Karthik Sekar

132Emeryville, CA 94608, USAJoined Aug 2021

Bio

I'm Karthik, a scientist by training in biochemical engineering and systems/quantitative biology. I've been keen on the Effective Altruism movement since first hearing about it on Sam Harris' podcast in 2016. I'm particularly motivated by the problem of farmed animal agriculture, and have steered my life and pursuits accordingly. I currently work as a Data Scientist at Climax Foods to develop next-generation vegan food products. And I've also authored a book about the impending end of animal agriculture--focusing on how poor and inefficient animals are as a production system (the "technological" argument against animal ag). Book is titled After Meat, and more info is here: https://aftermeatbook.com/

Comments
12

Hey Johannes, thanks for this. I think that transitioning the world from consuming animal products is imperative, so I'm in favor of trying such a project. And I think it would be well-worth funding and setting up to collect useful data. 

Some other considerations:

  • How will people be enticed to such a program / courses? As the other comment says, most people who would join would already lean plant-based. But what about a cook together and eat together situation and make it like a social meetup?
  • For families, they might be helped by more meal plans and batch cooking. Vegan family kitchen provided this for example. On a similar note, if I'm cooking for just myself, I tend to value expediency, cost, and nutrition at the expense of taste. I suspect that many potential participants would be similar.
  • Ideally, the program would probe participants after a year or so and see how much of their diet/cooking is vegan. We'd want to understand when and why recidivism occurs. 
  • Feel free to reach out to Animal Charity Evaluators about funding. They know the animal charity space the best and can advise on who to ask. I'd be happy to introduce you, if helpful. 

Hey Johannes, I'll reply with some thoughts over the next few days. Thanks!

Alex, I appreciate the thoughtful comment and all of the edits. I gave you an upvote, but I'm still far from convinced that this is worth EA's time and money. Most of what you've written so far as convinced me that poor, unstable governance is the ultimate pathology to treat, and Bitcoin is a potential ointment for (some) resultant symptoms. I know EAers work on improving election and democracy systems. A few more follow up thoughts on a few of your remarks:

Responding to (3) and (5): Sure, I see other issues that need to be worked out, for example, governments being able to tax fairly to pay for social goods such as schools and health care. I'm not convinced that the problems solved here outweigh those sorts of bad.

Responding to (6): How much of this is just fundamental though? Any sort of "customer service" will require a middle man, i.e. a brokerage or institution. It's not like we can retrofit the blockchain to have a "Forgot my Password" feature. 

Responding to (7): But how much better? Are we better off into investing into anti-corruption projects or the democracy improvement ones? 

I'm still unclear on the problems that Bitcoin is solving versus fiat. I can also imagine many issues that Bitcoin has that fiat doesn't. This post is a one-sided take, and it'd be more honest to put both the disadvantages/advantages side-by-side by fiat. There are clear advantages to our current system that we'd give up by switching more to Bitcoin; for example, if I lose my banking account login information, I can recover it with the help of a customer service representative. Whereas if I lose my wallet keys, I'm screwed.

Furthermore, fiat benefits the population because a central actor can intervene. I don't see it as necessarily evil that the Fed can perform quantitative easing to fight inflation or stimulate economic growth, say when a crippling pandemic hits. Could many of the issues you're highlighting be solved just by better functioning government?

Some other more specific issues: 

State control of money has empowered corruption, surveillance, and restriction of people’s ability to save and transact freely.

Why/how does Bitcoin solve corruption? Also, all the transactions are public. If I'm performing Bitcoin transactions in China, the government will be able to surveil my transactions. Whereas, no one else can deduce my Bank of America transactions without having access to the system.

Lack of accountability

I'm not seeing how this solved by Bitcoin. Malefactors can obfuscate financial behavior with Bitcoin too.

Let me end by asking whether Bitcoin can solve significant problems better than fiat. Problems include climate change, suffering, risk of pandemics, risk of misaligned AI, disease, and poverty. With scant altruism resources, are we best served to invest it into Bitcoin projects in order to do the most good?

I'd love to join, but it looks like the form is going to the July link.

Thank you! I appreciate the kind words :)

Hi Richard, I recently wrote a post that tackles the concern on whether personal choice on veganism can have meaningful consequences: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/aMFFWhiQX5DvaZSDp/the-tipping-point-case-for-vegan-advocacy

Short answer, yes. Personal choices can help shift the S-curve for the transition, which has huge consequences. 

Indeed. To be clear, when I refer to publications, I refer to traditionally published ones: where the papers are submitted to journals, editors will determine if it's impactful enough, and then it's sent out to review. This is such a belabored process, especially in the age of the internet. And for what it's worth, the competition is exacerbated by the lack of space in lofty journals. 

And sure, we can't jettison publications without something taking it's place. It still could be papers, just not traditionally published ones. We saw this play out during the pandemic where papers on Coronavirus were placed on pre-print servers such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv. Comments and refutations were posted in real-time. In my view, science needs to proceed in this direction. We need more real-time science. We can't have science that remains hidden from the public view because Reviewer #3 thinks one more experiment is needed, thus dragging out publication by another year. 

We're  not going to diminish competition without creating more permanent positions in academia or opportunities for academic scientists. Competition is so fierce to become a professor, which is in short supply and seemingly the only path to work permanently in academia. One idea is to have more non-traditional routes, such as a loftier, permanent post-doctoral scientist positions. These could be scientists who don't run a lab, but may work in one and do primary research themselves. 

Thanks for this post. I agree with many of your points. I see science as a problem-solving engine, and yes, if it's not operating as well as it could be then that's a huge opportunity cost for issues such as treating diseases, transitioning to clean energy/meat, etc.

One thought about the publishing and incentives: If funders can be convinced not to care about publications or to weigh other efforts the same or more, e.g. posting and commenting on pre-prints, then that could break the strangle that the publishing industry holds on the scientific enterprise. Institutions mostly care about how well a researcher raises money. If they see that they can hire a professor who doesn't have lofty publications, but will have access to funding, then I suspect traditional publications will become increasingly moot. To a certain degree, we see this with Math and Physics, where many impactful papers just get published as pre-prints on ArXiV. The papers may never actually be traditionally published. 

Life sciences research still has a way to go. I was thinking if private funders such as HHMI or the Gates Foundation could be lobbied to weigh publications less in their funding decisions, then that may help here. 

Private funding for alternative food is eye-popping, to say the least. "Buzzy" is a good descriptor :)

I hesitate to make any proclamations on what's too much or too little, as it does depend on the counterfactual. I think the problems that Beyond Meat are trying to solve are worthwhile. Giving them cheaper capital helps their efforts. Glad it's going there versus, say, Palantir. 

I spent Chapter 9 discussing specific funding opportunities, but I thought of a couple of ones since the book went to the presses:

  • Fundamental characterization of casein and casein micelles. Casein micelles impart the desired properties of cheese: the meltability, stretchiness, as well as the ability to form cheese curds. Much about casein biochemistry is just unknown: how do the different casein molecules form into the casein micelles? What are the caseins and micelles doing during the stretch process? These are questions that can be answered by academic efforts with modest funding (millions).
  • How should we tackle agriculture subsidies? In Chapter 10, I write about how intricate and interconnected the subsidies are. The tangled web makes it hard to know where even to start. Do we go for something big like crop insurances? Or something more tractable such as lobbying to exclude animal agriculture from the EQIP program, which helps them save money by getting funding for environmental compliance. (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/)
    If we could pay for a team to sit down and calculate all this, then I think that would pay dividends. It's boring and unsexy, but, man, it would be so impactful.
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