Deputy Director of Wild Animal Initiative
Thanks for this post, Max!
tl;dr: Lemme know if you have ideas for approaches to animal-inclusive AI that would also rank among the most promising ways to reduce human extinction risk from AI. I think they probably don't be exist, but it'd be wicked cool if they did.
Most EAs working on AI safety are primarily interested in reducing the risk of human extinction. I agree that this is of astronomical importance, especially when you consider all the wild animal suffering that would continue in our absence.
Many things that would move us toward animal-inclusive AI would also help move us away from extinction risks. But I suspect the majority of those things, while helpful, would not be among the most helpful ways to reduce extinction risk. In other words, we should be wary suspicious convergence; "what is best for one thing is usually not the best for something else."
I'm working on plans to do more to support a rigorous search for approaches to animal-inclusive AI (or approaches to advancing wild animal welfare science broadly) that would also rank among the most promising ways to reduce human extinction risk from AI. In the meantime, I'd encourage anyone interested in the broader subject to consider this narrower subset, and to reach out to me if they're excited to work on it more (email@example.com).
To be clear, I also think animal-inclusive AI is worth pursuing for its own sake (i.e., working on animal-inclusive AI seems likely to be among the most impactful things you can do to make the world a better place in the set of scenarios where humans don't go extinct), and I'd be excited to see work on most of the approaches discussed above. In those cases -- especially when building coalitions with people who might have different priorities -- I think it's useful to be transparent about the fact that what we're doing is important, but we don't think it's one of the most promising ways to avoid human extinction.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! That’s basically what I’ve been doing so far.
But I’ve started feeling the urge often enough that each appreciation donation makes me worried about my overall approach to appreciation donations — which seriously distracts from the warm fuzzies I was trying to buy in the first place.
I would think if an organization had operational constraints, it would still have room for more funding, just the funding would be spent on expanding operations.
tl;dr: I don't think "slow and steady" growth is a problem, only "slow and unsteady" growth.
speed of hiring - an organization can only spend money to hire and expand so quickly and maybe they are already saturated
Actually, I don't think expansion speed alone should be considered a factor in room for more funding. If there are no mission constraints or relative timing constraints, should it matter to me when the organization spends my money? If not, why not donate now so they'll have more to use once they are no longer saturated?
I was trying to define operational constraints more narrowly, to include only the kind of growth that actually threatens the effectiveness of the org. I'm not sure exactly what this would look like. Perhaps if an org currently has promising programs, but is growing in a way that I think will create problems for them, then I would worry they won't be effective by the time they are no longer saturated.
I may not have much to add, because I know you've thought a ton about this and I'm obviously not on the AWF panel. But for what it's worth, here's how I would rate those categories, in descending order of expected impact:
Most of all, I think we should be measuring projects by how they contribute to the formation of a movement around wild animal welfare. That points in a slightly different direction than if we just think about the direct impact of a particular project. For example:
Feel free to reach out if you want to bounce around ideas! firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Michael and Abraham!
The answer depends on which type of longtermism we're talking about.
As an organization, Wild Animal Initiative is committed to the position that animals matter equally regardless of when they exist.
That is, we exist to help as many wild animals as we can as much as we can. All else equal, it doesn't matter to us whether that happens in our lifetimes or in the long-term future, because it feels the same to the animals in either case. We're not in the business of warm fuzzies -- despite the warmth and fuzziness of many of our clients.
In practice, because there are so many wild animals in the far future, that leads us to think about the far future a lot. It's the main reason we're laser-focused on supporting the growth of a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. As far as we can tell, that currently seems like the most reliable vehicle for institutionalizing an ethical and scientific framework capable of continuously serving wild animals' interests.
Several of our staff also believe that our decisions should primarily work backward from what we think would be best ~1000+ years from now. But we haven't committed to that as an organization.
This position has been called "strong longtermism." It's something we plan to consider further.
Even though it's not our official position, strong longtermists might still choose to donate to WAI -- because they believe we have the most promising theory of change, because they believe we're the most funding-constrained of available longtermist projects, or for other reasons.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear from anyone who has ideas on what we might do differently if we were to adopt a strong longtermist position.
My guess is that the EA AWF's grantees almost always have room for more funding. In addition to the reasons I think effective orgs generally tend to have room for more funding, the EA AWF does an excellent job highlighting neglected orgs in neglected areas.
