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Benito comments on Ask MIRI Anything (AMA) - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Benito 12 October 2016 09:40:01AM 5 points [-]

You often mention that MIRI is trying to not be a university department, so you can spend researcher time more strategically and not have the incentive structures of a university. Could you describe the main differences in what your researchers spend their time doing?

Also, I think I've heard the above used as an explanation of why MIRI's work often doesn't fit into standard journal articles at a regular rate. If you do think this, in what way does the research not fit? Are there no journals for it, or are you perhaps more readily throwing less-useful-but-interesting ideas away (or something else)?

Comment author: So8res 12 October 2016 11:52:03PM 3 points [-]

Thanks, Benito. With regards to the second half of this question, I suspect that either you’ve misunderstood some of the arguments I’ve made about why our work doesn’t tend to fit into standard academic journals and conferences, or (alternatively) someone has given arguments for why our work doesn’t tend to fit into standard academic venues that I personally disagree with. My view is that our work doesn’t tend to fit into standard journals etc. because (a) we deliberately focus on research that we think academia and industry are unlikely to work on for one reason or another, and (b) we approach problems from a very different angle than the research communities that are closest to those problems.

One example of (b) is that we often approach decision theory not by following the standard philosophical approach of thinking about what decision sounds intuitively reasonable in the first person, but instead by asking “how could a deterministic robot actually be programmed to reliably solve these problems”, which doesn’t fit super well into the surrounding literature on causal vs. evidential decision theory. For a few other examples, see my response to (8) in my comments on the Open Philanthropy Project’s internal and external reviews of some recent MIRI papers.

Comment author: malo 12 October 2016 11:51:14PM 3 points [-]

To the first part of your question, most faculty at universities have many other responsibilities beyond research which can include a mix of grant writing, teaching, supervising students, and sitting on various university councils. At MIRI most of these responsibilities simply don’t apply. We also work hard to remove as many distractions from our researchers as we can so they can spend as much of their time as possible actually making research progress. [1]

Regarding incentives, as Nate has previously discussed here on the EA Forum, our researchers aren’t subject to the same publish-or-perish incentives that most academics (especially early in their careers) are. This allows them to focus more on making progress on the most important problems, rather than trying to pump out as many papers as possible.

[1] For example, the ops team takes care of formatting and submitting all MIRI publications, we take on as much of grant application and management as is practical, we manage all the researcher conference travel booking, we provide food at the office, etc.