Alex is correct, Envision is not only targeting future tech leaders, it's targeting future leaders in tech development, policy, academia, and business.
On your last paragraph about other means of accomplishing what Envision has in mind:
• I agree on the importance of using existing ecosystems, and I think Envision is doing what you describe. Ie Entrepreneurship Club, a conference, being a student group, running a pitch competition, leveraging existing opinions and resources rather than producing our own. I would argue what Envision is doing is leveraging the existing ecosystem more than a student think-tank producing papers would be.
• The work of the Wilberforce Society is admirable, and we will certainly seek collaboration with them given this information about their concern for AI and the future of technology. But it doesn’t seem like the type of organization to attract entrepreneurs, future business leaders, and hardcore tech developers (I could be wrong about this). And signing up to write a paper about AI suggests a pre-established interest. Running such a panel is also high-effort, and it seems like it affected a handful of people.
Again, not to say anything negative about Wilberforce Society at all – just to make the point that I don’t think this is necessarily far more effective than Envision. I think they serve different goals and should both exist.
First of all, thank you so much again for taking the time to write out this post. You’ve convinced me of a fair amount of significant changes to our plan, and helped better clarify others.
However, you have not persuaded me to change course. I think I’ve argued quite convincingly why Envision adds value – and I welcome any additional arguments for why it does not, or disagreements with my points. For the sake of keeping this at a readable length I skimmed over some points and left the details to inference, so also feel free to ask for clarification.
Thank you for the model-building offer. Depending on whether you think the model is still worth it, we would be interested in discussing further.
As a final note, Envision is exciting. And excitement is powerful.
Thank you, Gregory. You raise excellent points. I will address them individually and then alltogether in conclusion.
1) That's correct, we will have to compete with other student groups. So far, our message appears powerful enough to give us a significant advantage, which will help partially compensate for our lack of a track record.
We also don’t necessarily have to compete. The strategy of partnering with other successful student groups (ie Entrepreneurship Club at Princeton; similar organizations at a handful of universities have expressed excitement at partnering with us and helping set up a chapter, although of course excitement does not necessarily equal actual work) appears to be sufficient to allow us to compete at a level that we're able to grow and sustain. Envision is in many ways a welcome addition to entrepreneurship groups so they’ve been very receptive so far to partnering and sharing resources.
2) Excellent point. To counter this, we’re focusing on building up an ecosystem of faculty advisors and partner organizations, which adds both prestige in the competition for student leaders and significantly increases the likelihood of sustainability.
I also think you underestimate the appeal of helping build a new organization, especially one working on something exciting, even if you don’t run it. However, I could be wrong on this.
Lack of investment by later leaders is certainly a problem. However, 1) investment is less important since the organization already exists so far less work is required, 2) continued involvement by a board of alumni will help keep the organization on track, and 3) with faculty advisor buy-in some of the continuity will stem from them. With this combination, a weak leader should not cause the organization to collapse.
3) A good point, and one we had not thought of in detail. A few thoughts: 1) we could just use external validation criteria, eg internships at the most competitive companies, although this is not necessarily indicative of future domain leadership. 2) Breadth is a strong solution to this; the more people we reach in absolute terms, the higher the likelihood we touch future leaders.
In light of your point, do you think it’s worth creating a predictive model at all? It would use up valuable man-power, and you’ve convinced me it would likely have limited impact.
4) This is a good point. Although it seems like having fellows could actually increase attendance at events. In any case, you’ve convinced me to defer a fellow program until at least after the conference before re-considering in light of the new evidence we’ll have gathered.
5) I disagree that the targets are ‘stratospheric’ – although they are optimistic. I also don’t see the problem with the ‘gung-ho start-up ethos’ – it gets quite a lot done. The targets are hard to achieve, and it’s very unlikely we’ll hit all of them, but we’ll try and get pretty far in the process. Failing at achieving optimistic targets but getting quite far towards them in striving is much preferable to achieving unambitious ones and sitting back in satisfaction.