I think the grantees least likely to have room for more funding are individuals, teams of less than 4 people, and high-impact projects within lower-impact organizations. But these are also the cases where it tends to be easiest to cold-call the grantee and get the full answer in a quick call. For example, an independent researcher could tell you "I'm doing this alongside my PhD so I really can't actually take on more projects" or "My last grant just ran out so I can keep working on this new project as long as I can pay for it."
Note that my reasoning might be motivated by the fact that I work for an org that receives substantial support from the EA AWF (Wild Animal Initiative), and part of my job includes fundraising. Hopefully my perspective contributes more than my bias detracts!
I'm sure others have much more considered thoughts on how to evaluate and communicate room for more funding, but here are some I've been musing on.
I've found it more productive to frame the question in the negative: "Why wouldn't this charity have room for more funding?"
I think that's because it only takes a few things to constrain a charity's growth, but when the org has room to grow, there are many directions it can grow. So when I try to think of the ways a charity could grow, I'm almost always going to underestimate the number of opportunities the charity itself has identified. For example, I might think a charity has exhausted the opportunities for a certain kind of campaign, but it probably wouldn't occur to me that they could make all of their campaigns much more effective if they hired an operations staffer with Salesforce expertise.
Starting with the negative framing, there seem to be only a few kinds of constraints a charity can have other than funding. Probably not exhaustive, but here's my list:
Funding is also a major constraint in wild animal welfare.
At Wild Animal Initiative, our core objective is to establish a self-sustaining academic field dedicated to improving wild animal welfare. This welfare focus is a major paradigm shift from the naturalness focus that currently dominates conservation biology and related disciplines.
That means one major constraint is the availability of interested scientists. Many researchers need to be persuaded before they can develop relevant projects.
However, we've been finding that we consistently underestimate the number of scientists who don't need any persuasion at all. Plenty of people pursue careers in wildlife sciences because they love wildlife the same way they love their pets: they just want animals to be happy. Then there are the people who pursued careers in wildlife sciences for other reasons, but devoted themselves to helping them after seeing wild animals suffer in their labs or in the wild. (One such researcher was so radicalized by her experiences studying flying snake biomechanics that she eventually became our executive director.)
Funding is the main thing keeping these scientists from researching the highest-priority wild animal welfare questions. Often, they have to put aside their welfare concerns to focus on projects that appeal to traditional conservation funders. Sometimes they manage to fund welfare research by appealing to funders' other priorities. These compromises tend to lead to suboptimal projects (e.g., exploring high-cost ways to improve rare species' welfare, rather than low-cost ways to improve common species' welfare). And even the best welfare projects funded by traditional funders tend to have limited impact, because the conservation spin makes it harder for other scientists to recognize the work and contribute to a cohesive research agenda.
More funding would give these scientists the support they need to come out of the woodwork. Eventually, Wild Animal Initiative would like to start a research fund we can use to issue calls for proposals on key themes in wild animal welfare. We're also really excited about the possibility of the EA Animal Welfare fund supporting academic wild animal welfare research. It's a big enough space that we're years away from funging each other, but it's still worth noting that the EA AWF will be a better funder for many projects that WAI could be, including:
[Observations from inside the charity pipeline]
As Mikaela said, the EA Animal Welfare Fund has a lot of leverage to strategically diversify the effective animal advocacy movement:
The EA Animal Welfare and ACE Recommended Charity Fund sometimes act as a pipeline, where a nascent project will seek support from the EA Animal Welfare Fund before growing into a more established charity that receives support from the ACE Recommended Charity Fund. One example of this pipeline is Wild Animal Initiative, which has received EA Animal Welfare Fund grants since 2017 (under the name Wild Animal Suffering Research), and became an ACE Top Charity in 2020.
I'm lucky enough to work for Wild Animal Initiative, and I can confirm that the EA AWF's support was essential to establishing enough of a track record that ACE could evaluate us. Without that funding, ACE just wouldn't have much to evaluate, and whatever we might have accomplished could not have been accomplished nearly as professionally.
As a former donor to the EA AWF, it's really important to me that it keep playing this role as the beginning of the high-impact project pipeline. So we're taking care to design a fundraising strategy that allows the EA AWF to dial down their funding for us as soon as possible. Over the next 2-5 years, we plan to grow a donor base rooted more and more in the broader wildlife advocacy movement. We'll need the EA AWF's support to get there, but once we get there, we're looking forward to freeing up more funding for fledgling ventures.