All of Ben_Harack's Comments + Replies

What are effective ways to help Ukrainians right now?

A few months later, I want to note that my impression is that the Red Cross is indeed quite ineffective in this regard (helping Ukraine in the war). Other options are better. I came to this conclusion soon after writing the above comment, but I didn't come back here (till now) to correct myself. I still think that the original comment in this thread was made in good faith, and thus I wouldn't downvote it. I did, however, want to make clear that my thoughts had evolved significantly after writing the above comment.

The longtermist AI governance landscape: a basic overview

Convergence also does a lot of work on the strategic level.

What are effective ways to help Ukrainians right now?

This is a legit suggestion, so I'm going to strongly upvote the comment. Not sure why the downvotes are coming in, other than, as you say, perhaps indicating that people think that the Red Cross is ineffective, or that Canadian-specific multipliers aren't highly relevant for this discussion.

A few months later, I want to note that my impression is that the Red Cross is indeed quite ineffective in this regard (helping Ukraine in the war). Other options are better. I came to this conclusion soon after writing the above comment, but I didn't come back here (till now) to correct myself. I still think that the original comment in this thread was made in good faith, and thus I wouldn't downvote it. I did, however, want to make clear that my thoughts had evolved significantly after writing the above comment.
As an independent researcher, how do you stay or become motivated, productive, and impactful?

Most of these are pithy statements that serve as reminders of much more complicated and nuanced ideas. This is a mix of recitation types, only some of which are explicitly related to motivation. I've summarized, rephrased, and expanded most of these for clarity, and cut entire sections that are too esoteric. Also, something I'd love to try, but haven't, is putting some of these into a spaced repetition practice (I use Anki), since I've heard surprisingly positive things about how well that works.

  1. Be ruthlessly efficient today
  2. <Specific reminder about a ha
... (read more)
As an independent researcher, what are the biggest bottlenecks (if any) to your motivation, productivity, or impact?

For me what leaps to mind is all of the in-between stuff, like proofreading, LateX issues, graphics, plots, etc. Of course, I've also tried to hire help on some of these fronts with very mixed results (generally negative). So I guess I'd say that fundamentally, independent work can really suffer from its independence (not having various supports and connections that would make it better). Building relationships and collaborations that alleviate these problems is part of being an effective independent researcher.

As an independent researcher, how do you stay or become motivated, productive, and impactful?

Prioritize ruthlessly. Very few ideas can even be examined, let alone pursued.

As an independent researcher, how do you stay or become motivated, productive, and impactful?

Productivity + meta: Learn to be an effective Red Team, and use this ability on your own ideas and plans. 

As an independent researcher, how do you stay or become motivated, productive, and impactful?

Motivation: Find a way to remind yourself about what you care about (and if needed, why you care about it). This could manifest in any way that works for your. A post-it could be useful. A calendar notification. A standing meeting with colleagues where you do a moment of reflection (a technique that I've seen used to great effect at the Human Diagnosis Project). A list of recitations embedded among TODO list items (my personal technique). 

3Hauke Hillebrandt5mo
Can you share that list?
As an independent researcher, how do you stay or become motivated, productive, and impactful?

Allocate some time to "meta", like studying habit formation and self-management. For starters I might recommend Atomic Habits and some of Cal Newport's work.

The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition

Sad that I missed this! Only saw this the day after it closed.

Towards an EA Governance?

I agree that there's a lot to like about this vision. Some of my own work aims in this direction (see Ruling Ourselves if you're interested). Tractability is a major concern however. Major changes like these may very well be possible, but it's very difficult to demonstrate (huge burden of proof) that particular actions can create a world like this. To develop these ideas further, I suggest taking the part of this vision that excites you most (perhaps part that seems more important and tractable than the rest) and really dig deep for a while. It is really u... (read more)

1Alimi Salifou5mo
Thanks Ben_Harack for these insightful comments. I agree with you. Traceability is a major challenge. I will go for the low hanging fruits as you suggested. How I wish we could make it work soon. Thanks for sharing this link (Ruling Ourselves), it is interesting. I look forward to getting to know more about it. Thanks
Is there an umbrella organization for small EA-ish nonprofits in the US?

(I'm not a lawyer. I'm commenting based on some experience doing similar things in the U.S.)

It depends on what area you are working on. There are a variety of orgs whose mandates span large parts of EA-space. If you know what area you're working on, I suggest focusing on orgs that are closely related to that area. I think that nonprofits have to be able to show how their activities relate to their declared mandate/mission.

