329Claremont, CA, USAJoined Sep 2021


I'm Aaron, I've done Uni group organizing at the Claremont Colleges for a bit. Current cause prioritization is AI Alignment.


Personally I didn't put much weight on this sentence because the more-important-to-me evidence is many EAs being on the political left (which feels sufficient for the claim that EA is not a generally conservative set of ideas, as is sometimes claimed). See the 2019 EA Survey in which 72% of respondents identified as Left or Center Left. 

“There are also strong selection effects on retreat attendees vs. intro fellows”

I wonder what these selection effects are. I imagine you get a higher proportion of people who think they are very excited about EA. But also, many of the wicked smart, high achieving people I know are quite busy and don’t think they have time for a retreat like this, so I wonder if you’re somewhat selecting against these people?

Similarly, people who are very thoughtful about opportunity costs and how they spend their time might feel like a commitment like this is too big given that they don’t know much about EA yet and don’t know how much they agree/want to be involved.

Thanks for making this. I expect that after you make edits based on comments and such this will be the most up to date and accurate public look at this question (the current size of the field). I look forward to linking people to it!

I disagree with a couple specific points as well as the overall thrust of this post. Thank you for writing it!

A maximizing viewpoint can say that we need to be cautious lest we do something wonderful but not maximally so. But in practice, embracing a pragmatic viewpoint, saving money while searching for the maximum seems bad.

I think I strongly disagree with this because opportunities for impact appear heavy tailed. Funding 2 interventions that are in the 90th percentile is likely less good than funding 1 intervention in the 99th percentile. Given this state of the world, spending much of our resources trying to identify the maximum is worthwhile. I think the default of the world is that I donate to a charity in the 50th percentile. And if I adopt a weak mandate to do lots of good (a non-maximizing frame, or an early EA movement), I will probably identify and donate to a charity in the 90th percentile. It is only when I take a maximizing stance, and a strong mandate to do lots of good (or when many thousands of hours have been spent on global priorities research), that I will find and donate to the very best charities. The ratios matter of course, and probably if I was faced with donating $1,000 to 90th percentile charities or $1 to a 99th percentile charity, I would probably donate to the 90th percentile charities, but if the numbers are $2 and $1, I should donate to the 99th percentile charity. I am claiming: the distribution of altruistic opportunities is roughly heavy tailed; the best (and maybe only) way to end up in the heavy tail is to take a maximizing approach; the “wonderful” thing that we would do without maximizing is, as measured ex post (looking at the results in retrospect), significantly worse than the best thing; a claim that I am also making, though which I think is weakest, is that we can differentiate between the “wonderful” and the “maximal available” opportunities ex ante (before hand) given research and reflection; the thing I care about is impact, and the EA movement is good insofar as it creates positive impact in the world (including for members of the EA community, but they are a small piece of the universe). 

There are presumably people who would have pursued PhDs in computer science, and would have been EA-aligned tenure track professors now, but who instead decided to earn-to-give back in 2014. Whoops!

To me this seems like it doesn’t support the rest of your argument. I agree that the correct allocation of EA labor is not all doing AI Safety research, and we need to have outreach and career related resources to support people with various skills, but to me this is more-so a claim that we are not maximizing well enough — we are not properly seeking the optimal labor allocation because we’re a relatively uncoordinated set of individuals. If we were better at maximizing at a high level, and doing a good job of it, the problem you are describing would not happen, and I think it’s extremely likely that we can solve this problem.

With regard to the thrust of your post: I cannot honestly tell a story about how the non-maximizing strategy wins. That is, when I think about all the problems in the world: pandemics, climate change, existential threats from advanced AI, malaria, mass suffering of animals, unjust political imprisonment, etc., I can’t imagine that we solve these problems if we approach them like exercise or saving for retirement. If I actually cared about exercise or saving for retirement, I would treat them very differently than I currently do (and I have had periods in my life where I cared more about exercise and thus spent 12 hours a week in the gym). I actually care about the suffering and happiness in the world, and I actually care that everybody I know and love doesn’t die from unaligned AI or a pandemic or a nuclear war. I actually care, so I should try really hard to make sure we win. I should maximize my chances of winning, and practically this means maximizing for some of the proxy goals I have along the way. And yes, it's really easy to mess up this maximize thing and to neglect something important (like our own mental health), but that is an issue with the implementation, not with the method. 

Perhaps my disagreement here is not a disagreement about what EA descriptively is and more-so a claim about what I think a good EA movement should be. I want a community that's not a binary in / out, that's inclusive and can bring joy and purpose to many people's lives, but what I want more than those things is for the problems in the world to be solved — for kids to never go hungry or die from horrible diseases, for the existence of humanity a hundred years from now to not be an open research question, for billions+ of sentience beings around the world to not live lives of intense suffering. To the extent that many in the EA community share this common goal, perhaps we differ in how to get there, but the strategy of maximizing seems to me like it will do a lot better than treating EA like I do exercise or saving for retirement.

You write:

Another possible reason to argue for a zero-discount rate is that the intrinsic value of humanity increases at a rate greater than the long-run catastrophe rate[19]. This is wrong for (at least) 2 reasons. 

Your footnote is to The Precipice: To quote from The Precipice Appendix E:

by many measures the value of humanity has increased substantially over the centuries. This progress has been very uneven over short periods, but remarkably robust over the long run. We live long lives filled with cultural and material riches that would have seemed like wild fantasy to our ancestors thousands of years ago. And the scale of our civilization may also matter: the fact that there are thousands of times as many people enjoying these richer lives seems to magnify this value. If the intrinsic value of each century increases at a rate higher than r, this can substantially increase the value of protecting humanity (even if this rate of increase is not sustained forever). [Footnote here]

Regarding your first reason: You first cite that this would imply a negative-discount rate that rules in favor of future people; I'm confused why this is bad? You mention "radical conclusions" – I mean sure, there are many radical conclusions in the world, for instance I believe that factory farming is a moral atrocity being committed by almost all of current society – that's a radical view. Being a radical view doesn't make it wrong (although I think we should be healthily skeptical of views that seem weird). Another radical conclusion I hold is that all people around the world are morally valuable, and enslaving them would be terrible; this view would appear radical to most people at various points in history, and is not radical in most the world now. 

Regarding your second reason: 

while it is true that lives lived today are much better than lives lived in the past (longer, healthier, richer), and the same may apply to the future, this logic leads to some deeply immoral places. The life of a person a who will live a long, healthy, and rich life, is worth no more than the life of the poorest, sickest, person alive. While some lives may be lived better, all lives are worth the same. Longtermism should accept this applies across time too.

I would pose to you the question: Would you rather give birth to somebody who would be tortured their entire life or somebody who would be quite happy throughout their life (though they experience ups and downs)? Perhaps you are indifferent between these, but I doubt it (they both are one life being born, however, so taking the "all lives are worth the same" line literally here implies they are equally good). I think the value of a future where everybody being tortured is quite bad and is probably worse than extinction, whereas a flourishing future where people are very happy and have their needs met would be awesome! 

I agree that there are some pretty unintuitive conclusions of this kind of thinking, but there are also unintuitive conclusions if you reject it! I think the value of an average life today, to the person living it, is probably higher than the value of an average life in 1700 CE, to the person living it. In the above Precipice passage, Ord discusses some reasons why this might be so. 

Welcome to the forum! I am glad that you posted this! And also I disagree with much of it. Carl Shulman already responded explaining why he things the extinction rate approaches zero fairly soon, reasoning I agree with. 

Under a stable future population, where people produce (on average) only enough offspring to replace themselves, a person’s expected number of descendants is equal to the expected length of human existence, divided by the average lifespan (). I estimate this figure is 93[22].