Having made that philosophical objection, I do agree our targets are in some cases probably unrealistic. I’d welcome a more detailed explanation of which ones you think are unrealistic and why, as well as suggestions for more reasonable targets.
6) From my perspective, Envision fills a clear and gaping niche. ‘Interested in science and technology’ is different from ‘interested in the medium-term and long-term future of science and technology and what we can do to pioneer a better future with the tools we have and will have available.’ The differences: more action-oriented; focused on future issues that do not receive much attention on college campuses; more broadly focused on multiple technologies and how they interact; integrating technology and science with ethics, policy, and entrepreneurship.
To use reductio ad absurdum on your argument of there existing separate groups that each touch on an aspect of Envision: there have always been groups for altruistic people and groups for effective people. That does not mean a group for effectively altruistic people can add no value.
I also don’t see much overlap with EA groups – most of our members are not EA, even though many have heard of it. Keep in mind we’re targeting future leaders, in particular those who do not yet have a concern for safety or awareness of the future of technology, to help them learn about it.
A final note – I think you overestimate how many similar student groups exist. We’ve now exhaustively gone through all student organizations at over a dozen universities, and have not yet come across an organization with significant overlap that is run well to the point of making Envision unnecessary. Cambridge is among those with the most potential candidates (although we’ve also had the most interest from students there, in addition to MIT, about starting a chapter).
Finally, as a thought experiment – how many student organizations contain entrepreneurs and policy-makers not in the EA sphere and have Andrew Critch and Robin Hanson as speakers?
There is a lot to be said here. First, to break down your second sentence:
• Hyper-successful: I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I don’t see how Envision succeeding at its goals requires it. We certainly need success as a student group, but I don’t think we need substantially more than what would traditionally qualify as success for a student group, albeit repeated several times (which is certainly harder).
• Significant outside prestige: We need prestige among students, but I don’t see why outside prestige is necessary (if I’m interpreting this correctly). It helps with getting external organizations on board, but prestige is sufficient for this, not necessary – being students excited about the future of tech and an organization with the prospect of hiring opportunities, and in the EA sphere being a student organization with the goal of promoting safety, goes a long way.
• Access to extra-university elites: This is true, but we only need very limited access. Ie a few hours on a weekend to come speak or showcase your technology at a conference that pays for your flight, setting up a recruitment booth in return for providing a (for a company) small amount of money, having your name on a student organization and occasionally speaking to excited students, etc. We’ve so far been pretty successful at getting this since it’s low-cost. To be successful, we don’t need more than this – the more the better, but the acceptable threshold of access to ensure success is quite low.
In light of this, looking at some other student groups, I think the amount that fail is less than the vast majority, especially when keeping in mind we’re partnering with organizations like Entrepreneurship Club that have already been successful on most relevant metrics and can advise us, lend us their credibility, and help us with recruiting.
On repeating the same process: Here I agree with you. This is certainly one of the most difficult parts of Envision’s strategy. Even if our success is limited to Princeton, though (and I have high confidence we’ll establish at least a few additional chapters at significant universities), I think the net impact is still sufficient to justify building Envision.
With regards to your second sentence:
• Predicting elite leaders – I agree this is difficult, but as I explained in the point about this, not necessary to success. Casting a wide net at universities most likely to produce future leaders ensures high probability of impacting the correct people. Predicting future leaders would be hugely beneficial, but failure here does not invalidate the value proposition.
• Tempting them to invest their time and attention in you – They need only attend a few events and change their minds. We need officers, but this is only a tiny subset, and I think there’s sufficient message attraction to fill this. Getting people to attend events is not trivial, but certainly doable, and has been done before, including by us.
• Ensuring momentum and resilience – I agree that this is a major challenge. However, as I outlined above in the relevant point, I think building a framework will make this significantly easier.
• Getting a nucleus of highly effective leaders to start parallel groups at other universities – I completely agree that this is extremely difficult and highly competitive. But in my experience the draw of starting a new organization, even as a chapter, is quite high. And again, I think the message is powerful and will in itself attract several such highly effective leaders.