What are some examples of EA <-> Academia collaborations?

Just off the top of my head, take a look at the things done by BERI, SERI, other "existential risk initiative" projects, FLI, Effective Thesis, GovAI, ALLFED, and various projects of CSER and OpenPhil that support universities (e.g., the Forethought Foundation, 80,000 Hours). This list is very incomplete, but it gestures in the direction of the kinds of things that I see as EA-Academia collaborations or cross-pollinations. 

Introducing High-Impact Medicine (Hi-Med)

People interested in High Impact Medicine may also be interested in the Human Diagnosis Project (see and the "Human Dx" app on the main app stores).  The Project intends to solve the problem of medical diagnosis for all of humanity. Currently it allows physicians to train their skills and collaborate on answering thorny medical questions. Eventually it will hopefully provide significant diagnostic help (via both collaboration and decision support) for both medical workers everywhere as well as the broader public. The Project would b... (read more)

I looked into this a bit during 2014-2017. At the time I thought it was plausible that mechanisms similar to state failure (including even significant underdevelopment such that effective policing never becomes possible) might be the source of a noteworthy amount of existential risk. I mentioned this in passing in Ruling Ourselves

Bostrom's "Vulnerable World Hypothesis" also contains some ideas that point in this direction.

Since then I've updated pretty strongly in the direction of focusing on advanced nations and great powers. As far as I can tell, ... (read more)

Impact Certificates on a Blockchain

Interesting, thanks for the reply! Let me unpack what I'm thinking of when I say "if such a system existed". Here are some things I'm imagining in such a scenario:

Ideally, there is a market already (not just the potential for one, as that link indicates), or there is a clear plan and a number of EAs that I know the names of who have said that they will participate. I'm willing to be an early adopter, but I'm not in a position where I can vet the fundamentals of the project. For example, I'd like to see people who were involved in the prior attempts to do C... (read more)

Awesome, thank you! 1. Public endorsements from trusted experts in relevant domains, such as crypto, econ, impact certificates, EA-style prioritization. Yes, that’d be great! I’m closest to knowledgeable on the last one, and I’m very concerned about Ofer’s concern above. So I want to come up with a promising solution to that before I move forward at all. 2. A series of blog posts detailing how different actors can use the system. Yes, very good. I’d also explain the reasoning behind various design decisions in these posts. Something that irks me about a lot of crypto projects is that they have a very specific fine-tuned byzantine architecture that they explain in detail but never mention why they made all these design decisions. 3. A software that abstracts away all the unnecessary complexity. That is probably something that I’ll need to build gradually as I see signs of adoption. It’d be too easy to waste a year on building a software that no one uses. (I’ve worked for a startup that did that.) So I hope I can do it in a way where the complexity doesn’t itself impede the adoption too much… Thank you! 😊
What posts do you want someone to write?

Credible qualitative and/or quantitative evidence on the effectiveness of habits, tools, and techniques for knowledge work.

What things did you do to gain experience related to EA?

I pursued related research prior to learning about EA, attended EA Global a few times, joined a startup that is EA-aligned (the Human Diagnosis Project), conducted more research on the side, and provided both mentorship and collaboration for other researchers.

Impact Certificates on a Blockchain

I'll try to directly answer some of the questions raised.

I'm generally interested in this project. If such a system existed, I'd probably issue certificates for research artifacts (papers, blog posts, software, datasets, etc.) and would advocate for the usage of impact certificates more broadly. 

If I were able to reliably buy arbitrary fractions of certificates on an open market, I'd probably do so somewhat often (every several weeks) in order to send signals of value. My personal expenditures would be very small (a few hundreds of dollars per year pr... (read more)

Very interesting! Well, it does. [] :-) If you haven’t created tokens yet, is it because of the two concerns you listed? I.e. (1) that the creator is not privileged over later buyers of the shares and (2) that the auction mechanism of the exchange always gives you the best price even when you’d like to pay a higher price to signal your support? The first is something I haven’t thought about enough because I considered that the demand side, especially from profit oriented investors, would be the bottleneck. But especially when I want to attract the attention of well-funded, time-constrained, popular charities, it may be necessary to be able to offer more benefits to the suppliers too. Is there some equivalent in the regular market? Maybe a company offering shares that do pay a dividend and shares that don’t, and issuing the first to founders, early employees, particularly value-aligned partners, etc.? Otherwise, one mechanism that comes to mind that also has the advantage of being continuous and adjustable is to cap the fully diluted supply at a very high level and put only a small fraction of the tokens up for sale. Most of the value will then be in the hands of the creator but the high fully diluted market cap will make the token relatively unattractive for buyers. The creator can then burn more and more of the tokens in their wallet until an optimum is reached where they still have a lot but the token has also become attractive for buyers. Would that work for you? Or would you prefer for such a thing to be automated, like a bonding curve smart contract except that it burns tokens instead of buying them? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about the particular shape of the curve or about what potential buyers who are still waiting will expect you to do next. (One could also argue that the creator is necessarily privileged over later buyers by being first to own the tokens, beating all future buyers to it, and
What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

