Thank you for this work. I appreciate the high-level transparency throughout (e.g what is an opinion, how many sources have been read/incorporated, reasons for assumptions etc.)!
I have few key (dis)agreements and considerations. Disclaimer: I work for ALLFED (Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters) where we look at preparedness and response to nuclear winter among other things.
1) Opportunity Costs
I think it is not necessary for work on either preventing the worst nuclear conflicts or work on preparedness/response to be mutually exclusive with preventing nuclear conflict in general.
My intuition is that if you are working on preventing the worst nuclear conflicts then you (also) have to work on escalation steps. And understanding of how wars escalate and what we can do about it seems to be very useful generally no matter if we go from a war using 0 to ~10 nukes or from a war escalating from 10 to 100 nukes. At each step we would want to intervene. I do not know how a specialization would look like that is only relevant at the 100 to 1000 nukes step. I know me not being able to imagine such a specialization is only a weak argument but I am also not aware of anyone only looking at such a niche problem.
Additionally, preparedness/response work has multiple uses. Nuclear winter is only one source for an abrupt sunlight reduction scenario (ASRS), the others being super volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts (though one can argue that nuclear winter is the most likely out of the 3). Having 'slack' critical infrastructure (either through storage or the capacity to quickly scale-up post-catastrophe) is also helpful in many scenarios. Examples: resilient communication tech is helpful if communication is being disrupted either by war or by say a solar storm (same goes for electricity and water supply). The ability to scale-up food production is useful if we have Multiple Bread Basket Failures due to coinciding extreme weather events or if we have an agricultural shortfall due to a nuclear winter. In both cases we would want to know how feasible it is to quickly ramp up greenhouses (one example).
Lastly, I expect these different interventions to require different skillsets (e.g civil engineers vs. policy scholars). (Not always, surely there will be overlap.) So the opportunity costs would be more on the funding side of the cause area, less so on the talent side.
I agree that the cause area as a whole is neglected and share the concerns around reduced funding. But within the broader cause area of 'nuclear conflict' the tail-risks and the preparedness/response are even more neglected. Barely anyone is working on this and I think this is one strength of the EA community to look into highly neglected areas and add more value per person working on the problem. I don't have numbers but I would expect there to be at least 100 times more people working on preventing nuclear war and informing policy makers about the potential negative consequences because as you rightly stated that one does not need to be utilitarian, consequentialist, or longtermist to not want nukes to be used under any circumstances.
and 3) High uncertainty around interventions
Exactly because of the uncertainty you mentioned I think we should not rely on a narrow set of interventions and go broader. You can discount the likelihood, run your own numbers and advocate your ideal funding distribution between interventions but I think that we can not rule out nuclear winter happening and therefore some funding should go to response.
For context: Some put the probability of nuclear war causing extinction at (only) 0.3% this century. Or here is ALLFED's cost-effectiveness model looking at 'agriculture shortfalls' and their longterm impact, making the case for the marginal dollar in this area being extremely valuable.
In general I strongly agree with your argument that more efforts should go into prevention of any kind of nuclear war. I do not agree that this should happen at the expense of other interventions (such as working on response/preparedness).
4) Premise 1 --> Civilizational Collapse (through escalation after a single nuke)
You write that a nuclear attack could cause a global conflict (agree) which could then escalate to civilizational collapse (and therefore pose an xrisk) even if no further nukes are being used (strong disagree).
I do not see a plausible pathway to that. Even in an all out physical/typical explosives kind of war (I would expect our supply chains to fail and us running out of things to throw at each other way before civilization itself collapses). Am I missing something here?
Tongue in cheek related movie quote:
A: "Eye for an eye and the world goes blind."
B: "No it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye."
But I do not think it changes much of what you write here even if you cut-out this one consideration. It is only a minor point. Not a crux. Agree on the aspect that a single nuke can cause significant escalation though.
5) Desensitizing / Language around size of events
I am also saddened to hear that someone was dismissive about an India/Pakistan nuclear exchange. I agree that that is worrisome.
I think that Nuclear Autumns (up to ~25 Tg (million tons) of soot entering the atmosphere) still pose a significant risk and could cause ~1 billion deaths through famines + cascading effects, that is if we do not prepare. So dismissing such a scenario seems pretty bad to me
Thanks for writing this up and sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is clear (to me) that you went into this very observant and that you engaged with the ideas.
Brief disclaimer: While reading your post I had a few ideas. Below is written more loosely in a conversational style as I am afraid if I don't comment something of lower quality now while in the flow I will not comment at all.
