Changes in funding in the AI safety field

This article is cross-posted from the CEA blog.

The field of AI Safety has been growing quickly over the last three years, since the publication of “Superintelligence”. One of the things that shapes what the community invests in is an impression of what the composition of the field currently is, and how it has changed. Here, I give an overview of the composition of the field as measured by its funding.

Measures other than funding also matter, and may matter more, like types of outputs, distribution of employed/active people, or impact-adjusted distributions of either. Funding, however, is a little more objective and easier to assess. It gives us some sense of how the AI Safety community is prioritising, and where it might have blind spots. For a fuller discussion of the shortcomings of this type of analysis, and of this data, see section four.

Throughout, I am including the budgets of organisations who are explicitly working to reduce existential risk from machine superintelligence. It does not include work outside the AI Safety community, on areas like verification and control, that might prove relevant. This kind of work, which happens in mainstream computer science research, is much harder to assess for relevance and to get budget data for. I am trying as much as possible to count money spent at the time of the work, rather than the time at which a grant is announced or money is set aside.

Thanks to Niel Bowerman, Ryan Carey, Owen Cotton-Barratt, Andrew Critch, Daniel Dewey, Viktoriya Krakovna, Peter McIntyre, Michael Page for their comments or help on content or gathering data in preparing this document (though nothing here should be taken as a statement of their views and any errors are mine). Further thanks to the Future of Life Institute for funding the research project that enabled this work.

The post is organised as follows:

  1. Narrative of growth in AI Safety funding
  2. Distribution of spending
  3. Soft conclusions from overview
  4. Caveats and assumptions

Narrative of growth in AI Safety funding

The AI Safety community grew significantly in the last three years. In 2014, AI Safety work was almost entirely done at the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) who were between them spending $1.75m. In 2016, more than 50 organisations have explicit AI Safety related programs, spending perhaps $6.6m. Note the caveats to all numbers in this document described in section 4.

In 2015, AI Safety spending roughly doubled to $3.3m. Most of this came from growth at MIRI and the beginnings of involvement by industry researchers.

In 2016, grants from the Future of Life Institute (FLI) triggered growth in smaller-scale technical AI safety work.[1] Industry invested more over 2016, specially at Google DeepMind and potentially at OpenAI.[2] Because of their high salary costs, the monetary growth in spending at these firms may overstate actual growth of the field. For example, several key researchers moved from non-profits/academic orgs (MIRI, FLI, FHI) to Google DeepMind and OpenAI. This increased spending significantly, but may have had a smaller effect on output.[3] AI Strategy budgets grew more slowly, at about 20%.

In 2017, multiple center grants are emerging (such as the Center for Human-Compatible AI (CHCAI) and Center for the Future of Intelligence (CFI)), but if their hiring is slow it will restrain overall spending. FLI grantee projects will be coming to a close over the year, which may mean that technical hires trained through those projects become available to join larger centers. The next round of FLI grants may be out in time to bridge existing grant holders onto new projects. Industry teams may keep growing, but there are no existing public commitments to do so. If technical research consolidates into a handful of major teams, it might make it easier to keep open dialogue between research groups, but might decrease individual incentives to because researchers have enough collaboration opportunities locally.

Although little can be said about 2018 at this point, the current round of academic grants which support FLI grantees as well as FHI end in 2018, potentially creating a funding cliff. (Though FLI has just announced a second funding round, and MIT Media Lab has just announced a $27m center (whose exact plans remain unspecified).[4]

Estimated spending in AI Safety broken down by field of work






Technical AI Safety


















Technical AI Safety Total






AI Strategy






AI Ethics






AI Outreach












Grand Total






Distribution of spending

In 2014, the field of research was not very diverse. It was roughly evenly split into work at FHI on macrostrategy, with limited technical work, and at MIRI following a relatively focused technical research agenda which placed little emphasis on deep learning.

Since then, the field has diversified significantly.

