Category Archives: Effective Altruism

Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)

In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production. Continue reading

Oops Prize

if you don’t correct errors, you don’t get anything done, because you stay wrong. I don't think we do enough to reward saying oops.

Lately, I’ve been complaining about ways the EA community’s been papering over problems in ways that forgo this sort of learning. But while complaining is important, on its own it doesn’t offer any specific vision for how to do things. At the recent EA Global conference in Boston, I was reflecting with a friend on what sorts of positive norms I would like to see in the discourse.

One example of something I wish I saw more of, is people publicly and very clearly saying, "we tried X, it didn’t work, so now we’re stopping.” Or, “I used to believe X, and as a result asked people to do Y, but now I don’t believe X anymore and don’t think Y is a particularly good use of resources.” People often invest a lot of social capital in their current beliefs and plans; admitting that you were wrong can cost you valuable social momentum and mean you have to start over. You might worry that people will associate you with wrongness. We need communities where instead, clear admissions of error or failure are publicly acknowledged as signs of integrity, and commitment to communal learning and shared model-building.

So I'm offering a prize. But first, let me give an example of the sort of thing we need to be praising more loudly more often. Continue reading

Effective Altruism is self-recommending

A parent I know reports (some details anonymized):

Recently we bought my 3-year-old daughter a "behavior chart," in which she can earn stickers for achievements like not throwing tantrums, eating fruits and vegetables, and going to sleep on time. We successfully impressed on her that a major goal each day was to earn as many stickers as possible.

This morning, though, I found her just plastering her entire behavior chart with stickers. She genuinely seemed to think I'd be proud of how many stickers she now had.

The Effective Altruism movement has now entered this extremely cute stage of cognitive development. EA is more than three years old, but institutions age differently than individuals. Continue reading

An OpenAI board seat is surprisingly expensive

The Open Philanthropy Project recently bought a seat on the board of the billion-dollar nonprofit AI research organization OpenAI for $30 million. Some people have said that this was surprisingly cheap, because the price in dollars was such a low share of OpenAI's eventual endowment: 3%.

To the contrary, this seat on OpenAI's board is very expensive, not because the nominal price is high, but precisely because it is so low.

If OpenAI hasn’t extracted a meaningful-to-it amount of money, then it follows that it is getting something other than money out of the deal. The obvious thing it is getting is buy-in for OpenAI as an AI safety and capacity venture. In exchange for a board seat, the Open Philanthropy Project is aligning itself socially with OpenAI, by taking the position of a material supporter of the project. The important thing is mutual validation, and a nominal donation just large enough to neg the other AI safety organizations supported by the Open Philanthropy Project is simply a customary part of the ritual.

By my count, the grant is larger than all the Open Philanthropy Project's other AI safety grants combined.

(Cross-posted at LessWrong.)

OpenAI makes humanity less safe

If there's anything we can do now about the risks of superintelligent AI, then OpenAI makes humanity less safe.

Once upon a time, some good people were worried about the possibility that humanity would figure out how to create a superintelligent AI before they figured out how to tell it what we wanted it to do.  If this happened, it could lead to literally destroying humanity and nearly everything we care about. This would be very bad. So they tried to warn people about the problem, and to organize efforts to solve it.

Specifically, they called for work on aligning an AI’s goals with ours - sometimes called the value alignment problem, AI control, friendly AI, or simply AI safety - before rushing ahead to increase the power of AI.

Some other good people listened. They knew they had no relevant technical expertise, but what they did have was a lot of money. So they did the one thing they could do - throw money at the problem, giving it to trusted parties to try to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the money was used to make the problem worse. This is the story of OpenAI. Continue reading

Against responsibility

I am surrounded by well-meaning people trying to take responsibility for the future of the universe. I think that this attitude – prominent among Effective Altruists – is causing great harm. I noticed this as part of a broader change in outlook, which I've been trying to describe on this blog in manageable pieces (and sometimes failing at the "manageable" part).

I'm going to try to contextualize this by outlining the structure of my overall argument.

Why I am worried

Effective Altruists often say they're motivated by utilitarianism. At its best, this leads to things like Katja Grace's excellent analysis of when to be a vegetarian. We need more of this kind of principled reasoning about tradeoffs.

At its worst, this leads to some people angsting over whether it's ethical to spend money on a cup of coffee when they might have saved a life, and others using the greater good as license to say things that are not quite true, socially pressure others into bearing inappropriate burdens, and make ever-increasing claims on resources without a correspondingly strong verified track record of improving people's lives. I claim that these actions are not in fact morally correct, and that people keep winding up endorsing those conclusions because they are using the wrong cognitive approximations to reason about morality.

Summary of the argument

  1. When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
  2. Maximizing control has destructive effects:
    • An adversarial stance towards other agents.
    • Decision paralysis.
  3. These failures are not accidental, but baked into the structure of control-seeking. We need a practical moral philosophy to describe strategies that generalize better, and that benefit from the existence of other benevolent agents rather than treating them primarily as threats.

Continue reading

Bindings and assurances

I've read a few business books and articles that contrast national styles of contract negotiation. Some countries such as the US have a style where a contract is meant to be fully binding such that if one of the parties could predict that they will likely break the contract in the future, accepting that version of the contract is seen as substantively and surprisingly dishonest. In other countries this is not seen as terribly unusual - a contract's just an initial guideline to be renegotiated whenever incentives slip too far out of whack.

More generally, some people reward me for thinking carefully before agreeing to do costly things for them or making potentially big promises, and wording them carefully to not overcommit, because it raises their level of trust in me. Others seem to want to punish me for this because it makes them think I don't really want to do the thing or don't really like them. Continue reading

Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you might hope to see in a cooperative situation where people have convergent goals.

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only took paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does. Continue reading

Against neglectedness considerations

Effective Altruists talk about looking for neglected causes. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. If you are trying to distribute food, and one person is hungry, and another has enough food, it does more direct good to give the food to the hungry person.

Likewise, if you are trying to decide on a research project, discovering penicillin might be a poor choice. We know that penicillin is an excellent thing to know about and has probably already saved many lives, but it’s already been discovered and put to common use. You’d do better discovering something that hasn’t been discovered yet.

My critique of GiveWell sometimes runs contrary to this principle. In particular, I argue that donors should think of crowding out effects as a benefit, not a cost, and that they should often be happy to give more than their “fair share” to the best giving opportunities. I ought to explain. Continue reading