To be consistent, when comparing lives saved in present day interventions with (expected) lives saved from reduced existential risk, present day lives saved should be multiplied by this constant, to account for the longtermist implications of saving each person. This suggests priorities such as global health and development may be undervalued at present.

I think the assumption about a stable future population is inconsistent with your calculation of the value of the average life. I think of two different possible worlds:

World 1: People have exactly enough children to replace themselves, regardless of the size of the population. The population is 7 billion in the first generation; a billion extra (not being accounted for in the ~2.1 kids per couple replacement rate) people die before being able to reproduce. The population then goes on to be 6 billion for the rest of the time until humanity perishes. Each person who died cost humanity 93 future people, making their death much worse than without this consideration.

World 2: People have more children than replace themselves, up to the point where the population hits the carrying capacity (say it's 7 billion). The population is 7 billion in the first generation; a billion extra (not being accounted for in the ~2.1 kids per couple replacement rate) people die before being able to reproduce. The population then goes on to be 6 billion for one generation, but the people in that generation realize that they can have more than 2.1 kids. Maybe they have 2.2 kids, and each successive generation does this until the population is back to 7 billion (the amount of time this takes depends on numbers, but shouldn't be more than a couple generations).

World 2 seems much more realistic to me. While in World 1, each death cost the universe 1 life and 93 potential lives, in World 2 each death cost the universe something like 1 life and 0-2 potential lives.

It seems like using an average number of descendants isn't the important factor if we live in a world like World 2 because as long as the population isn't too small, it will be able to jumpstart the future population again. Thus follows the belief that (100% of people dying vs. 99% of people dying) is a greater difference than (0% of people dying vs. 99% of people dying). Assuming 1% of people would be able to eventually grow the population back. 

I read this post around the beginning of March this year (~6 months ago). I think reading this post was probably net-negative for my life plans. Here are some thoughts about why I think reading this post was bad for me, or at least not very good. I have not re-read the post since then, so maybe some of my ideas are dumb for obvious reasons. 

I think the broad emphasis on general skill and capacity building often comes at the expense of directly pursuing your goals. In many ways, the post is like “Skill up in an aptitude because in the future this might be instrumentally useful for making the future go well.” And I think this is worse than “Identify what skills might help the future go well, then skill up in these skills, then you can cause impact.” I think the aptitudes framework is what I might say if I knew a bunch of un-exceptional people were listening to me and taking my words as gospel, but it is not what I would advise to an exceptional person who wants to change the world for the better (I would try to instill a sense of specifically aiming at the thing they want and pursuing it more directly). This distinction is important. To flesh this out, if only geniuses are reading my post, I might advise that they try high variance, high EV things which have a large chance of ending up in the tails (e.g., startups, for which most the people will fail). But I would not recommend to a broader crowd that they try startups, because more of them would fail, and then the community that I was trying to create to help the future go well is largely made up of people who took long shot bets and failed, making them not so useful, and making my community less useful when it's crunch time (although I am currently unsure what we need at crunch time, having a bunch of people who pursued aptitudes growth is probably good). Therefore, I think I understand and somewhat endorse a safer, aptitudes based advice at a community scale, but I don't want it to get in the way of 'people who are willing to take greater risks and do whacky career stuff' actually doing so. 

My personal experience is that reading this post gave me the idea that I could sorta continue life as normal, but with a slight focus on developing particular aptitudes like building organizational success, research on core longtermist topics, communicating maybe. I currently think that plan was bad and, if adopted more broadly, has a very bad chance of working (i.e., AI alignment gets solved). However, I also suspect that my current path is suboptimal – I am not investing in my career capital or human capital for the long-run as much as I should be. 

So I guess my overall take is something like: people should consider the aptitudes framework, but they should also think about what needs to happen in the world in order to get the thing you care about. Taking a safer, aptitudes based approach, is likely the right path for many people, but not for everybody. If you take seriously the career advice that you read, it seems pretty unlikely that this would cause you to take roughly the same actions you were planning on taking before reading – you should be suspicious of this surprising convergence. 

