Denis Drescher

I’m mostly interested in global priorities research, the questions listed in the research agendas of CLR and GPI, and computational methods for approaching them. More on that in my post on my self-study directions.

I currently dedicate 60% of my time to this self-study and may occasionally write about my latest insights.

If you’re also interested in less directly optimific things – such as climbing around and on top of boulders or amateurish musings on psychology – then you may enjoy some of the posts I don’t cross-post from my blog, Impartial Priorities.

Pronouns they, he, she, or your new gender-neutral pronoun of choice.


Researchers Answering Questions

Wiki Contributions


Announcing the launch of EA Impact CoLabs (beta) + request for projects, volunteers and feedback

Hi Mats! That sounds splendid!

Meanwhile I’ve set up my wiki, started thinking about the structure of the template I’d like to use for the project pages, and have started reading up on your Google Docs. It’s impressive how thoroughly you’ve already evaluated your project concept!

My “idea foundry” project itself will have its own page in its wiki with more information on my future plans. That’ll make it easier to reflect on whether the whole thing is sustainable. I haven’t thought about it sufficiently myself. I’ll only publish individual pages once I have proofread them for possible info hazards and have gotten feedback from some trusted friends too.

… as well as a list of past/failed projects or lessons learned from projects

Yeah, and there are also a lot of ostensibly brilliant project ideas in various lists that I think are subtly deleterious. No one has attempted to realize them yet (at least the ones I vaguely recall and to my knowledge) but a project database with just a bit more detailed thinking may help to keep it that way. (Or else may inspire someone to come up with a way to realize the project in a way that avoids the subtly deleterious bits.)

… as long as you're OK with your wiki being separate from the project database

Totally. It feels like so far I’ve been wholly unconvinced by some 95+% of project ideas I’ve read about, so those should not end up on your platform. It would just be valuable – or essential – to be able to promote the top of the shortlist to potential founders.

My only slight hesitation for your approach is the effort involved in development and upkeep, we would rather offer a lower-value solution (just a list of ideas) that we can guarantee can be maintained than a higher-value solution (detailed wiki with required fields for each project idea) that has a large chance of being abandoned after a while.

I’m worried about that too. I’d be willing to risk it, pending further thinking. An alleviating factor is that the detailed reviews would be reserved for a small shortlist of projects. Most of them would just get a quick stub summary and the reason why I didn’t prioritize them.

I’ve read that you’re perfectly open to (for-profit) social enterprises and of course early-stage project in need of cofounders. But I see the term “volunteer” a lot in the materials. It has these particular associations with low commitment, low responsibility, no salary, nonprofits, etc. Is it the best synonym for the job? None of the alternatives I can think of is quite broad enough either – cofounder, collaborator, partner, talent, … – but I imagine that such word choices can influence what the platform will end up being used for. A platform for “cofounder matching” may end up being used for more high-value work than one for “volunteer matching,” maybe some sort of “Task Y” notwithstanding. But I’ve also heard that someone had the impression that cofounder matching is not a current bottleneck, which I found surprising.

I’ll get in touch through one of the channels you recommended.

Announcing the launch of EA Impact CoLabs (beta) + request for projects, volunteers and feedback

This sounds like really valuable project!

I’ve been thinking about helping to set up some sort of EA incubator ecosystem. My contribution could be to collect, organize, prioritize, and roadmap all the project ideas that are floating around. I’d apply some sort of process along the lines of that of Charity Entrepreneurship but with a much more longtermist focus. I’ve been envisioning this in the form of a wiki with a lot of stub articles for project ideas that didn’t pass the shallow review phase and a few comprehensive articles that compile (1) detailed thinking on robustness, importance, tractability, etc.; (2) notes from interviews with domain experts; (3) a roadmap for how the project might be realized; (4) descriptions of the sorts of skills and resources it will require; (4) talent, funding, and other buy-in that is maybe already interested; (5) a comment section for discussions. (Jan’s process could be part of this too.) Since this would take the format of a wiki, I could easily add other editors to contribute to it too. I wouldn’t make it fully publicly editable though. Ideally, there’d also be a forum post for each top project that is automatically updated when the wiki changes and whose comments are displayed on the wiki page too.

My main worry is that the final product will just collect dust until it is hopelessly outdated.

So I’ve been wondering whether there are maybe synergies here, e.g., along the lines where I do the above, and your platform can in the end reduce the risk that nothing ever comes of the top project ideas?

I’ve only spot-checked a few of your current projects, but it seems to me that they typically have project owners whereas my projects would typically start out with no one doing them and at max. vague buy-in of the sort “People X and Y are tentatively interested in funding such a project, and person Z has considered starting this project but is now working on something else because they couldn’t find a cofounder.” Do you think that would be a critical problem?

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

Create global distributed governments.

Governments as they exist today seem antiquated to me as they are linked to particular geographic regions, and the particular shapes and locations of those regions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Meanwhile some governments are good at providing for their people – social security, health insurance, enforcement of contracts, physical protection, etc. – so that’s fine, but there are also a lot of governments that are weak in one or more of these critically important departments.

If there were a market of competing global governments, we’d get labor mobility without anyone actually having to move. The governments that provide the best services for the cheapest prices would attract the most citizens.

These governments could draw on something like Robin Hanson’s proposal for a reform of tort law to incentivize a market for crime prevention, could use proof of stake (where the stake may be a one-time payment that the government holds in escrow or a promise of a universal basic income to law-abiding citizens) for some legal matters, and could use futarchy for legislation.

They could also provide physical services, such as horizontal health interventions and physical protection in countries where they can collaborate with the local governments.

An immediate benefit would be the reduction of poverty and disease, but they could also serve to unlock a lot of intellectual capacity by giving people the spare time to educate themselves on matters other than survival. They could define protocols for resolving conflicts between countries and lock in incentives to ensure that the protocols are adhered to. (I bet smart contracts can help with this.)

