All of GMcGowan's Comments + Replies

Digital people could make AI safer

I definitely think it's an (the most?) important argument against. Some of this comes down to your views on timelines which I don't really want to litigate here. 

I guess I don't know how much research leading to digital people is likely to advance AI capabilities. A lot of the early work was of course inspired by biology, but it seems like not much has come of it recently. And it seems to me that we can focus on the research needed to emulate the brain, and try not to understand it in too much detail.

Digital people could make AI safer

That could happen. I would emphasise that I'm not talking about whether we should have digital minds at all, just when we get them (before or after AGI). The benefit in making AGI safer looms larger to me than the risk of bad actors - and the threat of such bad actors would lead us to police compute resources more thoroughly than we do now.

Digital people may be less predictable, especially if "enhanced", I think that the trade-off is still pretty good here in that they almost entirely approximate human values versus AI systems which (by default) do not at all. 

Digital people could make AI safer

I agree shooting for digital people is a bad plan if timelines are short. I guess I'm not sure how short they would need to be for it not to be worth trying.

I think if we wanted to produce BCIs we should just shoot for that directly - doesn't seem like the best plan for getting to digital people is also the best plan for getting BCIs.

I think that insofar as neuroscience helps make AI, that just speeds up progress and is probably bad.

EA and the current funding situation

That person is Oliver Yeung and he has done a two part talk where he discusses this - main talk, Q&A.

(I spoke to him to okay sharing these, if any interviewer wants to speak to him then DM me and I can put you in touch)

EA and the current funding situation

there will be someone in the world whose full-time job and top-priority it is to figure out how to write a proposal, or give you a pitch at a party, or write a blogpost, or strike up a conversation, that will cause you to give them money, or power, or status


IMO, a reasonable analogy here is to the relationship between startups and VCs.

What do VCs do to weed out the lemons here? Market forces help in the long run (which we won't have to the same degree) but surely they must be able to do this to some degree initially.

We're announcing a $100,000 blog prize

I would expect people to just cross post relevant posts?

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

Thanks for this comment! Hard for me to give satisfying answers to everything which is the sign of a particularly good critique IMO. Re: PricedOut I will speak to you privately.

Gove's support for Street Votes seems to have been a passing thing, and the window for action may well have closed.

Unless you have private information then I don't really see how you're inferring this? He publicly supported it around the end of November and has said little since then. My understanding from his public statements are that they are still deciding exactly what to do and... (read more)

4Peter McLaughlin7mo
Just on the Gove point: I have no private information, and perhaps I should have hedged more (the verb 'seems' was an attempt to communicate uncertainty, but reading my comment back I wasn't clear enough); but just going on Gove's patterns of behaviour, I have quite low confidence that he's still particularly enamoured with Street Votes, albeit with large error bars on that number. Perhaps I am inferring too much from an absence of evidence, but Gove definitely has a pattern in basically all the portfolios he's held: he appears to value novelty in policy for its own sake, and jumps at a lot of proposed reforms that are radical and 'clever'; but, precisely because of this, is very fast-moving and goes through policy proposals very quickly, leaving a lot on the table that he seemed to be a big fan of. I make no judgment on the value of this approach, but I think it's relatively clear that it is Gove's approach. This is partly explained by the time he spent with Cummings as his SpAd, but only partly - I think it's more generally just part of his political 'style', that maybe he learned from Cummings but has retained since then. The endorsement of Street Votes seemed to me to fit this pattern; and because he's since become relatively silent on housing policy, my confidence that he still cares much about Street Votes is low. But I've got large error bars because (a) I'm inferring from Gove not saying something, which is always a risky way of figuring out what someone thinks (b) my reasoning is based on trying to identify patterns of behaviour in someone I don't actually know or have any particular insight into, and (c) a lot of the evidence could be explained by the alternative hypothesis of 'Gove genuinely believes in the policy, but hasn't said much more because the government has just been putting out fires for the last few months'. My prior for 'Gove says he likes a policy just because it's novel and clever, but has no real commitment to it' is thus doing much of the
Cause Area: UK Housing Policy


I'd always been a bit interested in the area as a bystander. In the first half of 2021 I realised that a) I had more money to donate over the next few years than I expected and that b) the EA movement had more money than I'd thought. This made me think that I should try to find something a bit unexplored to do with my donations. I went through the Founders Pledge research reports and this struck me as a good bet, where my donations would fill up a lot of the RFMF.