The academic technical research field is very diverse, though most of the funding comes via FLI. MIRI remains the only non-profit doing technical research and continues to be the largest research group with 7 research fellows at the end of 2016 and a budget of $1.75m. Google DeepMind probably has the second largest technical safety research group with between 3 and 4 full-time-equivalent (FTE) researchers at the end of 2016 (most of whom joined at the end of the year), though OpenAI and GoogleBrain probably have 0.5-1.5 FTEs.[5]

FHI and SAIRC remains the only large-scale AI strategy center. The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute is the main long-standing strategy center working on AI, but is much smaller. Some much smaller groups (FLI Grantees and the Global Politics of AI team at Yale) are starting to form, but are mostly low-/no- salary for the time being.

A range of functions are now being filled which did not exist in the AI Safety community before. These include outreach, ethics research, and rationality training (although this last has been available through CFAR for the AI Safety community for some time). Although explicitly outreach focused projects remain small, organisations like FHI and MIRI do significant outreach work (arguably, Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence falls into this category, for example).

2017 (forecast) - total = $10.5m

2016 - total = $6.56m

2015 - total = $3.28m

2014 - total = $1.75m

Possible implications and tentative suggestions

These are my tentative views having gotten an overview of spending and some short conversations on the topic. I could imagine updating significantly with relatively small amounts of new information.

Technical safety research

  • The MIRI technical agenda remains the largest coherent research project, despite the emergence of several other agendas. For the sake of diversity of approach, more work needs to be done to develop PIs within the AI community to take the “Concrete Problems” research agenda and others forwards.
  • The community should go out of its way to help the emerging academic technical research centers (CHCAI and Yoshua Bengio’s forthcoming center) to recruit and retain fantastic people.

Strategy, outreach, and policy

  • Near-term policy has had a lot of people outside the AI Safety community  moving towards it, though output remains relatively low. There is even less work on medium-term implications of AI.

  • Non-technical funding has not kept up with the growth of the AI safety field as a whole. This is likely to be because the pipeline for workers in non-technical work is less easily specified and improved than it is for technical work. This could create gaps in the future, for example in:

    • Communication channels between AI Safety research teams.

    • Communication between the AI Safety research community and the rest of the AI community.

    • Guidance for policy-makers and researchers on long-run strategy.

  • It might be helpful to establish or identify a pipeline for AI strategy/policy work, perhaps by building a PhD or Masters course at an existing institution for the purpose.

  • There is not a lot of focused AI Safety outreach work. This is largely because all organisations are stepping carefully to avoid messaging that has the potential to frame the issues unconstructively, but it might be worthwhile to step into this gap over the next year or two.

Caveats and assumptions

  • Scope: I selected projects that either self-identify or were identified to me by people in the field as focused on AI Safety. Where organisations had only a partial focus on AI Safety, I estimated the proportion of their work that was related based on the distribution of their projects. The data probably represent the community of people who explicitly think they are working on AI safety moderately-well. But it doesn't include anyone generally working on verification/control, auditing, transparency, etc. for other reasons. It also excludes people working on near-term AI policy.
  • Forecasting: Data for 2017 are a very loose guess. In particular, they make very rough guesses for the ability of centers to scale up, which have not been validated by interviews with centers. CFAR financial estimates for 2017 are also still not publicly available, and may be more than 10% of all AI Safety spending. I have assumed, in the pie charts of distribution only, that they will spend $1m next year (they spend $920k in 2015). That estimate is probably too low, but will probably not dramatically alter the overall picture. Forecasts also do not include funding for Yoshua Bengio’s new center or the next round of FLI grants.
  • FLI grant distribution: I have assumed that all FLI grantees spent according to the following schedule: nothing in 2015, 37% in 2016, 31% in 2017, 32% later. This is based on aggregate data, but will not be right for individual grants, which might mean the distribution of funding over time between fields is slightly wrong. The values are lagged slightly in order to account for the fact that money usually takes several months to make its way through university bureaucracies. In some cases, work happens at a different time from funding being received (earlier or later).
  • Industry spending: Estimates of industry spending are very rough. I approximated the amount of time spent by individual researchers on AI Safety based on conversations with some of them and with non-industry researchers. I (very) loosely approximated the per-researcher cost to firms at $300k each, inclusive of overheads and compute.
  • Categorisation: I used the abstracts of the FLI grants, and the websites of other projects, to categorise their work roughly. Some may be miscategorised, but the major chunks of funding are likely to be right.
  • Funding is not a perfect proxy for what matters: There are many ways of describing change in the field usefully, which include how funding is distributed. Funding is a moderate proxy for the amount of effort going into different approaches, but not perfect. For example, if a researcher were to move from being lightly funded at a non-profit to employed by OpenAI their 'cost' in this model will have increased by roughly an order of magnitude, which might be different from their impact. The funding picture may therefore come apart from ‘effort’ especially when comparing DeepMind/OpenAI/GoogleBrain to non-profits like MIRI.
  • Re-granting: I've tried to avoid double-counting (e.g., SAIRC is listed as an FHI project rather than FLI despite being funded by Elon Musk and OpenPhil via FLI), but there is enough regranting going on that I might not have succeeded.
  • Inclusion: I might have missed out organisations that should arguably be in there, or have incorrect information about their spending
  • Data: The main data table can be found here.
  • Corrections: If you have corrections or extra information I should incorporate, please email me at seb@prioritisation.org.