- I understand you suggest that JSW need to be included. That you value grassroot movements, correct? That this would increase the diversity of thoughts within the community and would help it scale (and I guess have more impact).
I see a few concerns related to this. I think there are some important memes within the Effective Altruism movement that help it have a positive impact. Some of those memes are around scientific basics and rigour. Comparing estimates (Shut up and multiply) and trying to have the better arguments win, not the most emotional compelling ones. Will briefly explore this below with an example*. I am concerned that having the community grow too fast will dilute these ideas and eventually replace this carefully shaped culture.
Especially among SJW I see a lot of rage (which is understandable). My current understanding is that the revolutions SJWs are aiming for would most likely be extremely terrible. It is not clear to me that something better will necessarily emerge when something is being destroyed (talking about systems and institutions here). Having less abrupt change, an evolution, seems to be a strategy with less risky downsides. This is surely a onesided view that you could add nuance to. It is just that I have seen a lot of hate coming from these meme-spheres that was not tied to a positive future vision.
And yeah aiming to doing the most good one can accomplish is challenging. And I would be very surprised that the actions that are intuitively correct are also the most impactful ones (relevant: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately). So to repeat myself - I am careful around introducing strong heroic emotions into careful complex work. But yeah sometimes I do too feel a need for some of the heroic sagas. Will share some at the end of this comment**.
But you are not alone in wanting the community to expand. Both WillMacAskill and Scott Alexander (2 prominent figures) have advocated adjacent ideas. Will has spoken out in favour of community building (even more than the current baseline - can't find the source right now - it was probably in the latest 80k podcast episode with him) and Scott advocated to open up the EAG conference and have the next one host 10k people without admissions.
*Example of unintuitive charities having a large impact:
Okay, say you (a western person on a median income) care about Education because it is Empowering and lifts people out of Poverty. As a result you want to support a school project. You have already bought into the fact that your support goes a longer way in a developing world so you are looking at projects to support overseas. How do you help? Donate or buying books and writing materials -- crowdfund to build an additional class room -- or pay to hire an additional teacher ---- or go there in person and teach for a few months. These might be $10 - $100 - $1,000 -- and $10,000 contributions. And all of these feel right (at least to me).
But what if I told you that you could buy years of schooling for a kid for just a few dollars by deworming them. This was the finding of one of the deworming charities years ago. Idea is as follows: it costs between $0.5 and $1.5 to deworm one kid for one year. If you do this consistently by the time they have grown up they have had an additional year of school attendance because they simply got sick less (worms coming through unsafe drinking waters). This is unintuitive. This is unsexy. But pretty effective.
(Numbers are not exactly correct. Is has been awhile since I read about this cause area of effective global health / development projects to fund. Here a post by GiveWell which I quickly found and skimmed.)
And yes you can totally make the argument that someone needs to crowdfund a school first before (dewormed) kids can attend it, to which I argue that the former is more likely to get attention and funding from the average person (with spare income) than the 'sit down and multiply' type of results that bring us deworming projects. So we need a world in which both happen. And I expect the neglected parts to be the unintuitive ones.
Also talking about donations and contributions. I slightly got the impression that you think there needs to be more Walk and less Talk. Might have misread you here. I just want to emphasize that I think there is a very decent amount of Walk. Lots of people donate 10% of their income and people start non-profits and change their careers. Just this EAGxBerlin I also had the opportunity again to speak to many bright and motivated young-ish people who were asking about career advice. And changing your career seems like a pretty big commitment to me.
**Lastly on Art and Narratives
I agree there could be more. I am exploring this myself a bit. I think aesthetics and art are currently undervalued on average in the community. But the trend is going in the right direction. With the community's capacities growing (more funding, more people) we also see more prices being offered for creative writing contests.
Some pieces that are adjacent to the EA community that I love: [Existential Hope (for positive futures], [The Dragon Fable (for epic and heroism], [Rational Animations for cute alien doggos], [Wisdom Age by Roote (this one visualises beautifully the difference attitudes and approaches from different communities such as SJW, EA, capitalism, post-capitalism etc. ]
Related to fire raves:
Would you join community organized (fire) raves, say after-parties from EAG/EAGx or burner-style events? (Winking at the amazing EA Berlin community ;) )
(Or do you see a potential PR risk? Or would you not enjoy it as much with the attention you are getting? Would you join a masked (fire) rave?)
I appreciate the kind words. I am glad the analogy works for you!