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

Great graph. I should probably have included some discussion of this being largely a regional problem.

Yes, to be clear Founders Pledge did tell me that this was probably worse than GD/other things all things considered, so I am going against their recommendation to do this.

One argument for this being better than GiveDirectly might be that there is large value of information from the policy. If street votes gets through and produces large economic benefits without annoying the nimbys, then other countries could copy the approach. Proving it works in a large economy could have huge demostration effects since pretty much all rich countries have big supply problems. This could be a very big deal - it's arguably one of the top constraints on global growth along with immigration controls, limited R&D funding etc. 

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

I agree that the outside view of changes here looks grim.

I think it isn't exactly neglected when it comes to public attention, but the focus on supply isn't really there and most policies that are proposed are not very good. So IMO there is space for orgs that focus on supply and promote actually good policies.

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

Indeed, there are potential other positive effects (as with many causes). The biggest one for me would be if this lowers the perceived cost of immigration by reducing competition for relatively fixed housing, and thus enables more immigration. I think that's pretty speculative though, so I didn't include it in the post.

Alas, such an analysis is beyond me!

3Max Ghenis7mo
This blog post [] establishes some links between housing scarcity and immigration: Cavaille and Ferwerda (2017) [] provide a well-identified channel:
7John G. Halstead7mo
this recent post [] argues that more dense urban housing would have lots of benefits for the climate , inequality, falling fertility.
Donating effectively does not necessarily imply donating tax-deductibly

This made me more likely to give non tax-deductibily, and gives a useful resource to link to for other people

Democratising Risk - or how EA deals with critics

I'm not sure your points about the average global citizen being homophobic, religious, socialist, etc., actually matter that much when it comes to people deciding where they should allocate funding for existential risk

I vaguely remember reading something about religious people worrying less about extinction, but I don't remember whether that was just intuition or an actual study. They may also be predisposed to care less about certain kinds of risk, e.g. not worrying about AI as they perceive it to be impossible.

(these are pretty minor points though)

The Unweaving of a Beautiful Thing

Do you have links to your other writing? Would love to read more of your work.

I've only recently started trying to get my stories out there, so I'm afraid I don't have anything else online yet. Hopefully I will soon, as I have some stories under consideration at online magazines. If any get accepted, I'll try to remember to post a link in response to this comment.

Where are you donating in 2021, and why?

Two main places this year:

1) My employer gives £8k of matching funds, so I spent that on the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund. I like this because: a) it gives me something obviously good to recommend to my colleagues to do with their matching. b) I like for some of my donations to go to things which are obviously good. c) I cannot give these funds to non-charities.

2) My other target this year was slightly different. I've been funding work around land use/housing policy reform in the UK. Nearing £30k given here so far. Primarily this is due to the arguments ou... (read more)

The 2021 EA Funds Donor Lottery is now open

Nice, excited to see the $2m block!

If you’re not sure, we suggest that you aim to enter with a 1%-30% chance of winning.

What's the logic here? Expected value is the same in all cases right?

Can you share who the guarantor is this year? 

Yep, the expected value remains the same, it's just a suggestion to encourage people make an entry that has a non-negligible chance of winning. As we say in the preceding sentence, there's no minimum entry size, so if you want to enter with a very long shot, that's entirely possible. As in previous years, the lottery is guaranteed by funds held at CEA on behalf of Carl Shulman.
Questions about YIMBY

Good post. If you're interested, the "Street Votes" idea was developed into a detailed policy paper by another UK think tank, and then proposed to Parliament by some MPs. Shortly afterwards the housing minister was sacked and a new minister appointed, so things could go either way.

Founders Pledge also did a great report on this topic, where they try to estimate the extent of the problem (in the UK) and the benefits of fixing it.

Economic policy in poor countries

Off topic, but I didn't realise you'd left Founders Pledge. May I ask what you're up to now?

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

That's true. I just listened to the most recent 80k podcast where they joke about buying up GPUs so it was in my head :) 

1Nathan Young1y
Haha, fair :)
What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

FWIW my reading of the question is: "What projects could be created, that have the potential to scale to $100m".  I didn't read it as suggesting funding a megaproject from scratch.