This is great and I’m glad you wrote it. For what it’s worth, the evidence from global health does not appear to me strong enough to justify high credence (>90%) in the claim “some ways of doing good are much better than others” (maybe operationalized as "the top 1% of charities are >50x more cost-effective than the median", but I  made up these numbers).

The DCP2 (2006) data (cited by Ord, 2013) gives the distribution of the cost-effectiveness of global health interventions. This is not the distribution of the cost-effectiveness of possible donations you can make. The data tells us that treatment of Kaposi Sarcoma is much less cost-effective than antiretroviral therapy in terms of avoiding HIV related DALYs, but it tell us nothing about the distribution of charities, and therefore does not actually answer the relevant question: of the options available to me, how much better are the best than the others?

If there is one charity focused on each of the health interventions in the DCP2 (and they are roughly equally good at turning money into the interventions) – and therefore one action corresponding to each intervention – then it is true that the very best ways of doing good available to me are better than average.

The other extreme is that the most cost-effective interventions were funded first (or people only set up charities to do the most cost-effective interventions) and therefore the best opportunities still available are very close to average cost-effectiveness. I expect we live somewhere between these two extremes, and there are more charities set up for antiretroviral therapy than kaposi sarcoma.

The evidence that would change my mind is if somebody publicly analyzed the cost-effectiveness of all (or many) charities focused on global health interventions. I have been meaning to look into this, but haven’t yet gotten around to it. It’s a great opportunity for the Red Teaming Contest, and others should try to do this before me. My sense is that GiveWell has done some of this but only publishes the analysis for their recommended charities; and probably they already look at charities they expect to be better than average – so they wouldn’t have a representative data set.

The edit is key here. I would consider running an AI-safety arguments competition in order to do better outreach to graduate-and-above level researchers to be a form of movement building and one for which crunch time could be in the last 5 years before AGI (although probably earlier is better for norm changes). 

One value add from compiling good arguments is that if there is a period of panic following advanced capabilities (some form of firealarm), then it will be really helpful to have existing and high quality arguments and resources on hand to help direct this panic into positive actions. 

This all said, I don't think Chris's advice applies here: 

I would be especially excited to see people who are engaged in general EA movement building to pass that onto a successor (if someone competent is available) and transition towards AI Safety specific movement building.

I think this advice likely doesn't apply because the models/strategies for this sort of AI Safety field building are very different from that of general EA community building (e.g., University groups), the background knowledge is quite different, the target population is different, the end goal is different, etc. If you are a community builder reading this and you want to transition to AI Safety community building but don't know much about it, probably learning about AI Safety for >20 hours is the best thing you can do. The AGISF curriculums are pretty great. 

I’m a bit confused by this post. I’m going to summarize the main idea back, and I would appreciate it if you could correct me where I’m misinterpreting.

Human psychology is flawed in such a way that we consistently estimate the probability of existential risk from each cause to be ~10% by default. In reality, the probability of existential risk from particular causes is generally less than 10% [this feels like an implicit assumption], so finding more information about the risks causes us to decrease our worry about those risks. We can get more information about easier-to-analyze risks, so we update our probabilities downward after getting this correcting information, but for hard-to-analyze risk we do not get such correcting information so we remain quite worried. AI risk is currently hard-to-analyze, so we remain in this state of prior belief (although the 10% part varies by individual, could be 50% or 2%).

I’m also confused about this part specifically: 

initially assign something on the order of a 10% credence to the hypothesis that it will by default lead to existentially bad outcomes. In each case, if we can gain much greater clarity about the risk, then we should think there’s about a 90% chance this clarity will make us less worried about it

 – why is there a 90% chance that more information leads to less worry? Is this assuming that for 90% of risks, they have P(Doom) < 10%, and for the other 10% of risks P(Doom) ≥ 10%?

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