That way, they could form a union of autonomous parts sort of like the cantons of Switzerland. Such a union of global distributed governments could eventually become a de-facto world government, which may be beneficial for existential security and for enabling the Long Reflection.

Such a government could be bootstrapped out of the EA community. A nonpublic web of trust could form the foundation of the first citizens. If the system fails even when the citizenry is made up largely of highly altruistic, conscientious people who can pay taxes and share a similar culture, it’s probably not ready for the real world. But if it proves to be valuable, it can be gradually scaled up to a broader population spanning more different cultures.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

Hi, and thanks for running this AMA!

I’d be curious how you went about building the sort of network that allows you to identify promising projects in many different countries, including countries whose language and culture you may not be conversant in.

Two follow-up questions that may not be applicable: If this is a network of trusted experts who make grant recommendations to you when they notice such a project, then what, would you say, is the weight of their recommendation in the final grant decision? Should more funders outsource grant recommendations to be able to identify a wider variety of grant opportunities?

How do you stay emotionally motivated while working on highly specific problems?

The article “Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated” by Michelle Hutchinson seems related:

I find working on longtermist causes to be – emotionally speaking – hard: There are so many terrible problems in the world right now. How can we turn away from the suffering happening all around us in order to prioritise something as abstract as helping make the long-run future go well?

A lot of people who aim to put longtermist ideas into practice seem to struggle with this, including many of the people I’ve worked with over the years. And I myself am no exception – the pull of suffering happening now is hard to escape. For this reason, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how I approach this challenge, and how I maintain the motivation to work on speculative interventions despite finding that difficult in many ways.

This issue is one aspect of a broader issue in EA: figuring out how to motivate ourselves to do important work even when it doesn’t feel emotionally compelling. It’s useful to have a clear understanding of our emotions in order to distinguish between feelings and beliefs we endorse and those that we wouldn’t – on reflection – want to act on.

My personal cruxes for focusing on existential risks / longtermism / anything other than just video games

Thanks for telling me about this post!

I answered Brian’s questions at one point, which struck me as an interesting exercise. I suppose most of your questions here are semi-empirical questions to me thanks to evidential cooperation, and ones whose answers I don’t know. I’m leaning in different directions from you on some of them at the moment.

Cause Area: Human Rights in North Korea

Thank you for your comprehensive comment! :-D

I’ve added a note to the post that I accidentally changed the publishing date of it yesterday. I wanted to edit it but made it a draft instead, and when I reversed that, it must’ve bumped the date. All of this information is 3–4 years out of date.

Today I would approach things differently in three main ways:

  1. I would put a strong emphasis on trying to determine the robustness of all candidate interventions, by which I mean how likely I think they are to backfire in terrible ways, how many such ways I can think of, whether they can be preempted, or monitored and responded to, or whether they are more likely to happen suddenly and irreversibly or unknowably.
  2. I would take more seriously the possibility that extreme suffering is worse than median-levels of suffering by factors of 10, 100, or 1000 than by a factor of around 2. That would make the suffering in concentration camps and that of factory-farmed chickens vastly more important than it appears according to the calculations here.
  3. I would ask how this problem interacts with other problems, especially those that I deem even more urgent and important. For example, would a more human rights–respecting North Korea (or a united Korea under a South Korea–like government) improve existential security? Might it decrease the probability of some s-risks? Or would activism in this area, especially EA-adjacent activism, detract from the talent pools, funding, or attention that other problems, such as AI policy, have/receive?

Comparing the US prison population & NK: Yes, that comparison only serves to get an idea of the scale but leaves open how many comparatively difficult subproblems we’re dealing with in each case, what interventions there are to address them severally or all together, and hence how tractable the most tractable ones of these interventions are and at what rate they’re becoming less tractable up to the point where the problem is largely solved.

Estimates of total GDP lost in NK: I think I agree. Only two comments: (1) I think all the interventions I came up with except for the one concerning safer escape routes are either “meta” or aim at destabilizing the regime as a whole. Whatever connects and empowers the North Korean population or weakens the government makes it more likely that the government can be overthrown or at least becomes irrelevant. And (2), maybe the recovery of the former German Democratic Republic could be seen as a best-case scenario because there there was also a more developed part of the same country that it could reunite with and receive support from. But I think the cultural differences between North and South Korea are more extreme at this point than the differences between GDR and FRD.

Neglectedness: Indeed! But I don’t. I think people at Saram or the ICNK may have estimates though. I would imagine that government grants are transparent and that the charities in the space also publish their financials. Maybe the financials of the Ministry of Unification (other than grants) or South Korean intelligence are harder to know.

Tractability: Yes, I think that should be possible to estimate at least for someone who speaks Korean because a lot of North Koreans eventually flee to South Korea where they receive support and so are known to the authorities. The charities that support them to get through and out of China are often US-based, so maybe there’s even English-language information on this.

Intervention - Capacity building: Thank you! The first part is a mix of the idea that capacity building is a convergent instrumental goal in a lot of contexts and a general impression I got from discussions in EA. The second part may not be true. What I think was true at the time was that the space had these Attribution Moloch type of dynamics going on that made organizations more secretive and suspicious of each other. I don’t know if that’s still the case. But even without that problem, they may still not be able to do their research completely in the open because then the North Korean government can react to it more easily. For example, if you send aid via balloons into North Korea, the North Korean government can launch identical balloons of their own, ostensibly coming from the south, but with poisoned products or misinformation.

Thanks again for all your comments! I probably won’t write an updated version of the article, but I hope someone else will want to dig deeper!

Our plans for hosting an EA wiki on the Forum

Thanks for the clarification, and looking forward to the stub finder system! :-)

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