Summary: One year ago, I started the Facebook group Wild Animal Welfare Project Discussion to coordinate R&D projects in the network of wild animal suffering reducers in effective altruism, and as part of a broader project of figuring out how to coordinate and develop causes within effective altruism. This is a strategic review of what the group has accomplished so far, and how this informs its next goals, as well as its implications for my broader model of network coordination in effective altruism.
What I've been doing with the group since its inception is running a project to see how possible it is to develop a cause with minor representation in effective altruism to the point it is as tractable as popular causes in the movement by increasing the coordination value of its network. This was based on my experience being a long-time community member who had witnessed the development of AI safety/alignment as a focus area, and expecting similar trends for other focus areas in EA could be deliberately accelerated. That is, in hindsight, we can take lessons from the build-up of other EA focus areas, and reproduce similar effects on new causes with tighter feedback loops, on a shorter timescale. Ideally, the level of development AI alignment achieved in a decade or two, other causes could achieve in as short a time as year or two. If that timeline sounds overly ambitious, it is also because it would take for granted advantages nascent causes in EA have now AI alignment didn't have in 1998 or 2008, such as the infrastructure and access to resources the EA movement has now. I started with a template for how this could be done with several causes, but I started with reducing wild animal suffering (RWAS) and biosecurity as two causes with relatively well-developed networks in EA I knew well.
So the product of the group is two-fold. The objective is to optimize the internal development of RWAS and welfare biology as focus areas, but the practical lessons we learn from how to do so will be integrated into a general theory for network development within EA so as to improve it. The first step was to produce a common core of knowledge so regardless of specialization coming into the cause, people can modulate how they do what they do to fit the needs of intellectual development. This is the beginning of what I see as an assembly line for cause build-up.
The first cause I tried it out with was RWAS in this group. I thought it'd take off for other causes just as fast, but I took for granted RWAS professionals (e.g., at Animal Ethics and Wild Animal Suffering Research) had spent the last few years improving the effectiveness of the RWAS network so everyone could coordinate knowledge production faster. Producing a 10-page document itself composed of links to other research so fast is remarkable. No other focus area in EA has done this. Its these local variations among causes in their effectiveness at different types of tasks which I didn't take into account. Learning from them will allow effective altruists to trade tips across focus areas for how to better coordinate and organize their networks.
While the document as produced can serve as a RWAS research archive, making a rubric for getting someone optimally up to speed on a focus area or cause is something which exists in the LessWrong Sequences and other knowledge canons out of AI safety/alignment which I think we have enough info to get out of RWAS. I think it isn't only about producing knowledge but organizing it right. The goal is to arrange the knowledge such that how any of us have come to understand RWAS in full so far over the last several years in a random manner could be systematized so an effective altruist fresh to the cause would come to know it as fast as they could read it. I estimate there are ~200 pieces, including blog posts, popular articles, and academic publications, on the topic of RWAS. I haven't had time to look at or organize them all yet. Based on the importance of a single conversational locus, a final version will be published in one or more official online information hubs, such as the Effective Altruism Forum.
However, the archive as it exists now is sufficient for reading groups, which members of Wild Animal Welfare Project Discussion are eager to start. Keeping the common core of knowledge as high-fidelity as conceivable before taking next steps seems imperative for a focus area like existential risk reduction. I also want to capitalize on the eagerness for important consciousness-raising for RWAS and welfare biology as causes, which could be spun into potentially more networking value focused on meetups and events on RWAS at EA Global this June.
Disseminating a common core of knowledge (read: "getting everyone on the same page regarding the state of RWAS") is a valuable initial step. However, since RWAS was almost done the first stage of network coordination as I mapped it out and reached out to the RWAS network, we can skip it and create more value by jumping to stages 2 and 3.
- Community-Building. Publish this knowledge base to gain public input and inform and educate others about the problem(s) you’re trying to solve. From here, create a community with common knowledge and concern to transform the effort into an intellectual community on which progress towards solutions can begin. Historically, for AI alignment Less Wrong has served this purpose. For more on this, I recommend reading the post On the importance of Less Wrong, or another single conversation locus by Anna Salamon, in full. Other examples of this can be spotted in effective altruism. Effective animal advocacy as a cause has been able to develop relatively quickly for a young social movement, with effective altruism being preceded by the modern animal rights movement, with public exposure leading to the development and growth of the movement, and its ideas, largely due to publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer in 1970. For the effective altruism movement itself, Doing Good Better by William MacAskill; The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer; and the Effective Altruism Handbook are recent examples of creating common knowledge from a set of ideas while simultaneously building a movement around them. The growth and development of an intellectual community/field seems like it can be organized and accelerated given control over an online platform to track and steer growth.
