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Introducing the Oxford Prioritisation Project blog

Cross-posted here.

The Oxford Prioritisation Project is a new research group in the effective altruism community. The Project’s goal is to allocate £10,000 to an organisation that accepts donations, in the way that will have the greatest positive impact. As a team, we are conducting in-depth research on how best to allocate the funds.

This blog is the best way to keep in touch with what we are doing. 

We plan to publish:

  • Detailed summaries of our research as it unfolds
  • Quantitative models
  • Explanations of our views at the time of publication, how these have changed, and what evidence would make us change our minds again
  • Explanations of the reasoning and assumptions behind our quantitative best guesses
  • Strategic considerations about where to focus our research efforts

This blog has several purposes:

  • Allowing anyone to benefit from our research, follow our recommendations, and build on them
  • Sharing material and providing a model for people who would like to emulate the Oxford Prioritisation Project by starting something similar
  • Invite feedback from our readers. Our goal is to have the greatest possible impact with our final grant. If you point out mistakes in our work or make well-considered suggestions, you'd stand a good chance of influencing our decision.

I'm excited to get started with this new project, the first of its kind. I hope you'll enjoy our blog.

Here's a list of the first few posts, with excerpts. All posts are also available as Google Documents, if you'd prefer to read and comment that way. 

 

TOM SITTLER: "ASSUMPTIONS OF ARGUMENTS FOR EXISTENTIAL RISK REDUCTION"

I review an informal argument for existential risk reduction as the top priority. I argue the informal argument, or at least some renditions of it, are vulnerable to two objections: (i) The far future may not be good, and we are making predictions based on very weak evidence when we estimate whether it will be good (ii) reductions in existential risk over the next century are much less valuable than equivalent increases in the probability that humanity will have a very long future.

 

SINDY LI: "DOES RESEARCH INTO NEGLECTED TROPICAL DISEASES DOMINATE GIVEWELL TOP INTERVENTIONS?"

I started by consulting a report by Max Dalton at the Centre for Effective Altruism. It aims to provide cost-effectiveness estimates of medical research into diseases prevalent in low-income countries, mostly by reviewing existing literature on this topic, complemented by some new calculations of estimates. First, Max gives some reasons why one would expect, ex ante, that tropical disease research is neglected, important and tractable. Then he goes over cost-effectiveness figures in the existing literature that attempts to estimate it, and gives new estimates based on adapting GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness calculation for research into cancer. The resulting cost-effectiveness estimates from all these sources range from 5 to 235 $/DALY,

 

LOVISA TENGBERG: "MENTAL HEALTH: AN UPDATE"

As discussed in previous meetings and on Slack, I have looked into 1) General numbers on cost-effectiveness within MH; 2) Whether there are research institutions that could be potential recipients for the OxPrio Project; 3) More detailed info on BasicNeeds; 4) Detailed info on StrongMinds. On the first note, I found in the DCP3 report that there was little evidence on the cost-effectiveness of various interventions. The numbers that do exist vary significantly between and within disorders driven by cost of labor and contacts with the health care system, making a cost-effectiveness analysis difficult to create. On the second note, I found no research institutions that 

DOMINIK PETERS: “HOW RISKY IS CRISPR GENE-EDITING TECHNOLOGY?”

CRISPR is a new biotechnology under development that will allow editing genomes. In particular, it would probably allow a technique called “gene drives” that ensure that the gene edit will be passed on to all offspring of the parent animal, allowing it to spread potentially to all members of a species if it is fast-reproducing. Within effective altruism, there has been some excitement of using this technology to prevent mosquitoes from carrying the malaria parasite or to reduce suffering in wild animals. While expressing optimism, David Pearce mentions that CRISPR gene drives could be used by bioterrorists 

 

QAYS LANGAN-DATHI: “SHOULD WE COVER GLOBAL CATASTROPHIC RISKS AT ALL? IF WE DO, WHAT ARE THE MAIN RISKS TO CONSIDER?”

