Edit: Here is a first stab I took at organising some pieces of content that would be good to test your fit for this kind of work. I tried to balance it as much as I could with respect to length, difficulty, format, and cause area.
This post was inspired by John Wentworth’s “Call For Distillers”, a LessWrong forum post that discusses this idea in the context of technical AI safety research.
- There are many things to read about in the EA community, and it can be hard to keep up with them.
- It would be good if someone had a dedicated role where they’d summarise all the important ideas in a digestible form, or if a small team of people did this.
- It could also be good if someone did voice recordings of written work, made video explainers, or some other form of media.
- Because organisations are often too small to justify hiring someone in-house, having an independent person/a dedicated organisation working on this might make more sense for the community.
One tricky part about being in the EA community is the problem of the epistemological hamster wheel. There’s a finite amount of information our brains can process, and the output of new and valuable posts/ideas/papers/books often outpaces it.
Due to this, there’s a norm in the community of including executive summaries in written work. It’s a good norm. But often, the quality of the summaries varies and some pieces don’t have them at all. With academic papers, abstracts are helpful but sometimes aren’t quite detailed enough as a solid one to two page summary with a “so what” section.
I think it could be valuable for a role to exist where someone provides timely summaries of the most important ideas in EA soon after they are published. What could be even better would be publishing via other content mediums — for example, actual voice recordings of posts, a la Cold Takes, or video-style explainers, a la Rational Animations.
I sometimes have trouble with (1) reading long papers and (2) digesting a lot of written content in a day. Written summaries help with (1) and (2), and alternative media forms help with (2). This is sometimes a significant bottleneck to how productive I am on a given day. It would be nice if I could continue “reading” (listening to) a paper while going for a walk once my brain turns to mush near the end of the day.
What this role might look like
This role would be beneficial for introducing EA content to people outside the community in a more digestible way. Yet perhaps more importantly, the most significant benefit of this role could come from freeing up time for EAs by reducing the amount of time it takes for us to understand key ideas.
I think this role mainly makes sense for someone to do independently. Having an independent person working on this, or perhaps starting a new organisation dedicated to it, solves the problem of not being quite large enough to justify hiring what John Wentworth calls an adjunct distiller: “someone who works directly with one researcher or a small team, producing regular write-ups of what the person/team is thinking about and why.”
By working independently or creating an organisation dedicated to this, you could cover many different areas of interest to the EA community, rather than just the written work of one team/person.
For reference, I think Rohin Shah’s summaries for the alignment newsletter are excellent examples of distillation.
Your fit for the role
You might be a good fit for this if you:
- Are capable of understanding complex ideas from a wide variety of subjects.
- Can take the understanding you’ve built and then translate it into comprehensible material.
- Are an excellent writer.
- Can easily parse out the “so what” or the big picture idea behind a piece of writing.
- Have excellent communication skills if/when you need to contact the author for clarification.
- Have a good bird’s eye view of the most important ideas in the EA community.
- Are capable of managing your work or others’ work.
How to get started
I’m not sure I have much to add here that John didn’t discuss in his post. His advice for independent distillers is as follows:
“Getting started in an independent distiller role should be pretty straightforward: choose some research, and produce some distillations. It’s inherently a very legible job, so you should pretty quickly have some good example pieces which you could showcase in a grant application (e.g. from the Long Term Future Fund or FTX Future Fund). That said, bear in mind that you may need some practice before you actually start to produce very good distillations.”
I will add that you could also consider starting an organisation if you think this project is exciting but would rather do the managerial work needed to scale this project than write the summaries yourself.
If you’re interested in doing something like this, please feel free to DM me or email me so we can discuss it more.