Overall I would guess this took 12 hours of active work and probably some thinking sprinkled over 2-3 weeks. This is how it went down:
I woke up after 1.5 hours of sleep with clarity about this 'obligation' part above. Eg. why do I feel pressure to improve. Quickly grab my laptop to take some notes with the plan to go to bed again. Start writing. Feel more clarity than ever before - I can put my thoughts into words. Get into flow state. 80%-90% of the post above were done after 3.5 hours of this. Writing roughly 600-700 words per hour (which would put me into top writer category if I could do this frequently). Spend 2 more hours on formatting, doing the graphs, fixing typos, adding headlines, moving some sentences around, adding emphasis, etc. Reach out to ~5 friends and people in the EA community to provide feedback. Go to bed after 6 hours of still sitting in bed with laptop.
Then I received very helpful comments over the next ~5 days. Grammar improvements, clarifying questions, word change suggestions, and recommended readings. Concept of 'Slack' got added through the discussions in the comments and the emphasis on how noisy your energy/capacity can be. This was another ~3 hours. Then I didn't do anything on the post for 2-3 weeks. Occasionally small comments would trickle in. I would read over the draft a couple times. Having it at the back of my mind.
To be honest - At this point my motivation to finish it was low. In a way I already got the exchange with people in the community and my friends. And writing it out helped me understand certain thought patterns. But I got the feedback that it was useful to some people who have read the draft. And I liked the idea of sharing something + experimenting with blogging + improving my writing (through exposing it).
The last wrap-up took probably another 3 hours till I hit 'publish' here on the EA forum. This included linking to more resources. Including some more feedback. Redoing the graphics because there are some small formatting issues when copying over from google-docs to the forum. And it included the decision to not improve the section 'Problems that arise when you are aiming at the facilitative stress zone:' . Even though I think it contains most of the value, it is a barely structured list. But I didn't want to spend 80% of the time optimizing the last 10-20% of work. So I just went with it.
Yes, ALLFED does since this year (see our annual report or webpage: https://allfed.info/donate )
Thank you very much for this offer. Would this also apply for people who will be accepted. Are travelling in January. And after living for one week do the calculations and see that the expense for ~6 month would be too much?
I am personally surprised by the debate around cost of living but I am also aware that I come from a naive perspective because I can live/survive of less than 1,000 $ per month (including rent and food) in Berlin, Germany.
Disclosure: I applied.
- Name: Wiblin's Checklist
- What is it?
- A short checklist with "deeply helpful advice for coping with the vicissitudes of life" by Robert Wiblin.
- Why do you like it?
- It is short. So a very low threshold of looking it up. Regarding the content: I appreciate the framing of situations and the reflective aspects. Apparently, it is a lot like CBT.
- Where to start?
I would like to hear your thoughts on Generalist vs Specialist debate.
- Advice for someone early as a generalist?
- Did you stumble upon these different fields of interest by your own or did you surround yourself with smart people to get good understandings of various fields?
- Thoughts on impact comparissons? (Eg can a generalist maybe bring knowledge/wisdom from intuitively non-adjacent disciplines into a project and help advance it?)
- What skills are you lacking \ or which ones would you like to aquire to become a "Jack of all trades"?
- Are you even aiming to become even more of a generalist? Yes or no - please elaborate.
Yes, we are looking into cellular agriculture. Right now we have 2 papers in peer-review, which are covering single cell protein from bacteria that either feed on hydrogen or methane. One of these projects was announced in the report above:
The project will investigate using hydrogen-eating single-cell protein as a food source in catastrophes. The hydrogen would be obtained by electricity splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, or by gasifying (heating without oxygen) solid fuels such as wood, coal, or peat.
And yes we are in contact both with Solar Foods and the Good Food Institute. Even though these forms of food production currently cost more than conventional agriculture they are interesting for ALLFED's mission for 2 reasons:
1) They don't rely on the sun. So these are feasible ways to produce food in a nuclear or volcanic winter.
2) These technologies might help with specific nutrient requirements. Given a scenario in which we would be quickly scaling up the most promising 1-3 solution(s) to meet our caloric demand we might be at risk of malnutrition because not all micronutrients are being covered.
Thank you for those links. I will add them in the foodsystemshandbook.org
Just leaving a quick comment to clarify that I did not downvote your comment.