The example of Less Wrong stands out to me as being able to bootstrap a set of important ideas which had support of a relatively small group of people to a worldwide network in only a few years. Pairing local organization with online coordination has worked well for effective altruism and existential risk reduction. It’s my experience various causes and communities adjacent to effective altruism have benefited from doing the same. Using social media like Facebook has served this function well for more purely social movements. A highly intellectual movement like EA or x-risk reduction seems to have strongly benefited from having control over an online platform with features social media lacks, and which promotes higher-quality discourse and epistemics. This is similar to the role peer-reviewed journals play in science.
- Project & Resource Mobilization. After a significant period of time, seeding decentralized organization can create multiple nodes in a network which autonomously specialize and advance the growth and development of a field. This specialization of labour is present in AI alignment: organizations like MIRI do technical research in the Bay Area where they can build bridges with AI researchers while, because of their connection to universities at Cambridge, FHI has a greater focus on AI policy. Likewise for EA movement, the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) has set up offices at the heart of the EA movement in the San Francisco Bay Area for movement growth purposes, while maintaining an office for research at the University of Oxford as well. The absolute level of global growth of a field will generate an effective network which can pool resources and begin long-term strategizing and the pursuit of larger collective goals.
What makes fields of interest to effective altruism different than other intellectual movements is its internal community and economy spanning the globe. Research organizations have benefited from a common pool of resources that is effective altruism as a social movement, receiving millions of dollars from thousands of individuals; having a constant source of potential candidates for an organization; and a vocal and eager supporter base. Unlike other fields of research, e.g., in the social sciences, EA organizations primarily rely on charitable donation from an association of private individuals, as opposed to similar research typically being sponsored by a large corporation, a university or government department. Large foundations like the Open Philanthropy Project have a major influence over the EA community as a whole, but otherwise EA organizations have access to more grassroots support for non-profit efforts trying to approximate something like academic research in the private sphere. This means EA organizations which do work similar to think tanks mobilize resources more like a charitable or social movement organization.
So while I think reading groups work well, from within the RWAS network and effective altruism there is potential to organize volunteer working groups which would be integrated with both WASR's and AE's new volunteer research assistance program. Ideally we'd create through a combo of professional organizations and a grassroots network a hivemind which could coordinate and achieve goals like seeding welfare biology as an academic field in earnest with greater efficiency than any of us expected. What kind of meetups among effective altruists around the world would best serve the current goals of RWAS will be the subject of upcoming discussion. Suffice to say I'd like to see them coordinated around the world before EA Global, since by then wild animal suffering reducers attending EA Global will have a greater awareness of what resources are available in their local EA groups/communities for the purposes of the global coordination of the RWAS network.
Towards a Unified Volunteer Organization System
I was thinking of how to square the needs of the RWAS network at different levels of specialization with the necessity of a common organizational system. I realized the LessWrong Sequences functioned for AI safety/alignment as a complete model of the domain, but for expedience of getting involved in the focus area it has only ever been absolutely necessary to read a subset of them. The corollary for RWAS literature archive is to parcel it into distinct modules which in total provide the full breadth of domain knowledge, but which can be consumed individually such that someone will be sufficiently knowledgeable to complete given task(s) as effectively as possible.
Part of this tactical shift was inspired by a conversation I had with Carl Shulman. Namely that while reading groups and likewise meetups among rationalists and effective altruists were sufficient to achieve necessary awareness-raising and coalition-building to develop AI safety/alignment as a field, a lot of effort was unnecessarily wasted. While it was fine without hindsight to not be as efficient then, learning from the collective memory of effective altruism and other movements impels me to adapt the model I’ve generated to be more efficient. I'm combining this recognition with the fact while as causes welfare biology and RWAS would benefit from more basic developments, RWAS organizations at present would most benefit from more volunteers. Thus the reading modules will be set up such that anyone who wanted to would become prepared to be as effective a RWAS volunteer as they could be in as short as time as possible, and transition sequential reading meetups focused on RWAS into volunteer working groups.
There will be a few basic modules which will cover the fundamentals of RWAS from different perspectives (e.g., philosophy, biology, effective altruism, etc.). Past that, I'll prioritize organizing modules so that those who read them will be, more or less, ideal volunteers for a given project. For example, each of Wild Animal Suffering Research’s researchers are pursuing individual research agendas which, across the three of them, cover the main types of problems in seeding welfare biology as a field which can be addressed by existing empirical research. So after learning the basics of RWAS, another module would familiarize someone with Wild Animal Suffering Research’s (WASR) approach, and one of three final modules would catch the reader up to speed with each of the research veins WASR researchers are respectively pursuing. For Animal Ethics, a module to develop specialized volunteers for the organization might be themed on learning to see welfare biology as an academic biologist or ecologist would first see it, as that is what AE as an organization does for their project of bridge-building to academia.
Thus as a grassroots network RWAS would be integrated such that it will be subject to a coordination optimization process as it grows.. A cross-organizational volunteer management program could scale to an indefinite size, creating the opportunity for explosive increase in the rate of effectiveness of RWAS organizations for little to no financial overhead.