Some personal thoughts on EA and systemic change 2019-09-26T21:40:28.725Z · score: 185 (80 votes)
Risk-neutral donors should plan to make bets at the margin at least as well as giga-donors in expectation 2016-12-31T02:19:35.457Z · score: 40 (26 votes)
Donor lotteries: demonstration and FAQ 2016-12-07T13:07:26.306Z · score: 39 (39 votes)
The age distribution of GiveWell recommended charities 2015-12-26T18:35:44.511Z · score: 13 (15 votes)
A Long-run perspective on strategic cause selection and philanthropy 2013-11-05T23:08:35.000Z · score: 8 (7 votes)


Comment by carl_shulman on Improving the future by influencing actors' benevolence, intelligence, and power · 2020-07-21T20:01:40.359Z · score: 27 (10 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the post. One concern I have about the use of 'power' is that it tends to be used for fairly flexible ability to pursue varied goals (good or bad, wisely or foolishly). But many resources are disproportionately helpful for particular goals or levels of competence. E.g. practices of rigorous reproducible science will give more power and prestige to scientists working on real topics, or who achieve real results, but it also constraint what they can do with that power (the norms make it harder for a scientist who wins stature thereby to push p-hacked pseudoscience for some agenda). Similarly, democracy increases the power of those who are likely to be elected, while constraining their actions towards popular approval. A charity evaluator like GiveWell may gain substantial influence within the domain of effective giving, but won't be able to direct most of its audience to charities that have failed in well powered randomized control trials.

This kind of change, which provides power differentially towards truth, or better solutions, should be of relatively greater interest to those seeking altruistic effectiveness (whereas more flexible power is of more interest to selfish actors or those with aims that hold up less well under those circumstances). So it makes sense to place special weight on asymmetric tools favoring correct views, like science, debate, and betting.

Comment by carl_shulman on Investing to Give Beginner Advice? · 2020-06-22T20:15:35.000Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks, edited.

Comment by carl_shulman on How to make the most impactful donation, in terms of taxes? · 2020-06-20T20:42:19.414Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Wayne, the case for leverage with altruistic investment is in no way based on the assumption that arithmetic returns equal median or log returns. I have belatedly added links to several documents that go into the issues at length above,.

The question is whether leverage increases the expected impact of your donations, taking into account issues such as diminishing marginal returns. Up to a point (the Kelly criterion level), increasing leverage drives up long-run median returns and growth rates at the expense of greater risk (much less than the increase in arithmetic returns).

The expected $ donated do grow with the increased arithmetic returns (multiplied by leverage less borrowing costs, etc), but they become increasingly concentrated in outcomes of heavy losses or a shrinking minority of increasingly extreme gains. In personal retirement, you value money less as you have more of it at a quite rapid rate, which means the optimal amount of risk to take for returns is less than the rate that maximizes long-run growth (the Kelly criterion), and vastly less than maximizing arithmetic returns.

In altruism when you are a small portion of funding for the causes you support you have much less reason to be risk-averse, as the marginal value of a dollar donated won't change a lot if it goes from $30M to $30M+$100k in a given year. At the level of the whole cause, something closer to Kelly looks sensible.

Comment by carl_shulman on Investing to Give Beginner Advice? · 2020-06-19T16:14:55.810Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

E.g. the VIX, a measure of stock market volatility (and risk plays a role in formulae for leverage) is above 30 right now, close to twice the typical level. Although that's a quantitative matter, and considering future donation streams (which are not invested), pushes towards more (see the book Lifecycle Investing). But people shouldn't do anything involving leverage before understanding it thoroughly.

Comment by carl_shulman on Investing to Give Beginner Advice? · 2020-06-17T16:53:13.478Z · score: 45 (19 votes) · EA · GW

This is a brief response, so please don't rush intemperately into things before understanding what you're doing on the basis of any of this. For general finance information, especially about low-fee index investing, I recommend Bogleheads (the wiki and the forum):

For altruistic investment, the biggest differentiating factors are 1) maximizing tax benefits of donation; 2) greater willingness to take risks than with personal retirement, suggesting some leverage.