Another crucial consideration may be the timeline of intelligent life re-evolving. In scenario B), intelligent life may re-evolve but it may take 100 million years, as opposed to 1 million years in scenario
This is the biggest argument for me against the consideration. I can easily think that it would take way longer than that for intelligent life to reemerge. It took something like 4.6 billion years for us to evolve and in roughly 0.5 billion years the sun will make life on earth uninhabitable. I guess if other primates survive that is a "good" starting point for evolution but intelligent life doesn't seem to be a necessary step for me for survival.
Thank you very much for that GJOpen link. On March 30 you estimated a 66% of famine in those regions to be a slight overestimate. Would you mind sharing why you thought this way back then and if you updated in the mean time (and if yes, why)?
Currently the forecast average is at 70%. I put in a 65%.
Reasons for a lower chance:
- The amount of global kcal locked up due to trade restrictions has gone done in the last week from 4.3 to 2.5% AND the USA joined the pledge to keep food supply chains running (after some hestiation apprently since they weren't mentioned on the 21. April news article but the final version included them).
- This, together with the fact that relatively high stocks exist, gives me hope that food can be shipped around the world before a famine is declared.
- From the 5 countries included in the forecast I expect Tanzania and Uganda not to reach famine-levels. (Side note: South Sudan, not part of the forecast, seems to be at higher risk.)
- Even though we might reach crisis levels of malnutrition, we might not see a famine being declared due to the IPC definition / thresholds.
Reasons for a higher chance:
- I haven't seen locusts responses that seemed convincing enough to be able to keep the swarms in check. A third wave in Ethiopia and Kenya is a likely possibility.
- Global supply chains and responses are stressed to their limits due to COVID-19. Even if enough food globally exists, it might not reach those in need on time in sufficient quantities.
- Due to economic breakdowns (local currencies losing value, export revenue collapsing) the majority (?) of food imports into these nations would need to come from humanitarian aid. It is unclear to me how much foreign aid we will see globally with a lot of debate and spending being national to combat the COVID-19 outbreak within own boarders.
I do except most of these regions to reach crisis levels though (which is a different level from the forecast). This means immense suffering, loss of life and severe poverty for the survivors (for potentially years to come) which is why action should be undertaken.
It seems like RP's team is working remotely. If not please ignore my questions.
How do you deal with the challenges of researchers working remotely? How do you make sure you are having frequent exchanges and smooth communication?
In case you have some people working at one place (eg office) and some people working remotely:
How do you maintain a coherent team feeling? Do you think one requires such a feeling?
We can't give a public statement yet. We are expecting one on December 13. The intention of the institute is to cover GCR, x-risks and futurology/foresight.
As soon as we have something to publish I will update this comment and then report accordingly.
2 key information helped me to have impact (after I read about EA, the core ideas and values).
1. Not only AI-researchers can do impactful work. Also engineers and other fields. See: http://effectivethesis.com/
2. Most of EAs focus is on preventing x-risks/GCR which is correct because we can't afford to have them occur even once. Work on surviving and lessen the far future impact of x-risks is neglected. ALLFED (Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters) is working on feeding everyone in a catastrophe and has alot of low hanging fruits to work on for multiple disciplines. [80k podcast episode] [ALLFED papers on x-risks and solutions]
1. I didn't study something AI related and was unsure on how I could contribute in a meaningful and impactful way. I think this is a situation many new EAs face, as some of them are still studying when they hear about EA and they probably didn't choose their field of study with EA in mind. Luckily I found out about http://effectivethesis.com/ . There one can find ways to contribute. The suggested topics cover various fields from Agricultural Science, Economics, Engineering (my background) over to Sociology.
2. Regarding X-risks / GCR
Once one realizes the value of the longterm future one is eager to work on preventing x-risks/GCRs. Most of EAs work on reducing the probability of such events happening in the first place. E.g reducing the amount of nuclear weapons. I think this is the correct way of approaching these problems since for most of these scenarios humanity can't afford them to occur even once. But to contribute to AI research or to lessen the probability of a nuclear war one needs very specific skills that might not be the best fit for everyone. This can discourage new EAs.
Unfortunately for some of these scenarios (e.g super volcano, asteroid impact) the probability will never reach 0% and therefore we need to prepare. Surviving these catastrophes is often neglected. ALLFED (Alliance to Feed Earth in Disasters) is researching on feeding everyone no matter what and through that, lessen the far future impact of otherwise existential risks. Because this is neglected there are alot of low hanging fruits for people to work on. I for example started to work for ALLFED right after my undergrad / bachelors degree. People interested in this kind of work can find information here: [80k podcast episode] [ALLFED papers on x-risks and solutions]