Can the EA community copy Teach for America? (Looking for Task Y)

by alexrjl 9mo21st Feb 20197 min read20 comments


Summary (edited in)

Below, I make the case for the importance of thinking about "Task Y", a way in which people who are interested in EA ideas can usefully help, without moving full time into an EA career. The most useful way in which I am now thinking about "Task Y" is as an answer to the question "What can I do to help?".

Motivation & introduction to Task Y

Episode 10 of the 80000hours podcast was recently re-aired, and one part of the conversation really stayed with me as I listened, and prompted me to ask a question. I've bolded the part I'm referring to for emphasis, but included a much longer quote for context.

Robert Wiblin: A question that often comes up is whether Effective Altruism should aim to be a very broad movement that appeals to potentially hundreds of millions of people, and it helps them each to make a somewhat larger contribution, or whether it should be more, say, like an academic research group or an academic research community that has only perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people involved, but then tries to get a lot of value out of each one of them, really get them to make intellectual advances that are very valuable for the world. What’s your thought on that, on the two options there?
Nick Beckstead: I guess, if I have to pick one, maybe I would pick the second option, but I might frame it a little bit differently, and I might say, “Let’s leave the first option open in the long run as well.” I guess, the way I see it right now is this community doesn’t have currently a scalable use of a lot of people. There’s some groups that have found efficient scalable uses of a lot of people, and they’re using them in different ways.
For example, if you look at something like Teach for America, they identified an area where, “Man, we could really use tons and tons of talented people. We’ll train them up in a specific problem, improving the US education system. Then, we’ll get tons of them to do that. Various of them will keep working on that. Some of them will understand the problems the US education system faces, and fix some of its policy aspects.” That’s very much a scalable use of people. It’s a very clear instruction, and a way that there’s an obvious role for everyone.
I think, the Effective Altruist Community doesn’t have a scalable use of a lot of its highest value … There’s not really a scalable way to accomplish a lot of these highest valued objectives that’s standardised like that. The closest thing we have to that right now is you can earn to give and you can donate to any of the causes that are most favored by the Effective Altruist Community. I would feel like the mass movement version of it would be more compelling if we’d have in mind a really efficient and valuable scalable use of people, which I think is something we’ve figured out less.
I guess what I would say is right now, I think we should figure out how to productively use all of the people who are interested in doing as much good as they can, and focus on filling a lot of higher value roles that we can think of that aren’t always so standardised or something. We don’t need 2000 people to be working on AI strategy, or should be working on technical AI safety exactly. I would focus more on figuring out how we can best use the people that we have right now.

Nick's conclusion, that we should focus on making best use of the people who are currently part of the EA community is a sensible one, but his statement, and in particular the bolded part, I believe hints at another, potentially exciting question:

What if there were a scaleable way to effectively use the effort and time of people who agree with broad EA principles, but who for for some reason aren't able to, for example, land a job from here?

To try to be more concrete: what if there were some "Task Y" (I'm borrowing from "Cause X") which had some or all of the following properties:

  • Task Y is something that can be performed usefully by people who are not currently able to choose their career path entirely based on EA concerns*.
  • Task Y is clearly effective, and doesn't become much less effective the more people who are doing it.
  • The positive effects of Task Y are obvious to the person doing the task.

(* potentially this reason could be anything from not living in the right part of the world, to not having the right qualifications, to caring a lot but not enough to completely switch career, to simply being a student who wants to be doing something more direct right now than going to their weekly/monthly discussion group)

Why do I think this idea would be valuable to think about further?

I joined the "Teach First" (UK version of Teach for America) as soon as I graduated from University. In my case I had strongly considered teaching for a long time, but I met lots of people in the programme for whom that was not the case. One of the key things that appealed to lots of them was that Teach First did not require a huge commitment. Lots of the advertising and discussion from mentors and peers was around the fact that the commitment was only for two years, during which time we would build lots of flexible career capital. At the time, we were even told that several large consultancy firms let Teach First graduates skip the first two stages of their recruitment processes. The strategy of telling people that "you can do some good now, but don't worry if you're not ready to commit your whole life to it", meant that many people joined who, according to them, would never otherwise have considered teaching as a career.

At the moment, people who become casually interested in Effective Altrusim can attend meetups (if they live in an area with them), write forum posts, and donate small amounts of money (in the relative sense, if not in the moral sense, given how cheap it is to save a life). Without making serious career-changing plans, that's about it, and not many people change the entire path of their life on the basis of one conversation. The single biggest way people become involved in the EA community is via personal interactions with others and, from the basis of the conversations I've had, getting people sold on the general idea of doing good and doing it well is easy, the difficult part is having a good answer to the question "So what can I do to help?". Allowing individuals to meaningfully contribute in a way which has direct benefits which are clear to them, especially if there is a relatively small barrier to them getting started, could be a very powerful recruitment and retention tool, as people who feel they are meaningfully contributing are potentially not only less likely to drift away, but are more likely and able to encourage others to follow their example.