For reasons I have already elaborated, I disagree that we have no edge in principle (interpreting this as a synonym for message – correct me if I’m wrong).
Track record – I agree we don’t yet have this, but neither did any organization (especially student organization) upon founding. And the partnership with existing student organizations quite significantly mitigates this.
Great points, I completely agree. On your last question, this is an intriguing one. I think 10% is too low; they'll be sidelined, unless those 10% include most of the leadership and most socially influential individuals. Probably 50% is a good starting level, as long as this increases quite quickly.
Curious to hear everyone else's thoughts on this!
You raise good points, thank you for taking the time. To address them:
I don't think Envision is anywhere near as difficult a message to get across as EA. The basic idea already exists in latent form in many students, and the messaging is naturally attractive to those with ambition (who tend to have world-scale goals already), without the negative associations that often exist around the words "altruism" and "impact." The Princeton Futurist Society (Envision's previous name) has only been around for one semester and already has 91 members without a strong marketing effort and with an off-putting name; over 30 student groups at universities across the US have said they are planning to attend the conference (including in tech, engineering, entrepreneurship, and policy). We're not peddling a controversial message, or one that many perceive as in opposition to their own interests (which is how, in my experience, many see altruism and EA); the way I see it, we're giving words and tangible action paths to what people already want. I certainly could be wrong about this; it will become clearer over the next year. If I'm wrong strategy will be adjusted accordingly.
I also don't think we're developing our message from scratch. We're combining several different messages into one; ie the massive potential of technology, and the importance of safety in realizing that potential. There's many existing resources to draw from and existing ideas which make it a lot easier to build off of what exists, especially as compared to EA, which had less precedent. As a concrete example, we don't need to write any books about our message, we just need to promote books and invite speakers.
As a result of the above two points, I think it will be easier than you suggest to grow Envision, although ensuring the integrity of the organization and its message as it grows will certainly be a major challenge. That said, easier does not mean easy, and we certainly acknowledge that it will be difficult.
The danger of weak leaders is indeed serious, and one of the most likely failure scenarios to pan out, at least on a localized level. That's why we'll be cautious in founding chapters and are devoting significant time and effort to figuring out how best to identify good chapter founders. Any advice on this is much appreciated, as we have little prior experience to go off of.
I disagree that there's much overlap between EA and Envision; although they may appear similar, there's a deep distinction. The majority of those interested in Envision so far are either not, or barely, EA, including many that have heard of it. For various reasons, most entrepreneurs are not attracted to EA, but are attracted to Envision (our conference is co-hosted with Princeton Entrepreneurship Club). Although I don't want to speculate too much about the causes of this, I think there's a strong psychological difference between a movement whose primary goal is helping all sentient beings, with one of the tools being technology (a crude but I think sufficiently accurate description of EA) and a movement whose primary goal is the realization of technological development, done in a way that is beneficial to humanity. I could be wrong here and welcome any counter-points.
So to summarize, although EA and Envision are pursuing a similar end state and there's some similarity in the means, there's a pretty fundamental distinction in the mindset and implementation, which means Envision appeals to many who are not attracted by EA. And I think that audience will play a pivotal role in shaping humanity's future.
I also agree with AGB's points below; will comment separately.
I hope that addresses all your points; let me know if it didn't or if you have any additional questions and/or counter-points.
The specifics aren't worked out yet, but we're working with EA Build and will coordinate with individual EA chapters at the universities we found chapters at. The general idea is that members of EA chapters who are interested in technology and the future will help with the setting up and growing of Envision chapters, and we will direct Envision members who seem interested in EA towards the EA chapter. There may be some events co-hosted; this is probably context-specific.
Great to hear! They are not; although we have some funding, we are still far from fully funded to execute on all our projects. If you're interested, shoot me an email at email@example.com and we can discuss further.
Have you looked into why SC failed and if there's parallels between its organizational structure and EA's? Although you've convincingly argued that in many of the specifics the two movements differ significantly, there might be useful insights into how to prevent failure modes in a more general sense of a movement seeking to improve altruism.