Marty Nemko

-5 karmaJoined Dec 2022


Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of innovation from U.C. Berkeley. Advisor: Michael Scriven. 

How I can help others

I am interested in improving what is deemed "effective" altruism so as to have greater impact on humankind.


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Maximally Effective Altruism

Imagine that two people are lost at sea, with only enough food for one. One is the world’s most promising cancer researcher while the other, to be polite, has far less potential to improve humankind. Most people would wisely choose the cancer researcher.

Yet the fashionable Effective Altruism movement focuses on lower-potential people—typically, people who are struggling in poor countries. That implies the belief that all lives have roughly equal value. Of course, our hearts go out to “the least among us,” but they face so many barriers. If we care to maximally benefit humankind, we’re wiser to invest in people with great potential for ripple effect who, importantly, would not otherwise get fully funded.

For example, leading lights in the Effective Altruism movement are far from downtrodden, for example, William McCaskill, Holden Karnofsky, Peter Singer, and Zvi Moshowitz. Effective altruism might fund such people to develop ever more “ripply” altruism.

Some other possibilities for more ripply and thus more effective altruism:

— SuperCourses: online versions of standard school courses taught by dream teams of transformational instructors, augmented by vivid demonstrations and gamification. Of course, instruction would be individualized, not just in pace but in teaching approach. Machine learning would make that individualization ever better, and automatic translation would make SuperCourses available in many languages. The development of SuperCourses would enable every student, rich and poor, kindergarten through college, Alabama to Zululand, to get a world-class education. The private and government sectors haven’t funded this—I have proposed SuperCourses to top U.S. and California education officials and gotten nowhere. One reason is the fear that the teacher’s union would use its might to try to stop it to preserve teacher jobs. But if developed and disseminated worldwide, SuperCourses could be very effective altruism indeed.

— Independent researchers studying solutions that are promising but have a poor chance of success. Governmental and corporate funding sources tend to invest in institution-based researchers whose projects have higher probability of near-term success. But if the focus is on long-term risk-reward, effective altruism would include independent, unaffiliated researchers working in their home-office or garage who are exploring novel ways to, for example, lower the cost of nuclear fusion energy, develop better AI-driven models for predicting and foiling terrorism and even for assessing a war’s worthiness, e.g., the U.S. entering World War II versus the war in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

— People developing ever better mental health apps, for example, using ChatGPT. Such apps could be distributed worldwide to countries rich and poor—Cell phones are ubiquitous even in poor nations. Private sources are funding development of such apps, but such development deserves greater funding given the apps’ potentially great ripple effect.

— Researchers studying the enhancement of reasoning ability, impulse control, and altruism. For largely political reasons, those research areas are underfunded by government and corporations but, with sufficient ethical guardrails, such research has great ripple potential to provide major benefit to humankind.

— People developing software that matches mentors with protégés, available worldwide. It would be like but for mentor/protégé, relationships—Many protégés and mentors say that mentorship has been among their life’s greatest learning experiences. Such software would facilitate that. Alas, the matching industry, despite having been around for decades, has remained focused on romantic relationships. That makes mentor-matching apps a good candidate for effective altruism.

Again, it’s understandably tempting to want to help “the least among us,” those with the greatest deficits. After all, we feel good in helping them and it’s a fashionable form of virtue signaling. But if we truly care about humankind and are willing to focus on the greatest ultimate benefit, ripple should be the core criterion for determining what is maximally effective altruism.

Perhaps this article I've recently written will be helpful. It offers a number of examples of what I believe are more effective altruism than what the EA movement mainly touts: