John_Maxwell_IV comments on What Should the Average EA Do About AI Alignment? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Richard_Batty 28 February 2017 04:04:46PM 8 points [-]

I think we have a real problem in EA of turning ideas into work. There have been great ideas sitting around for ages (e.g. Charity Entrepreneurship's list of potential new international development charities, OpenPhil's desire to see a new science policy think tank, Paul Christiano's impact certificate idea) but they just don't get worked on.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 March 2017 10:11:01PM *  6 points [-]

Brainstorming why this might be the case:

  • Lack of visibility. For example, I'm pretty into EA, but I didn't realize OpenPhil wanted to see a new science policy think tank. Just having a list of open projects could help with visibility.

  • Bystander effects. It's not clear who has a comparative advantage to work on this stuff. And many neglected projects aren't within the purview of existing EA organizations.

  • Risk aversion. Sometimes I wonder if the "moral obligation" frame of EA causes people to shy away from high-risk do-gooding opportunities. Something about wanting to be sure that you've fulfilled your obligation. Earning to give and donating to AMF or GiveDirectly becomes a way to certify yourself as a good person in the eyes of as many people as possible.

  • EA has strong mental handles for "doing good with your donations" and "doing good with your career". "Doing good with your projects" is a much weaker handle, and it competes for resources with the other handles. Speculative projects typically require personal capital, since it's hard to get funding for a speculative project, especially if you have no track record. But if you're a serious EA, you might not have a lot of personal capital left over after making donations. And such speculative projects typically require time and focus. But many careers that are popular among serious EAs are not going to leave much time and focus for personal projects. I don't see any page on the 80K website for careers that leave you time to think so you can germinate new EA organizations in your spare time. Arguably, the "doing good with your career" framing is harmful because it causes you to zoom out excessively instead of making a series of small bets.

  • Lack of accountability. Maybe existing EA organizations are productive because the workers feel accountable to the leaders, and the leaders feel accountable to their donors. In the absence of accountability, people default to browsing Facebook instead of working on projects. Under this model, using personal capital to fund projects is an antipattern because it doesn't create accountability the way donations do. Another advantage of EAs donating money to each other is that charitable donations can be deducted from your taxes, but savings intended for altruistic personal projects cannot be. But note that accountability can have downsides.

  • It's not that there is some particular glitch in the process of turning ideas into work. Rather, there is no process in the first place. We can work to identify and correct glitches once we actually have a pipeline.

If someone made it their business to fix this problem, how might they go about it? Brainstorming:

  • Secure seed funding for the project, then have a competitive application process to be the person who starts the organization. Advantages: Social status goes to the winner of the application process. Comparing applicants side-by-side, especially using a standard application, should result in better hiring decisions/better comparative advantage mapping. Project founders can be selected more on the basis of project-specific aptitude and less on the basis of connections/fundraising ability. If the application process is open and widely advertised (the way e.g. Y Combinator does with their application), there's the possibility of selecting talented people outside the EA community and expanding our effective workforce. Disadvantages: Project founders less selected for having initiative/being agentlike/being really passionate about this particular project?

  • Alternatively, one can imagine more of a "headhunter" type approach. Maybe someone from the EA funds looks through the EA rolodex and gets in contact with people based on whether they seem like promising candidates.

  • Both the competitive application approach and the headhunter approach could also be done with organizations being the unit that's being operated on rather than individuals. E.g. publicize a grant that organizations can apply for, or contact organizations with a related track record and see if they'd be interested in working on the project if given the funding. Another option is to work through universities. In general, I expect that you're able to attract higher quality people if they're able to put the name of a prestigious university on their resume next to the project. The university benefits because they get to be associated with anything cool that comes out of the project. And the project has an easier time getting taken seriously due to its association with the university's brand. So, wins all around.

  • Some of these projects could work well as thesis topics. I know there was a push a little while ago to help students find EA-related thesis topics that ended up fading out. But this seems like a really promising idea to me.

Comment author: Richard_Batty 02 March 2017 09:56:16AM 13 points [-]

This is really helpful, thanks.

Whilst I could respond in detail, instead I think it would be better to take action. I'm going to put together an 'open projects in EA' spreadsheet and publish it on the EA forum by March 25th or I owe you £100.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 04 March 2017 06:08:25AM 4 points [-]

£100... sounds tasty! I'll add it to my calendar :D

Comment author: Richard_Batty 25 March 2017 06:18:18PM 7 points [-]
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 March 2017 12:53:53AM 1 point [-]

Nice work!!

Comment deleted 05 March 2017 12:47:06AM [-]
Comment author: Denkenberger 08 March 2017 10:53:19PM *  1 point [-]

Isn't this list of ideas in need of implementation similar?