The Human Diagnosis Project (disclaimer: I currently work there). If successful, it will be a major step toward accurate medical diagnosis for all of humanity.

How have you become more (or less) engaged with EA in the last year?

I'm late to the party on this reply, but I'll try to reply as if I'm doing so in late 2020.

Yes, I'm more engaged than I was in 2019, and that's saying something considering that I was pretty engaged in 2019: working at an EA-aligned org (the Human Diagnosis Project), participating in EAG, joining Modeling Cooperation, building other collaborations, writing blog posts, etc.

What changed?
1. The Human Diagnosis Project continues to make headway toward the possibility of (very) significant impact and my role there increased substantially in responsibility.

2. Du... (read more)

COVID-19 Assessment Tool by the Human Diagnosis Project

An update here: This COVID-19 forward triage tool now also allows anyone to get a doctor to look at their particular case for an extremely low fee ($12 USD - though free service is currently available if needed).

Growth and the case against randomista development

Thanks for this piece, I thought it was interesting!

A small error I noticed while reading through one of the references is that the line "For example, France’s GDP per capita is around 60% of US GDP per capita.[7]" is incorrectly summarizing the cited material. The value needs to be 67% to make this sentence correct. The relevant section in the underlying material is: "As an example, suppose we wish to compare living standards in France and the United States. GDP per person is markedly lower in France: France had a per capita GDP in 2... (read more)

Healthy Competition

I believe that regional talent pools could also be another factor in favor of the multiple organization scenario. For example, something I think a lot about is how the USA could really use an institution like the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in the long run. In addition to all of the points made in the original post, I think that such an institution would improve the overall health of the ecosystem of "FHI-like research" by drawing on a talent pool that is at least somewhat non-overlapping with that drawn upon by FHI.

I think that the talen... (read more)

What actions would obviously decrease x-risk?

This line of inquiry (that rebuilding after wars is quite different from other periods of time) is explored in G. John Ikenberry's After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars. A quick and entertaining summary of the book - and how it has held up since its publication - was written by Ikenberry in 2018: Reflections on After Victory.

Thank you for those references!
What actions would obviously decrease x-risk?

While I'm sympathetic to this view (since I held it for much of my life), I have also learned that there are very significant risks to developing this capacity naively.

To my knowledge, one of the first people to talk publicly about this was Carl Sagan, who discussed this in his television show Cosmos (1980), and in these publications:

Harris, A., Canavan, G., Sagan, C. and Ostro, S., 1994. The Deflection Dilemma: Use Vs. Misuse of Technologies for Avoiding Interplanetary Collision Hazards.

Ben's summary:

  • Their primary concern and point is that a
... (read more)
You may already be aware of this, and/or the window of relevance may have passed, but just thought I'd mention that Toby Ord discusses a similar matter in The Precipice. He seems to come to roughly similar conclusions to you and to Sagan et al., assuming I'm interpreting everyone correctly. E.g. he writes: This seems like an interesting and important point, and an example of how important it can be to consider issues like downside risks [], the unilateralist’s curse [], etc. - perhaps especially in the area of existential risk reduction. And apparently even with what we might see as one of the rare "obviously" good options! Something I find slightly odd, and that might conflict with yours or Sagan et al.'s views, was that Ord also wrote: I don't really know anything about this area, but it seems strange to hear that the option involving nuclear explosions is the safer one. And I wonder if the increased amount of explosives, development of tech for delivering it to asteroids, etc., could increase risks independently of asteroid-deflection, such as if it can be repurposed for just directly harming countries on Earth. Or perhaps it could reduce the safety benefits we'd get from having colonies on other moons/planets/asteroids/etc.? Again, though, this is a field I know almost nothing about. And I assume Ord considered these points. Also, obviously there are many nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms already.
Do we know how many big asteroids could impact Earth?

