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Greg_Colbourn comments on EA Hotel with free accommodation and board for two years - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: vollmer 06 June 2018 04:56:20PM *  11 points [-]

First, big kudos for your strong commitment to put your personal funding into this, and for the guts and drive to actually make it happen!

That said, my overall feelings about the project are mixed, mainly for the following reasons (which you also partly discuss in your post):

It seems plausible that most EAs who do valuable work won't be able to benefit from this. If they're students, they'll most likely be studying at a university outside Blackpool and might not be able to do so remotely. If they're launching a new great project, they'll very likely be able to get funding from an EA donor, and there will be major benefits from being in a big city or existing hub such as Oxford, London, or the Bay (so donors should be enthusiastic about covering the living costs of these places). While it's really impressive how low the rent at the hotel will be, rent cost is rarely a major reason for a project's funding constraints (at least outside the SF Bay Area).

Instead, the hotel could become a hub for everyone who doesn't study at a university or work on a project that EA donors find worth funding, i.e. the hotel would mainly support work that the EA community as a whole would view as lower-quality. I'm not saying I'm confident this will happen, but I think the chance is non-trivial without the leadership and presence of highly experienced EAs (who work there as e.g. hotel managers / trustees).

Furthermore, people have repeatedly brought up the argument that the first "bad" EA project in each area can do more harm than an additional "good" EA project, especially if you consider tail risks, and I think this is more likely to be true than not. E.g. the first political protest for AI regulation might in expectation do more harm than a thoughtful AI policy project could prevent. This provides a reason for EAs to be risk-averse. (Specifically, I tentatively disagree with your claims that "we’re probably at the point where there are more false negatives than false positives, so more chances can be taken on people at the low end", and that we should invest "a small amount".) Related: Spencer Greenberg's idea that plenty of startups cause harm.

The fact that this post got way more upvotes than other projects that are similarly exciting in my view (such as Charity Entrepreneurship) also makes me think that the enthusiasm for this project may be partly driven by social reasons (it feels great to have a community hotel hub with likeminded people) as opposed to people's impact assessments. But maybe there's something I'm overlooking, e.g. maybe this post was just shared much more on social media.

What happens if you concentrate a group of EAs who wouldn't get much funding from the broader community in one place and help them work together? I don't know. It could be very positive or very negative. Or it just couldn't lead to much at all. Overall, I think it may not be worth the downside risks.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 07 June 2018 05:48:58PM *  1 point [-]

If they're students, they'll most likely be studying at a university outside Blackpool and might not be able to do so remotely.

Regarding studying, it would mainly be suitable for those doing so independently online (it’s possible to take many world class courses on EdX and Coursera for free). But could also be of use to university students outside of term time (say to do extra classes online, or an independent research project, over the summer).

they'll very likely be able to get funding from an EA donor

As John Maxwell says, I don’t think we are there yet with current seed funding options.

the hotel would mainly support work that the EA community as a whole would view as lower-quality

This might indeed be so, but given the much lower costs it’s possible that the quality-adjusted-work-per-£-spent rate could still be equal to - or higher than - the community average.

.. without the leadership and presence of highly experienced EAs (who work there as e.g. hotel managers / trustees).

I think it’s important to have experienced EAs in these positions for this reason.

Regarding “bad” EA projects, only one comes to mind, and it doesn’t seem to have caused much lasting damage. In the OP, I say that the “dynamics of status and prestige in the non-profit world seem to be geared toward being averse to risk-of-failure to a much greater extent than in the for-profit world (see e.g. the high rate of failure for VC funded start-ups). Perhaps we need to close this gap, considering that the bottom line results of EA activity are often considered in terms expected utility.” Are PR concerns a solid justification for this discrepancy between EA and VC? Or do Spencer Greenberg’s concerns about start-ups mean that EA is right in this regard and it’s VC that is wrong (even in terms of their approach to maximising monetary value)?

the enthusiasm for this project may be partly driven by social reasons

There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as people participating at the hotel for largely social reasons pay their own way (and don’t disrupt others’ work).

Comment author: vollmer 08 June 2018 04:30:16PM *  4 points [-]

Regarding “bad” EA projects, only one comes to mind, and it doesn’t seem to have caused much lasting damage. In the OP, I say that the “dynamics of status and prestige in the non-profit world seem to be geared toward being averse to risk-of-failure to a much greater extent than in the for-profit world (see e.g. the high rate of failure for VC funded start-ups). Perhaps we need to close this gap, considering that the bottom line results of EA activity are often considered in terms expected utility.” Are PR concerns a solid justification for this discrepancy between EA and VC? Or do Spencer Greenberg’s concerns about start-ups mean that EA is right in this regard and it’s VC that is wrong (even in terms of their approach to maximising monetary value)?

Just wanted to flag that I disagree with this for a number of reasons. E.g. I think some of EAF's sub-projects probably had negative impact, and I'm skeptical that these plus InIn were the only ones. I might write an EA forum post about how EA projects can have negative impacts at some point but it's not my current priority. See also this facebook comment for some of the ideas.

Regarding your last point, VCs are maximizing their own profit, but Spencer talks about externalities.

Comment author: Liam_Donovan 10 June 2018 06:13:10AM *  3 points [-]

Following on vollmer's point, it might be reasonable to have a blanket rule against policy/PR/political/etc work -- anything that is irreversible and difficult to evaluate. "Not being able to get funding from other sources" is definitely a negative signal, so it seems worthwhile to restrict guests to projects whose worst possible outcome is unproductively diverting resources.

On the other hand, I really can't imagine what harm research projects could do; I guess the worst case scenario is someone so persuasive they can convince lots of EAs of their ideas but so bad at research their ideas are all wrong, which doesn't seem very likely. (why not 'malicious & persuasive people'? the community can probably identify those more easily by the subjects they write about)

Furthermore, guests' ability to engage in negative-EV projects will be constrained by the low stipend and terrible location (if I wanted to engage in Irish republican activism, living at the EA hotel wouldn't help very much). I think the largest danger to be alert for is reputation risk, especially from bad popularizations of EA, since this is easier to do remotely (one example is Intentional Insights, the only negative-EV EA project I know of)

Comment author: MichaelPlant 11 June 2018 12:04:48PM 2 points [-]

irreversible and difficult to evaluate

This basically applies to everything as a matter of degree, so it looks impossible to put in a blanket rule. Suppose I raise £10 and send it to AMF. That's irreversible. Is it difficult to evaluate? Depends what you mean by 'difficult' and what the comparison class is.

Comment author: vollmer 10 June 2018 04:26:08PM 2 points [-]

I agree research projects are more robustly positive. Information hazards are one main way in which they could do a significant amount of harm.

Comment author: hollymorgan 26 June 2018 02:03:53AM *  1 point [-]

Regarding studying, it would mainly be suitable for those doing so independently online (it’s possible to take many world class courses on EdX and Coursera for free). But could also be of use to university students outside of term time (say to do extra classes online, or an independent research project, over the summer).

Fully-funded living expenses could also open up the option of The Open University for some people.

the enthusiasm for this project may be partly driven by social reasons

There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as people participating at the hotel for largely social reasons pay their own way (and don’t disrupt others’ work).

I think vollmer just meant to caution against readers taking upvotes as a proxy for the value of a project.