Potential "Task Y"s which already exist

Unfortunately, I don't have a clear idea for what "Task Y" should be. I therefore am posting this in the hope that some others will feel that this question merits some thought. The existence of seems like a promising start, but at the moment barely anything actually gets posted and certainly nothing has seemed scalable. Glen Weyl's comments about artists, writers and video game designers are another area where I see some potential. His comments towards the end of the interview about the value of having a diverse range of viewpoints are also worth considering, especially as they have fairly srong implications for the value of the community expanding to encompass a large number of "part timers". The whole thing is worth a listen, but an indicative quote is :

Robert Wiblin: So, there’s two different reasons that you could like having this kind of democratic spirit in wanting to distribute power. One would be on principle. You just think it’s bad to concentrate power or elitism or hierarchy is unappealing in principle. The other is that, as an empirical matter, information is very widely distributed. In fact, even people who don’t have a great education or whatever are in fact, bring a lot of knowledge to the table when they are able to contribute.
Glen Weyl: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: I thought that you were going to justify on the first principle. But it sounds like you just think-
Glen Weyl: No, I’m justifying it on the second ground.
Robert Wiblin: Just in practice, like ordinary voters actually have a lot of value to contribute to the system.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.

While I'm acutely aware that Task Y might not exist, it seems to have a large enough upside that it is worth at least some effort to try to find. It's possible that there is no single task which fits the description, but a combination of sveral different things, with appropriate co-ordination, do. I'm really excited to be able to potentially update/strengthen parts of this post with contributions from the comments. The most important questions that I don't feel I have strong answers to are:

What properties should "Task Y" have? My initial attempt to answer this is above, but I think there's lots of room for improvement. edit: As @aarongertler pointed out in the comments, there's no need that "Task Y" would have to be a single thing. If it were the case that it were one of several useful projects, however, a centralised "task list", from which people could easily choose soemthing to work on, seems like an excellent idea.

Why isn't "Earning to give", or even just "donate effectively" sufficient to have the large positive effects "Task Y" could have? I'm very uncertain about this, part of me thinks that "set up a small standing order to an effective charity, and periodically review whether you can afford to increase it", could potentially work if pitched correctly - it's what I decided to do when I first heard about Effective Altruism, and resulted in me gradually becoming more and more actively involved. I think, however, for many people seeting up a recurring donation is a "fire and forget" action; once it's happened there's not much to keep that person actively involved. There may also be something to the idea that "giving money to an effective charity" doesn't feel sufficiently different to "giving money to a charity" to either make people feel like a part of a community, or for the message to be able to be heard above the many other voices telling people where to donate.

If there were a large expansion in the "Soft EA/Task Y" community, how could we most effectively leverage the collective actions of this large community, without taking time away from the other work they were doing? It strikes me that sufficiently good answers to this question could potentially be worth exploring and implementing even without a large growth in the EA community. If, for example, there were some effective way of using distributed computing in EA-aligned research, it seems possible that the curent EA community is already big enough (and rich enough on average to have access to an at least moderately powerful computer), to have potentialy large effects. Were the EA movement to grow rapidly enough to include very large numbers of people who were at least in some sense "EA-aligned", there is potential for the identification of many more causes which could potentially derive large benefits from the combination of large numbers of people taking small individual actions, even if none of these actions are significant enough to be potential "Task Y" candidates themselves. Voting reform and animal rights activism are two things which seem potentially able to benefit from things like letter/email campaigns in the style of Amnesty. Leveraging the combined low effort actions of a large group of EAs has already been very successfully done here.

Is there a significant downside to lots of people being involved in a "soft" version of EA? While my personal experience is that being involved to a small extent in Effective altruism led to increasingly strong involvement, the sample I have is extremely small (although not limited to just myself), and is clearly biased by the fact that most of the people I talk to about effective altruism are EAs. It is at least possible that people becoming involved in some small way might be less likely to consider other, more impactful options, in the same way that setting too small default donations can sometims cause people to give less money overall. In some ways this is the most important question of all. I believe that the ability to do something meaningful would be a stepping stone for people to get more involved with effective altruism. If it turned out to be a "stopping stone", preventing people who would otherwise have got fully involved from moving past the "I'll spend some chunk of my time doing task Y" stage, it would clearly be bad.

Edit, from @John_Maxwell_IV: supposing Task Y does exist, would you rather people working on Task Y think of themselves as "Soft EAs", or as people who are part of the "Task Y community"? Rather that copy John's (excellent) arguments on both sides in here, I think responses to this question should probably happen in replies to his comment.