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Individual Project Fund: Further Details

[Cross-posted from my blog.]

In my post on where I plan to donate in 2016, I said that I would set aside $2000 for funding promising projects that I come across in the next year:

The idea behind the project fund is … [to] give in a low-friction way on scales that are too small for organizations like Open Phil to think about. Moreover, it is likely good for me to develop a habit of evaluating projects I come across and thinking about whether they could benefit from additional money (either because they are funding constrained, or to incentivize an individual who is on the fence about carrying the project out). Finally, if this effort is successful, it is possible that other EAs will start to do this as well, which could magnify the overall impact. I think there is some danger that I will not be able to allocate the $2000 in the next year, in which case any leftover funds will go to next year’s donor lottery.

In this post I will give some further details about this fund. My primary goal is to give others an idea of what projects I am likely to consider funding, so that anyone who thinks they might be a good fit for this can get in contact with me. (I also expect many of the best opportunities to come from people that I meet in person but don’t necessarily read this blog, so I plan to actively look for projects throughout the year as well.)

I am looking to fund or incentivize projects that meet several of the criteria below:

  • The project is in the area of computer science, especially one of machine learning, cyber security, algorithmic game theory, or computational social choice. [Some other areas that I would be somewhat likely to consider, in order of plausibility: economics, statistics, political science (especially international security), and biology.]
  • The project either wouldn’t happen, or would seem less worthwhile / higher-effort without the funding.
  • The organizer is someone who either I or someone I trust has an exceptionally high opinion of.
  • The project addresses a topic that I personally think is highly important. High-level areas that I tend to care about include international security, existential risk, AI safety, improving political institutions, improving scientific institutions, and helping the global poor. Technical areas that I tend to care about include reliable machine learning, machine learning and security, counterfactual reasoning, and value learning. On the other hand, if you have a project that you feel has a strong case for importance but doesn’t fit into these areas, I am interested in hearing about it.
  • It is unlikely that this project or a substantially similar project would be done by someone else at a similar level of quality. (Or, whoever else is likely to do it would instead focus on a similarly high-value project, if this one were to be taken care of.)
  • The topic pertains to a technical area that I or someone I trust has a high degree of expertise in, and can evaluate more quickly and accurately than a non-specialized funder.

It isn’t necessary to meet all of the criteria above, but I would probably want most things I fund to meet at least 4 of these 6.

Here are some concrete examples of things I might fund:

  • Someone is thinking of doing a project that is undervalued (in terms of career benefits) but would be very useful. They don’t feel excited about allocating time to a non-career-relevant task but would feel more excited if getting an award of $1000 for their efforts.
  • Someone I trust is starting a new discussion group in an area that I think is important, but can’t find anyone to sponsor it, and wants money for providing food at the meetings.
  • Someone wants to do an experiment that I find valuable, but needs more compute resources than they have, and could use money for buying AWS hours.
  • Someone wants to curate a valuable dataset and needs money for hiring mechanical turkers.
  • Someone is organizing a workshop and needs money for securing a venue.
  • One project I am particularly interested in is a good survey paper at the intersection of machine learning and cyber security. If you might be interested in doing this, I would likely be willing to pay you.
  • There are likely many projects in the area of political activism that I would be interested in funding, although (due to crowdedness concerns) I have a particularly high bar for this area in terms of the criteria I laid out above.

If you think you might have a project that could use funding, please get in touch with me at jacob.steinhardt@gmail.com. Even if you are not sure if your project would be a good target for funding, I am very happy to talk to you about it. In addition, please feel free to comment either here or via e-mail if you have feedback on this general idea, or thoughts on types of small-project funding that I missed above.

Comments (1)

Comment author: vipulnaik 03 January 2017 05:37:47AM 0 points [-]

Great to hear about this, Jacob! As somebody who funds a lot of loosely similar activities in the "EA periphery" I have some thoughts and experience on the challenges and rewards of funding. Let me know if you'd like to talk about it.

You can get a list of stuff I've funded at https://contractwork.vipulnaik.com