Mr Langan-Dathi called our attention to a summary spreadsheet of the Open Philanthropy Project’s current priorities within Global Catastrophic Risks. The top priorities were biosecurity, geoengineering, geomagnetic storms, and potential risks from artificial intelligence. The spreadsheet describes the highest-damage scenario for each risk, as well as possible philanthropic interventions to mitigate it.

 

LAURIE PYCROFT: “GAINING AN OVERVIEW OF BIORISK”

The top three sources of existential and global catastrophic risk over the early to mid 21st century are likely to be thermonuclear war, artificial superintelligences, and engineered biological agents. Of these, I intend to briefly address biological technology risk, focusing particularly on the risks associated with CRISPR and related genetic engineering technologies, excluding the risk from gene drives (which will be addressed separately by Mr Peters. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a novel biotechnology capable of exerting extremely fine control over genetic systems through use of bacterial proteins, and doing so at a fraction of the expense and effort that more traditional systems incur.

 

SINDY LI: “SHOULD WE SIMPLY DEFER TO GIVEWELL WITHIN THE AREA OF GLOBAL HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT?”

As a starting point I have been mostly consulting the website of GiveWell, a nonprofit “dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give”. I briefly examined how they arrive at their conclusions to see if I agree with it.

In their current list of top charities they recommend charities that work on malaria prevention, deworming and cash transfer. How do they arrive at these recommendations? In their page on their process, they explain that first they decide to 

 

GRACE GLIVA: “GIFTS OF LIVESTOCK: PROBABLY BAD, POSSIBLY OK, BUT CERTAINLY NOT GREAT”

Ms Gliva researched livestock gift interventions, such as those pursued by Heifer International. Ms Gliva had considered donating to Heifer International in the past, and wanted to find out more about it, from a prioritisation perspective. Key excerpts from her research report are:

If livestock ownership is the best way to improve quality of life and economic standing then, theoretically, a cash gift should have the same effect. This may not be the case if the recipients are poorly informed or uneducated to the point of making sub-optimal purchases. However, in my opinion, the burden should rest on the charity to demonstrate 

 

LOVISA TENGBERG, “ARE MENTAL HEALTH INTERVENTIONS A POSSIBLE TARGET FOR THE OXFORD PRIORITISATION PROJECT?”

According to a report by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in 2015, up to 10% of people (~700 million) worldwide are affected by mental health problems such as depression, substance abuse, dementia or schizophrenia, and over a billion are likely to experience one in their lifetime, including 80% from low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). It is among the top five leading causes of non-communicable diseases, and represents 7.4% of the world’s total global burden of disease, accounting for 22% of all days lived with disability (as measured in DALYs). According to the GCD report, the 

 

OUR PROGRESS IN THE FIRST FIVE DAYS

I’m excited to report that the Oxford Prioritisation Project is underway, with a fantastic team that’s already blowing me away with its competence and drive. It includes a senior research fellow in development economics, students in the natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and political theory, doctoral researchers in computer science and neurosurgery, and a software engineer. We have had our first two full-team meetings. In the inaugural meeting, which Max Dalton and

Comments (7)

Comment author: RyanCarey 11 February 2017 07:56:16PM *  5 points [-]

Great to see this!

My 2c on what research I and others like me would find useful from groups like this:

  • Overviewing empirical and planning-relevant considerations (rather than philosophical theorizing).
  • Focusing on obstacles and major events on the path to "technological maturity" I.e. risky or transformative techs.
  • Investigate specific risky and transformative tech in detail. FHI has done a little of this but it is very neglected on the margin. Scanning microscopy for neural tissue, invasive brain-computer interfaces, surveillance, brain imaging for mind-reading, CRISPR, genome synthesis, GWAS studies in areas of psychology, etc.
  • Help us understand AI progress. AI Impacts has done a bit of this but they are tiny. It would be really useful to have a solid understanding of growth of capabilities, funding and academic resources in a field like deep learning. How big is the current bubble compared to previous ones, et cetera.

