This makes sense, but only if we can protect against large negative impacts. I doubt we really can — for example, a case can be made that even safety-focused AI researchers accelerate AI and thus increase its risks.
One could argue that community building or writing "what we owe the future" are concrete ways to do good for the future . Yet this seems to shift the problem rather than solve it. Consider a community builder who convinces 100 people to work on improving the far future. There are now 100 people doing work with uncertain, possibly-negative impact. The community builder's impact is some function which is similarly uncertain and possibly negative. This is especially true if is fat-tailed, as the impact will be dominated by the most successful (or most destructive) people.
To summarize: How can we reliably improve the far future, given that even near-termist work like deworming, with plenty of available data and research and rapid feedback loops and simple theories, so often fails? As someone who is eager to do spend my work time well, who thinks that our moral circle should include the future, but who does not know ways to reliably improve it... what should I do?