Many EA projects are of the "start a research institute" flavour, and will likely never absorb $100m. I see the post as a plea for projects which could (after starting with smaller amounts and then scaling) absorb these sums of money. Much like Givedirectly wasn't started with $100m/year budget right away, but has proven itself capable of deploying that much funding.

I think that's my guess too, but I could easily imagine some readers not getting that. "Megaproject" as a term has often referred to projects that have to be planned in advance.

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Out of all the ideas, this seems the most shovel-ready. 

MacArthur will (presumably) be letting go of some staff who do nuclear policy work, and would (presumably) be happy to share the organisations they've granted to in the past. So you have a ready-made research staff list + grant list.

All ("all" :) ) you need is a foundation and a team to execute on it. Seems like $100 million could actually be deployed pretty rapidly. 

Possibly not all of that money would meet EA standards of cost-effectiveness though - indeed MacArthur's withdrawal provides some evidence that it isn't cost effective (if we trust their judgement).

Here's the interesting, frustrating evaluation report:[16].pdf
Looks to me like a classic hits-based giving bet - you mostly don't make much impact, then occassionaly (Nixon arms control, H.W. Bush's START and Nunn-Lugar, maybe Obama JCPOA/New START) get a home run.

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Proof of concept for a geoengineering scheme (could be controversial)

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Buy up scarce resources which are being used for bad things and just sit on them. Like the thing where you buy rainforest to prevent logging. Coal mines, agricultural land used for animals, GPUs?!

7Neel Nanda1y
Interesting idea! I think this works much better when supply is constrained, eg land, and not when supply is elastic (eg GPUs). I'm curious whether anyone has actually tried this
4Nathan Young1y
Feels like buying GPUs would just increase their production.
What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Activist investment fund which invests in large companies and then leans on them to change their policies. Examples abound in climate change, but other than that:

  • Food related companies to stop factory farming
  • Biotech companies to stop them from doing gain of function or mirror life research

Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million. We could try to buy some other media groups, or at least a significant number of shares in them. Some are probably too big, like the New York Times at $8 billion market cap and Fox Corporation at $20 billion.

I think food-related companies are also probably too big relative to impact, with market caps in the billions or tens of billions of dollars for Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, JBS SA, McDonald's. You could buy shares in smaller ones, but they also probably have a disproportionately smaller share of farmed ani... (read more)

What would you do if you had half a million dollars?

Thanks for the post, I found your thoughts interesting. I’m always glad to see discussions of where people are donating.

In general, it kind of seems like the "point" of the lottery is to do something other than allocate to a capital allocator. The lottery is "meant" to minimise work on selecting a charity to give to, but if you're happy to give that work to another allocator I feel like it makes less sense?

With that in mind, I have a couple of thoughts for things you might consider:

  • Lottery again! You could sponsor CEA to do a $1m lottery. If you thought it
... (read more)

In general, it kind of seems like the "point" of the lottery is to do something other than allocate to a capital allocator.

If you enter a donor lottery your expected donation amount is the same as if you didn't enter the lottery. If you win the lottery, it will be worth the time to think more carefully about where to allocate the money than if you had never entered, as you're giving away a much larger amount. Because extra time thinking is more likely to lead to better (rather than worse) decisions, this leads to more (expected) impact overall, even though... (read more)

In general, it kind of seems like the "point" of the lottery is to do something other than allocate to a capital allocator. The lottery is "meant" to minimise work on selecting a charity to give to, but if you're happy to give that work to another allocator I feel like it makes less sense?

When I entered the lottery, I hadn't given much thought to what I'd do if I won—I was convinced by the argument that giving to the lottery dominated giving to the LTFF (for example), since if I won the lottery I could just decide to give the money to the LTFF. I think... (read more)

EA Superpower?! 😋

There is a fantastic short story about an EA superman. Quite indulgent but I highly recommend: 

There were two words that Superman lived by, and they were “pay me”.

His time was auctioned off in blocks of five minutes. He didn’t need to sleep, so he stopped sleeping, which meant that there were 288 blocks of his time available per day, with ten blocks set aside for administration. It was rare that any of these blocks went for less than a million dollars, which meant that after his first full year in operation as Superman, he made over a hundred billion

... (read more)
Where are you donating in 2020 and why?