Also, in its last year, GPP largely specialized on tech and long-run issues. This meant it did a higher density of work on prioritization questions that mattered. Prima facie, this and other reasons would also make Oxford Prioritization Project want to specialize on the same.

Lastly, you'll get more views and comments if you use a (more beautiful) Medum blog.

Happy to justify these positions further.

Good luck!

Comment author: Maxdalton 12 February 2017 06:36:03AM 1 point [-]

Hey Ryan, I'd be particularly interested in hearing more about your reasons for your first point (about theoretical vs. empirical work).

Comment author: RyanCarey 12 February 2017 05:58:39PM *  11 points [-]

Sure. Here are some reasons I think this:

  • Too few EAs are doing object-level work, (excluding donations), and this can be helped by doing empirical research around possible actions. One can note that there were not enough people interested in starting ventures for EAV, and that newbies are often at a loss to figuring out what EA does apart from philosophize. This makes it hard to attract people who are practically competent, such as businesspeople and scientists, and overcome our philosopher-founder effect. From a standpoint of running useful projects, I think that what would be most useful would be business-plans and research agendas, followed by empirical investigations of issues, followed by theoretical prioritization, followed by philosophical investigations. However, it seems to me that most people are working in the latter categories.

  • For EAs who are actually acting, their actions would more easily be swayed by empirical research. Although most people working on high-impact areas were brought there by theoretical reasoning, their ongoing questions are more concrete. For example, in AI, I wonder: To what extent have concerns about edge-instantiation and incorrigibility borne out in actual AI systems? To what extent has AI progress been driven by new mathematical theory, rather than empirical results? What kind of CV do you need to have to participate in governing AI? What can we learn about this from the case of nuclear governance? This would help people to prioritize much more than, for example, philosophical arguments about the different reasons for working on AI as compared to immigration.

  • Empirical research is easier to build on.

One counterargument would be that perhaps these action-oriented EAs have too-short memories. Since their previous decisions relied on theory from people like Bostrom, shouldn't we expect the same from their future decisions? There are two rebuttals to this. One is that theoretical investigations are especially dependent on the talent of their authors. I would not argue that people like Bostrom (if we know of any) should stop philosophizing about deeply theoretical issues, such as infinite ethics or decision theory. However, that research must be supported by many more empirically-minded investigators. Second, there are reasons to expect the usefulness of theoretical investigations to decrease relative to empirical research over time as the important insights are harvested, people start implementing plans, and plausible catastrophes get nearer.

Comment author: ThomasSittler 11 March 2017 10:51:07AM 0 points [-]

Hey Ryan, I'm following up about the idea of using a Medium blog. Medium is beautiful, and allows commenting on particular portion of the document, which is the main advantage of Google Docs commenting. However, you need to create an account to comment, and it seems like that will be too much trouble for most people. Also, it seems like there isn't a simple way to embed Medium into Squarespace (https://support.squarespace.com/hc/en-us/articles/205814558-Connecting-Medium-with-Squarespace). What are your thoughts?

Comment author: RyanCarey 11 March 2017 07:41:41PM 0 points [-]

I guess you'd get more shares, views, and hence comments on a Medium, even accounting for a small inconvenience from signup. Traffic is almost all through sharing nowadays. e.g. EA Forum gets 70% of referrals from Facebook, >80% if you include other social media, and >90% if you include other blogs.

The proposal would not require embedding anything inside a Squarespace. You can just put it on a subdomain with the right logos, and linking back to the main page as in the recent EA example of https://blog.ought.com/

Comment author: BenMillwood  (EA Profile) 25 February 2017 11:54:38AM *  0 points [-]

The name "Oxford Prioritisation Project" has an unhelpful acronym collision :)

Do you have a standard abbreviated form that avoids it? Maybe OxPri, following the website address?

edit: I've found this issue addressed in other comments, and the official answer is apparently "oxprio".

Comment author: Benito 11 March 2017 10:56:15AM *  0 points [-]

Thus the website, oxpr.io. OxPrio normally has a capital 'O' and 'P' too.