Epistemic status: I don't have a citation handy for the following arguments, so any reader should consider them merely the embedded beliefs of someone who has spent a significant amount of time studying the solar system and the risks of asteroids.

No, I believe that dark Damocloids will be largely invisible (when they are far away from the sun) even to the new round of telescopes that are being deployed for surveying asteroids. They're very dark and (typically) very far away.

Luckily, I think the consensus is that they're only a small portion... (read more)

Cause X Guide

Thanks for taking a look at the arguments and taking the time to post a reply here! Since this topic is still pretty new, it benefits a lot from each new person taking a look at the arguments and data.

I agree completely regarding information hazards. We've been thinking about these extensively over the last several months (and consulting with various people who are able to hold us to task about our position on them). In short, we chose every point on that poster with care. In some cases we're talking about things that have been explored extensiv... (read more)

It sounds like you've given the possibility of information hazards careful attention, recognised the value of consulting others, and made reasonable decisions. (I expected you probably would've done so - just thought it'd be worth asking.) I also definitely agree that the possibility of information hazards shouldn't just serve as a blanket, argument-ending reason to not fairly publicly discuss any potentially dangerous technologies, and that it always has to be weighed against the potential benefits of such discussion.
Do we know how many big asteroids could impact Earth?

After reviewing the literature pretty extensively over the last several months for a related project (the risks of human-directed asteroids), it seems to me that there is a strong academic consensus that we've found most of the big ones (though definitely not all - and many people are working hard to create ways for us to find the rest). See this graphic for a good summary of our current status circa 2018:

Huh, including most dark Damocloids?
Cause X Guide

Recently, I've been part of a small team that is working on the risks posed by technologies that allow humans to steer asteroids (opening the possibility of deliberately striking the Earth). We presented some of these results in a poster at EA Global SF 2019.

At the moment, we're expanding this work into a paper. My current position is that this is an interesting and noteworthy technological risk that is (probably) strictly less dangerous/powerful than AI, but working on it can be useful. My reasons include: mitigating a risk that is largely orth... (read more)

That's a very interesting topic that I hadn't considered before, and your argument for why it's worth having at least some people thinking about and working on it seems sound to me. But I also wondered when reading your comment whether publicly discussing such an idea is net negative due to posing information hazards. (That would probably just mean research on the idea should only be discussed individually with people who've been at least briefly vetted for sensibleness, not that research shouldn't be conducted at all.) I had never heard of this potential issue, and don't think I ever would've thought of it by myself, and my knee-jerk guess would be that the same would be true of most policymakers, members of the public, scientists, etc. Have you thought about the possible harms of publicising this idea, and ran the idea of publicising it by sensible people to check there's no unilateralist's curse occurring? (Edit: Some parts of your poster have updated me towards thinking it's more likely than I previously thought that relevant decision-makers are or will become aware of this idea anyway. But I still think it may be worth at least considering potential information hazards here - which you may already have done. A related point is that I recall someone - I think they were from FHI, but I can't easily find the source - arguing that publicly emphasising the possibility of an AI arms race could make matters worse by making arms race dynamics more likely.)
See also: Do we know how many big asteroids could impact Earth? []
What book(s) would you want a gifted teenager to come across?

Factfulness by Hans Rosling is currently my go-to recommendation for the most important single book I could hand to a generic person.

Why do I hold it in such high regard? I think that it does a good job of teaching us both about the world and about ourselves at the same time. It helps the reader achieve better knowledge and better ability to think clearly (and come to accurate beliefs about the world). It's also very hopeful despite its tendency to tackle head-on some of the darker aspects of our world.

The other day was my mother's birthday and, not knowing what to buy her, I suddenly remembered this thread and comment, and decided to get her a copy of Rosling's excellent book, which had conveniently just been translated into Spanish.

True, my mother is not a teenager (I'm not that young), but as you point out the book makes a great gift for anyone.

Progress book recommendations

Under "Decision-making and Forecasting" I would add these two:

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

(Though Factfulness also touches on numerous other categories in the list.)

Is the community short of software engineers after all?

Following up on this more than a year later, I can vouch for some but not all of these conclusions based on my experience at the high-impact organization I work for, the Human Diagnosis Project (

We've found it very difficult to recruit high-quality value-aligned engineers despite the fact that none of the above items really apply to us.

  • Our software engineering team performs very challenging work all over the stack - including infrastructure, backend, and mobile.
  • Working here is probably great for career development (in part because we're
... (read more)