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.

Summary

  • 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.

The problem

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.

A solution

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.

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I'm biased here, but I think the EA Forum wiki is a great place to produce distillation content. The wiki is often the best thing to send someone for an introduction to an EA concept, but there are few people who take the work of distilling the EA concept into the best explanation.

+1 — the wiki is awesome! Though I'd love to see specific distillations of standalone written works, in addition to topic-style distillations seen on the wiki.

I totally agree on being able to listen to EA content being super useful!

If you haven't heard of it yet, there's the Nonlinear Library which automatically turns the top EA and rationalist content into podcast format using text-to-speech software.

We have multiple channels for different use cases:

Ah I totally forgot to include a footnote about the Nonlinear library! For me, it's helpful, but I sometimes find the text-to-speech a bit hard to focus on because it isn't quite natural. But maybe I'm just a pedant.

1) Because the skills required to be a good distiller are very similar to the skills required to be a good researcher, most people who'd become good distillers become good researchers instead for status/impact/etc reasons. However, a good-not-great distillation could still be produced by someone who's new to the field, and hence is directly valuable (with the caveat that a senior researcher should still probably have to look at the piece to check if there aren't any errors, but that's a substantially lower time commitment than writing the piece oneself).

2) Distillation is a great way to build and demonstrate skill for newcomers to a field.

Idea: have internships such as Nonlinear's or run CERI/SERI/CHERI-style fellowships focusing fully or in part on producing distillations.

The point 1 is correct, but there is a difference: when you research it's often needed to live near a research group. Distillation is more open to remote and asynchronous work.

(1) — I think there is probably a correlation between good distillers and good researchers, but it isn't one-to-one. Distillers probably have a stronger comparative advantage in communication and simplification, whereas researchers probably would be better at creativity and diving deep into specific focus areas. It seems like a lot of great academics struggle with simplifying and broadcasting their core ideas to a level of abstraction that a general audience can understand.

(2) — completely agree, I think it would a great skill signal.

I love the fellowship idea as well!

Although it would be nice to have a person who does this regularly, might it also be feasible to have some bounties? For example, I think that there are a handful of academic papers and a handful of EA forum posts that I would be willing to pay $10 or $20 for someone to create a one to two paragraph summary of the key concepts and key takeaways.

Maybe, but I think it would be good if someone built a really strong comparative advantage with this. Describing, and then evaluating the success criteria of bounties could have some slightly burdensome overhead as well.

I fully support EA distillation since it often feels like I'm drowning in a sea of great content. I'd add that "You might be a good fit for this if you:"

are suffiecently motivated, and got something like High Performance Habits. That's the name of a book, that I'm not affiliated with anyway (except that it's done wonders for me), written by someone who's job it is to help people become more successful. And he writes:

"Everything is trainable. No matter what skill you want to learn, with enough training and practice and intention, you can become more proficient at it...

Perhaps the three best findings of contemporary research tell us that you can get better at practically anything if you keep a growth mindset (the belief that you can improve with effort), focus on your goals with passion and perseverance, and practice with excellence."

I'm interested in doing something like this. What do people think are some specific topics or ideas that urgently need distilling? This could be something that you yourself would like to understand, but there seems to be an intimidating quantity of writing on it. Or it could be something that you do understand and people keep asking you about, and you wish there was a quick explainer you could link them to. 

I'm going to write out a list of ~10-15 pieces of content I think would be good to distill, and I'll share it here once I'm finished.

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.