Many readers will be familiar with Peter Singer’s Drowning Child experiment:
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond.
As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around.
The child is unable to keep her head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull her out, she seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for her, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work.
What should you do?
Olivia recently thought of a new version of the thought experiment.
As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, and they are around. There are also many lifeguards around.
At first, you breathe a sigh of relief. But then, you notice something strange: no one is moving. The child continues to drown.
The qualified experts don’t even seem to be noticing. You try to grab their attention—you scream at the lifeguards. But they don’t move.
You’ve never pulled a child out of the water. You’re not even sure you could save the child. Surely, this should be the responsibility of someone more capable than you.
But the lifeguards remain still.
What should you do?
People often ask us for advice as they consider next steps in their careers. Sometimes, we suggest ambitious things that go beyond someone’s default action space.
For example, we might ask Alice, a college junior, if she has considered trying to solve the alignment problem from first principles, found a new organization in an area unrelated to her major, or do community-building in a part of the world that she hasn’t visited.
Alice responds, Wait, why would I do that? There must be people way more qualified than me—isn’t this their responsibility?
The issue is not that Alice has decided against any of these options. Any of these options might be an awful fit. The issue is that she doesn’t seriously consider them. The issue is she has not given herself permission to seriously evaluate them. She assumes that someone else more qualified than her is going to do it.
In EA, that’s often just not the case. It’s good to check, of course. Sometimes, there are competent teams who are taking care of things.
But sometimes, there is not an imaginary team with years of experience that is coming to save us. There is just us. We either build the refuges, or they don’t get built. We either figure out how to align the AI, or we don’t.
Before jumping into the pond, you should be mindful of some caveats.
Sometimes, there are competent lifeguards. There are people more capable than you who will do the job.
Sometimes, there is a good reason why the lifeguards aren’t intervening. Maybe the child isn’t actually drowning. Or maybe jumping into the pond would make the child drown faster.
Sometimes, jumping in means other lifeguards are less likely to dive in. They might assume that you have the situation under control. They might not want to step on your toes.
Try to notice these situations. Be mindful of alternative hypotheses for why no one seems to be jumping in. And be on the lookout for ways to mitigate the downsides.
But sometimes, the child is drowning, and the lifeguards aren’t going to save them.
Either you will save them, or they will drown.