Some tax benefits worth noting in the US:

1) If you purchase multiple securities you can donate those which increase, avoiding capital gains tax, and sell those that decline (tax-loss harvesting), allowing you to cancel out other capital gains tax and deduct up to $3000/yr of ordinary income.

2) You can get a deduction for donating to charity (this is independent of and combines with avoiding capital gains on donations of appreciated securities). But this is only if you itemize deductions (so giving up the standard deduction), and thus is best to do only once in a few years, concentrating your donations to make itemizing worthwhile. There is a cap of 60% of income (100% this year because of the CARES act) for deductible cash contributions, 30% for donations of appreciated securities (although there can be carryover).

3) You can donate initially to a donor advised fund to collect the tax deduction early and have investments grow inside tax-free, saving you from taxes on dividends, interest and any sales of securities that you aren't transferring directly to a charity. However, DAFs charge fees that take back some of these gains, and have restrictions on available investment options (specifically most DAFs won't permit leverage).

Re leverage, this increases the likelihood of the investment going very high or very low, with the optimal level depending on a number of factors . Here are some discussions of the considerations:

My own preference would be to make a leveraged investment that can't go to a negative value so you don't need to monitor it constantly, e.g. a leveraged index ETF (e.g. UPRO, TQQQ, or SOXL), or a few. If it collapses you can liquidate and tax-loss harvest. If it appreciates substantially then donate the appreciated ETF in chunks to maximize your tax deduction (e.g. bunching it up when your marginal tax rate will be high to give up to the 30% maximum deduction limits).

Comment by carl_shulman on Million dollar donation: penny for your thoughts? · 2020-06-16T19:52:17.144Z · score: 28 (9 votes) · EA · GW

My preference within this genre would be for something with more leverage and greater expected impact at the expense of local linearity. I'd especially call out the Center for Global Development, which has a history of policy wins that I think justify its budget many times over, and Target Malaria for work getting gene drives deployed to eliminate vector-borne diseases such as malaria. I'd prefer one dollar to these over multiple dollars to AMF, or the recommendations in the report.

Comment by carl_shulman on How to make the most impactful donation, in terms of taxes? · 2020-06-16T00:40:15.780Z · score: 13 (7 votes) · EA · GW

In the US, you might also invest the money in high risk high return investments that are more likely to increase a lot or decline to near zero over time (e.g. a leveraged ETF, to limit your downside to your investment), hold them for a year or more, and then sell them to realize losses or donate the appreciated securities if they rise. This has several benefits:

  • If the investment declines, you get to take the loss and use it to reduce capital gains tax or deduct from ordinary income (up to $3000 a year) if you have no capital gains
  • If it appreciates you get the regular tax deduction (you can give up to 30% of income in appreciated assets), and also avoid capital gains tax
  • Because it is high risk, if it appreciates it is more likely to appreciate a lot, so when donated it will help you clear the standard deduction by a larger amount
  • The elevated expected returns can increase the expected value of your donation quite a lot (i.e.. on average you will give a lot more dollars, even though they will be concentrated in a smaller fraction of the possibilities)

Don't do this before reading up extensively, but here are several discussions of the issues from an altruistic perspective.

Comment by carl_shulman on Why might one value animals far less than humans? · 2020-06-09T20:00:27.230Z · score: 40 (10 votes) · EA · GW

If you start decomposing minds into their computational components, you find many orders of magnitude differences in the numbers of similar components. E.g. both a honeybee and a human may have visual experience, but the latter will have on the order of 10,000 times as many photoreceptors, with even larger disparities in the number of neurons and computations for subsequent processing. If each edge detection or color discrimination (or higher level processing) additively contributes some visual experience, then you have immense differences in the total contributions.

Likewise, for reinforcement learning consequences of pain or pleasure rewards: larger brains will have orders of magnitude more neurons, synapses, associations, and dispositions to be updated in response to reward. Many thousands of subnetworks could be carved out with complexity or particular capabilities greater than those of the honeybee.

On the other side, trivially tiny computer programs we can make today could make for minimal instantiations of available theories of consciousness, with quantitative differences between the minimal examples and typical examples. See also this discussion. A global workspace may broadcast to thousands of processes or billions.

We can also consider minds much larger than humans, e.g. imagine a network of humans linked by neural interfaces, exchanging memories, sensory input, and directions to action. As we increased the bandwidth of these connections and the degree of behavioral integration, eventually you might have a system that one could consider a single organism, but with vastly greater numbers of perceptions, actions, and cognitive processes than a single human. If we started with 1 billion humans who gradually joined their minds together in such a network, should we say that near the end of the process their total amount of experience or moral weight is reduced to that of 1-10 humans? I'd guess the collective mind would be at least on the same order of consciousness and impartial moral weight as the separated minds, and so there could be giant minds with vastly greater than human quantities of experience.

The usual discussions on this topic seem to assume that connecting and integrating many mental processes almost certainly destroys almost all of their consciousness and value, which seems questionable both for the view itself and for the extreme weight put on it. With a fair amount of credence on the view that the value is not almost all destroyed, the expected value of big minds is enormously greater than that of small minds.

Comment by carl_shulman on X-risks to all life v. to humans · 2020-06-03T20:58:09.532Z · score: 16 (10 votes) · EA · GW

Welcome, and thanks for posting!

"kills 99% of all humans...In each scenario, humanity almost certainly goes extinct."

I don't think that this is true for your examples, but rather that humanity would almost certainly not be directly extinguished or even prevented from recovering technology by a disaster that killed 99%. 1% of humans surviving is a population of 78 million, more than the Roman Empire, with knowledge of modern agricultural techniques like crop rotation or the moldboard plough, and vast supplies built by our civilization. For a dinosaur-killer asteroid, animals such as crocodiles and our own ancestors survived that, and our technological abilities to survive and recover are immensely greater (we have food reserves, could tap energy from the oceans and dead biomass, can produce food using non-solar energy sources, etc). So not only would human extinction be quite unlikely, but by that point nonhuman extinctions would be very thorough.

For a pandemic, an immune 1% (immunologically or behaviorally immune) rebuild civilization. If we stipulate a disease that killed all humans but generally didn't affect other taxa, then chimpanzees (with whom we have a common ancestor only millions of years ago) are well positioned to take the same course again, as well as more distant relatives if primates perished, so I buy a relatively high credence in intelligence life reemerging there.

Comment by carl_shulman on How can I apply person-affecting views to Effective Altruism? · 2020-04-29T17:38:13.857Z · score: 11 (8 votes) · EA · GW

It doesn't seem like mere pedantry if it requires substantial revision of the view to retain the same action recommendations. Symmetric person-affecting total utilitarianism does look to be dominated by these sorts of possibilities of large stocks of necessary beings without some other change. I'm curious what your take on the issues raised in that post is.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2020-03-09T22:12:09.603Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Plus the Soviet bioweapons program was actively at work to engineer pathogens for enhanced destructiveness during the 70s and 80s using new biotechnology (and had been using progessively more advanced methods through the 20th century.

Comment by carl_shulman on Growth and the case against randomista development · 2020-02-17T22:31:27.744Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I think that kind of spikiness (1000, 200, 100 with big gaps between) isn't the norm. Often one can proceed to weaker and indirect versions of a top intervention (funding scholarships to expand the talent pipelines for said think-tanks, buying them more Google Ads to publicize their research) with lower marginal utility that smooth out the returns curve, as you do progressively less appealing and more ancillary versions of the 1000-intervention until they start to get down into the 200-intervention range.