Thanks for reading!

I meant investing for a shortish period of time, and retaining control of the funds until I donate. So it would mostly be about deferring the decision for a bit while still getting tax benefits, as opposed to delegating the decision to the trustees of the Long-Term Fund. 

I  lean towards giving sooner instead of later for "hinginess" reasons. I also think the vast majority of EA resources are already invested in some sense (in human capital, expansion orientated organisations or  Open Philanthropy finances). 

I do think your fund is a good idea though, I can imagine changing my mind and there are certainly plenty of people who disagree with me!

How You Can Counterfactually Send Millions of Dollars to EA Charities

I broadly agree that cash management could be improved at many charities, so thanks for this post!

The interest rate for the fiscal year should probably be based on the best available bank account rate. I think that is considerably less than your given interest rates, for example in the UK the best business savings account I could find offered about 0.9%.

That’s a good point! While UK and US interest rates do differ, the interest rates are much lower now because of the COVID-19 economic situation. We used the latest Form 990 data from 2018 and 2019 and the associated interest rates from those years to calculate the prior-year opportunity costs as accurately as possible, which is a separate calculation than estimating the forward-looking counterfactual impact. We chose the federal funds rate because there’s a lot more granular and historical data on it and it’s one of the most conservative rates possible. There’s a link in my article explaining its association with savings account yields. If you look at my EA Forum post from 2019 I was referencing savings account rates of 2.4% which was the same or higher than the federal funds rate at the time. In my talk earlier this year I listed savings account yields at banks that were around 1% even as the federal funds rate was plummeting to 0%. That’s why I used a more conservative 1% interest rate in my five-year opportunity cost calculation for GiveWell (estimated at $4 million), which aligns with the lower UK interest rate of 0.9% you mentioned.
Where are you donating in 2020 and why?

I wrote about my donation decisions this year on my blog. I'm hoping to ramp up my giving over the next four years so I've decided to be more public about my thoughts.

TL;DR: I’m giving away £35k this year. £3.5k to SCI and the remainder to the Long Term Future Fund

Hi George, thanks for sharing this! You wrote in your blog that you were considering investing your money, but that this was difficult in the UK. If you are referring to investing to give [] rather than just postponing for a year, FYI we'll likely have a Long-Term Investment Fund [] at Founders Pledge by the end of next year, which we might open up to the public and will likely be accessible from the UK. Do let me know if this would interest you, as knowing there is non-member interest might inform our decisions around opening it up.
Thanks for writing about your 2020 donations and future donation plans, and for sharing a link here! I found the linked post interesting. Really cool to hear you'll be ramping up your giving even further in the coming years, and putting (even) more time into finding and deciding on donation opportunities.
Long-Term Future Fund: Ask Us Anything!

What would you like to fund, but can't because of organisational constraints? (e.g. investing in private companies is IIRC forbidden for charities).

2Jonas Vollmer2y
If a private company applied for funding to the LTFF and they checked the "forward to other funders" checkbox in their application, I'd refer them to private donors who can directly invest in private companies (and have done so once in the past, though they weren't funded).
It's actually pretty rare that we've not been able to fund something; I don't think this has come up at all while I've been on the fund (2 rounds), and I can only think of a handful of cases before. It helps that the fund knows some other private donors we can refer grants to (with applicants permission), so in the rare cases something is out of scope, we can often still get it funded. Of course, people who know we can't fund them because of the fund's scope may choose not to apply, so the true proportion of opportunities we're missing may be higher. A big class of things the LTFF can't fund is political campaigns. I think that might be high-impact in some high-stakes elections, though I've not donated to campaigns myself, and I'm generally pretty nervous of anything that could make long-termism perceived as a partisan issue (which it obviously is not). I don't think we'd often want to invest in private companies. As discussed elsewhere in this thread, we tend to find grants to individuals better than to orgs. Moreover, one of the attractive points of investing in a private company is that you may get a return on your investment. But I think the altruistic return on our current grants is pretty high, so I wouldn't want to lock up capital. If we had 10-100x more money to distribute and so had to invest some of it to grant out later, then investing some proportion of it in companies where there's an altruistic upside might make more sense.
Where are you donating in 2020 and why?