[Updated 07/02/2017 after comments from Owen Cotton-Barratt]


  1. Although grants were awarded in 2015, there is a lag between grants being awarded and work taking place. This is a significant assumption discussed in the caveats.

  2. Although note that most of the new hires at DeepMind arrived right at the end of the year.

  3. Although it is also conceivable that a researcher at DeepMind may be ten times more valuable than that same researcher elsewhere.

  4. This will depend on personal circumstance as well as giving opportunities. It would probably be a mistake to forgo time-bounded giving opportunities to cover this cliff, since other sources of funding might be found between now and then.

  5. This is based on anecdotal hiring information, and not a confirmed number from Google DeepMind.

Comments (11)

Comment author: vipulnaik 04 February 2017 01:45:48AM 8 points [-]

I appreciate posts like this -- they are very helpful (and would be more so if I were thinking of donating money or contributing in kind to the topic).

Comment author: Richard_Batty 03 February 2017 04:17:41PM *  6 points [-]

Is there an equivalent to 'concrete problems in AI' for strategic research? If I was a researcher interested in strategy I'd have three questions: 'What even is AI strategy research?', 'What sort of skills are relevant?', 'What are some specific problems that I could work on?' A 'concrete problems'-like paper would help with all three.

Comment author: Sebastian_Farquhar 04 February 2017 10:59:06AM 3 points [-]

This is a really good point, and I'm not sure that something exists which was written with that in mind. Daniel Dewey wrote something which was maybe a first step on a short form of this in 2015. A 'concrete-problems' in strategy might be a really useful output from SAIRC.


Comment author: Benito 03 February 2017 11:08:49PM 3 points [-]

I feel like "Superintelligence" is the closest thing to this, which was largely on strategy rather than maths. While it didn't end each chapter with explicit questions for further research, it'd be my first recommendation for a strategy researcher to read and gain a sense of what work could be done.

I'd also recommend Eliezer Yudkowsky's paper on Intelligence Explosion Microeconomics, which is more niche but way less read.

Comment author: gsastry 07 February 2017 02:54:20AM *  2 points [-]

Luke Muehlhauser posted a list of strategic questions here: http://lukemuehlhauser.com/some-studies-which-could-improve-our-strategic-picture-of-superintelligence/ (originally posted in 2014).

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 04 February 2017 09:19:13AM 3 points [-]

Thanks for this, I found it useful. In addition to funding, I think things like the Partnership on AI (https://www.partnershiponai.org), which includes Facebook, Google, and Apple, show that industry is taking this more seriously.

Comment author: Larks 04 February 2017 05:38:45PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for taking the time to produce this!

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 03 February 2017 04:19:57PM 1 point [-]

Which organizations exactly were included? Can you give a list of the 50?

Comment author: Sebastian_Farquhar 04 February 2017 10:49:42AM 3 points [-]
Comment deleted 10 March 2017 03:43:39PM [-]
Comment author: Linch 11 March 2017 09:52:58AM 0 points [-]

The quality of this intervention has already been discussed elsewhere on this forum: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/17v/ea_funds_beta_launch/ad5