Alex Mallen

165 karmaJoined Nov 2021Pursuing an undergraduate degreeSeattle, WA, USA



Researcher at EleutherAI with Nora Belrose. I also (re)started EA at the University of Washington in early 2022.


It is unclear in the first figure whether to compare the circles by area or diameter. I believe the default impression is to compare area, which I think is not what was intended and so is misleading.

I'm guessing it would be a good idea to talk to people more skeptical about this project so that you can avoid unilateralist curses. It's not clear how much you've done that already (apart from posting on the forum!).

How long do you expect students to participate?

Too much focus on existing top EA focus areas can lead to community stickiness. If this is just meant as a somewhat quick pipeline to introduce people to the ideas of EA once they've already settled into a field this might be okay. Also most EAs historically have been convinced at a younger age (<30) when they are more flexible.

This post by Rohin attempts to address it. If you hold the asymmetry view then you would allocate more resources to [1] causing a new neutral life to come into existence (-1 cent) then later once they exist improve that neutral life (many dollars) than you would to  [2] causing a new happy life to come into existence (-1 cent). They both result in the same world.

In general you can make a dutch booking argument like this whenever your resource allocation doesn't correspond to the gradient of a value function (i.e. the resources should be aimed at improving the state of the world).

Thank you for pointing me to that and getting me to think critically about it. I think  I agree with all the axioms.

a rational agent should act as to maximize expected value of their value function

I think this is misleading. The VNM theorem only says that there exists a function  such that a rational agent's actions maximize . But  does not have to be "their value function."

Consider a scenario in which there are 3 possible outcomes:  = enormous suffering,  = neutral, = mild joy. Let's say my value function is , and , in the intuitive sense of the word "value." 

When I work through the proof you sent in this example, I am forced to prefer  for some probability , but this probability does not have to be 0.1, so I don't have to maximize my expected value. In reality, I would be "risk averse" and assign  or something. See 4.1Automatic consideration of risk aversion.

More details of how I filled in the proof: 

We normalize my value function so  and . Then we define .

Let , then , and I am indifferent between  and. However, nowhere did I specify what  is, so "there exists a function u such that I'm maximizing the expectation of it" is not that meaningful, because it does not have to align with the value I assign to the event.

I'm concerned about getting involved in politics on an explicitly EA framework when currently only 6.7% of Americans have heard of EA ( This is because there is serious risk of many people's first impressions of EA to be bad/politicized, with bad consequences for the longterm potential of the movement. This is because political opponents will be incentivized to attack EA directly when attacking a candidate running on an EA platform. If people are exposed to EA in other more faithful ways first, EA is likely to be more successful longterm.

To me it seems the main concern is with using expected value maximization, not with longtermism. Rather than being rationally required to take an action with the highest expected value, I think you are probably only rationally required not to take any action resulting in a world that is worse than an alternative at every percentile of the probability distribution. So in this case you would not have to take the bet because at the 0.1st percentile of the probability distribution taking the bet has a lower value than status quo, while at the 99th percentile it has a higher value.

In practice, this still ends up looking approximately like expected value maximization for most EA decisions because of the huge background uncertainty about what the world will look like. (My current understanding is that you can think of this as an extended version of "if everyone in EA took risky high EV options, then the aggregate result will pretty consistently/with low risk be near the total expected value")

See this episode of the 80,000 hours podcast for a good description of this "stochastic dominance" framework:

Yes, I have a group going now!

To what extent are there already similarly dangerous pathogen genomes on the internet? I'm guessing that things like smallpox are less of a worry because we already have a vaccine for them, but if many novel, certified pandemic-grade pathogen genomes are already available then adding more seems significantly less harmful.

I was wondering how Rohin tried starting the group. If he was doing it remotely, then it seems like that may have been a factor in why it failed the second time (because it would be hard to form a community). Thanks for suggesting messaging the people who most recently joined the UW EA Facebook group--I didn't think there were any new people, but there are a few!

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