I have a cryonics contract with Alcor, and I pay annual dues to them. Most of this is counted as charitable giving.

Can you say a little bit more about this? I tend not to think of cryonics as charitable.

Haven't read into it, but this LessWrong essay contest [] was about the relationship between EA and cryonics. I also have the gut feeling that I'd not view a cryonics contract for myself as following my altruistic ideal for helping others, as it would have strong benefits for myself. Maybe one might want to tell Alcor to randomly choose a new customer and pay the contract for them. If I wouldn't be so excited about cryonics anymore, then probably my excitement came from something else than altruistic impact.
Tax Havens and the case for Tax Justice

There seems to be something wrong with your footnotes formatting. They all direct me to create a new post on the EA forum, as opposed to linking to the bottom of the page. E.g. ``

1Alex Barnes 2y
Yes, sorry, I messed them up.

Interesting angle that I hadn't considered before!

Presumably this reasoning would change the calculus for a lot of other actions one could take as well? E.g. various types of global development spending that pay off in the future (e.g. deworming) would become worse relative to spending that pays off soon (e.g. bednets).

Rather than a mere 14 QALYs, kidney donation produces hundreds if not thousands of expected QALYs.

I feel that this may be too strong a claim. In the very long run, I would expect the population to rise to whatever the carrying capacity ... (read more)

Lunar Colony

The same goes for bunkers

For what it's worth, Nick did a shallow investigation of bunker building and found it was likely not very effective (not that this necessarily argues against general efforts to increase civilisation's robustness).

Yep, the robustness thing is picked up by Jebari [] while some GCRI folks give their own remarks in "Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes"
Donor lotteries: demonstration and FAQ

How do you view this interacting with considerations of giving now vs later? An alternate plan would be invest my donations for e.g. 10 years, then those plus interest would be enough to make me a largeish donor for that year - presumably with lower transaction and coordination costs.

If there are relevant economies of scale then they would be worth capturing in whatever period you are donating. Restriction to reaching the desired scale through investment returns by the desired time periods would rule things out for most small donors and belief sets where it matters, so I think measures like donor lotteries or derivatives would still add value if one expects increasing returns. Donating every few years from one's DAF in larger increments makes sense to me, but on a 10 year time scale you could miss out on the expiration of low-hanging fruit as funding in relevant causes becomes more crowded.,
Should effective altruism have a norm against donating to employers?

Does that include National Insurance? As you can't claim back NI from Gift Aid, but you never pay it if you forego salary, the saving looks like it would be 12% on employee NI and 13.8% on employer NI (if I'm interpreting the taxes properly).


4Owen Cotton-Barratt6y
Wow, thanks. It was supposed to represent National Insurance, but it was based on a remembered figure. I think I must have worked out an average rate and assumed it was marginal at some point; perhaps this was also just on employee contributions. Anyhow, I think that makes it 22.5% lost to taxes (so +29% on your donation) if you're a basic rate taxpayer, and 13% lost (+15% on donation) if you're a higher rate taxpayer. Adding another mark in the "Look factual information up even when you think you know the answer" ledger.
Open Thread 2

I think old people just have more resources than young people, so they give less as a proportion of their resources.

Alternatively, you might think old people have had a lot of time to develop commitments to various causes, and so feel obligated to give more.

Back when I was involved with party politics, I heard someone mention that pensioners with basically unlimited free time were a really major asset for the campaigns of the older and more established parties.
Open Thread

Have there been movements broadly like EA before? What happened to them? More generally, why have these ideas become so popular now as opposed to a few decades ago?

I believe the advent of the Internet has allowed scholars into abstract ideas like effective altruism (and associated communities, and cause areas) to coordinate their advocacy, and research, better than ever before. As they find one another, they build a unified and solid front which draws more attention to itself than any lone researcher or advocate could. From there, and for the last few years, the attention snowballs to form a concerned community. Larger, more frequent discussions with more publicity, and better information, accelerate the generation of new ideas. This recursively happened until a movement formed. Again, this is enabled by the Internet, especially in the last decade, what with Wikipedia, and better search engines, which allow individuals with unconventional ideas to discover others who share similar ideas like never before.

Thanks for making this Ryan, I love it already!