Comment by carl_shulman on How Much Leverage Should Altruists Use? · 2020-01-08T04:20:04.301Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that carefully-vetted institutional solutions are probably where one would like to end up.

Comment by carl_shulman on How Much Leverage Should Altruists Use? · 2020-01-07T19:32:57.095Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that the EMH-consistent version of this still suggests the collective EA portfolio should be more leveraged, and more managing correlations across donors now and over time, and that there is a large factor literature in support of these factors (although in general academic finance suffers from datamining/backtesting and EMH dissipation of real factors that become known).

Re the text you quoted, I just mean that if EAs damage their portfolios (e.g. by taking large amounts of leverage and not properly monitoring it so that leverage ratios explode, taking out the portfolio) that's fewer EA dollars donated (aside from the reputational effects), and I would want to do more to ensure readers don't go half-cocked and blow up their portfolios without really knowing what they are doing.

Comment by carl_shulman on How Much Leverage Should Altruists Use? · 2020-01-07T07:21:40.191Z · score: 44 (17 votes) · EA · GW

I appreciate many important points in this essay about the additional considerations for altruistic investing, including taking more risk for return than normal because of lower philanthropic risk aversion, attending to correlations with other donors (current and future), and the variations in diminishing returns curve for different causes and interventions popular in effective altruism. I think there are very large gains that could be attained by effective altruists better making use of these considerations.

But at the same time I am quite disconcerted by the strong forward-looking EMH violating claims about massively outsized returns to the specific investment strategies, despite the limited disclaimers (and the factor literature). Concern for relative performance only goes so far as an explanation for predicting such strong inefficiencies going forward: the analysis would seem to predict that, e.g. very wealthy individuals investing on their own accounts will pile into such strategies if their advantage is discernible. I would be much less willing to share the article because of the inclusion of those elements.

I would also add some of the special anti-risk considerations for altruists and financial writing directed at them, e.g.

  • Investment blowups that cause personal financial difficulties attributed to effective altruism having fallout on others
  • Investment writings taken as advice damaging especially valuable assets that would otherwise be used for altruism (just the flip side of the value of improvements)
  • Relative underperformance (especially blame-drawing) of the broad EA portfolio contributing to weaker reputation for effective altruism, interacting negatively with the very valuable asset (much of the EA portfolio) of entry of new altruists

On net, it still looks like EA should be taking much more risk than is commonly recommended for individual retirement investments, and I'd like to see active development of this sort of thinking, but want to emphasize the importance of caution and rigor in doing so.

Comment by carl_shulman on How Much Leverage Should Altruists Use? · 2020-01-07T06:59:21.788Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Interactive Brokers allows much higher leverage for accounts with portfolio margin enabled, e.g. greater than 6:1. That requires options trading permissions, in turn requiring some combination of options experience and an online (easy) test.

I would be more worried about people blowing up their life savings with ill-considered extreme leverage strategies and the broader fallout of that.

Comment by carl_shulman on Summary of my academic paper “Effective Altruism and Systemic Change” · 2019-09-26T20:48:08.955Z · score: 18 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Agreed (see this post for an argument along these lines), but it would require much higher adoption and so merits the critique relative to alternatives where the donations can be used more effectively.

I have reposted the comment as a top-level post.

Comment by carl_shulman on Summary of my academic paper “Effective Altruism and Systemic Change” · 2019-09-26T19:34:03.927Z · score: 77 (23 votes) · EA · GW

My sense of what is happening regarding discussions of EA and systemic change is:

  • Actual EA is able to do assessments of systemic change interventions including electoral politics and policy change, and has done so a number of times
    • Empirical data on the impact of votes, the effectiveness of lobbying and campaign spending work out without any problems of fancy decision theory or increasing marginal returns
      • E.g. Andrew Gelman's data on US Presidential elections shows that given polling and forecasting uncertainty a marginal vote in a swing state average something like a 1 in 10 million chance of swinging an election over multiple elections (and one can save to make campaign contributions
      • 80,000 Hours has a page (there have been a number of other such posts and discussion, note that 'worth voting' and 'worth buying a vote through campaign spending or GOTV' are two quite different thresholds) discussing this data and approaches to valuing differences in political outcomes between candidates; these suggest that a swing state vote might be worth tens of thousands of dollars of income to rich country citizens
        • But if one thinks that charities like AMF do 100x or more good per dollar by saving the lives of the global poor so cheaply, then these are compatible with a vote being worth only a few hundred dollars
        • If one thinks that some other interventions, such as gene drives for malaria eradication, animal advocacy, or existential risk interventions are much more cost-effective than AMF, that would lower the value further except insofar as one could identify strong variation in more highly-valued effects
      • Experimental data on the effects of campaign contributions suggest a cost of a few hundred dollars per marginal vote (see, e.g. Gerber's work on GOTV experiments)
      • Prediction markets and polling models give a good basis for assessing the chance of billions of dollars of campaign funds swinging an election
      • If there are increasing returns to scale from large-scale spending, small donors can convert their funds into a small chance of huge funds, e.g. using a lottery, or more efficiently (more than 1/1,000 chance of more than 1000x funds) through making longshot bets in financial markets, so IMR are never a bar to action (also see the donor lottery)
      • The main thing needed to improve precision for such estimation of electoral politics spending is carefully cataloging and valuing different channels of impact (cost per vote and electoral impact per vote are well-understood)
        • More broadly there are also likely higher returns than campaign spending in some areas such as think tanks, lobbying, and grassroots movement-building; ballot initiative campaign spending is one example that seems like it may have better returns than spending on candidates (and EAs have supported several ballot initiatives financially, such as restoration of voting rights to convicts in Florida, cage bans, and increased foreign spending)
    • A recent blog post by the Open Philanthropy Project describes their cost-effectiveness estimates from policy search in human-oriented US domestic policy, including criminal justice reform, housing reform, and others
      • It states that thus far even ex ante estimates of effect there seem to have only rarely outperformed GiveWell style charities
      • However it says: "One hypothesis we’re interested in exploring is the idea of combining multiple sources of leverage for philanthropic impact (e.g., advocacy, scientific research, helping the global poor) to get more humanitarian impact per dollar (for instance via advocacy around scientific research funding or policies, or scientific research around global health interventions, or policy around global health and development). Additionally, on the advocacy side, we’re interested in exploring opportunities outside the U.S.; we initially focused on U.S. policy for epistemic rather than moral reasons, and expect most of the most promising opportunities to be elsewhere. "
    • Let's Fund's fundraising for climate policy work similarly made an attempt to estimate the impacts of their proposed intervention in this sort of fashion; without endorsing all the details of their analysis, I think it is an example of EA methodologies being quite capable of modeling systemic interventions
    • Animal advocates in EA have obviously pursued corporate campaigns and ballot initiatives which look like systemic change to me, including quantitative estimates of the impact of the changes and the effects of the campaigns
  • The great majority of critics of EA invoking systemic change fail to present the simple sort of quantitative analysis given above for the interventions they claim, and frequently when such analysis is done the intervention does not look competitive by EA lights
    • A common reason for this is EAs taking into account the welfare of foreigners, nonhuman animals and future generations; critics may propose to get leverage by working through the political system but give up on leverage from concern for neglected beneficiaries, and in other cases the competition is interventions that get leverage from advocacy or science combined with a focus on neglected beneficiaries
    • Sometimes systemic change critiques come from a Marxist perspective that assumes Marxist revolution will produce a utopia, whereas empirically such revolution has been responsible for impoverishing billions of people, mass killing, the Cold War, (with risk of nuclear war) and increased tensions between China and democracies, creating large object-level disagreements with many EAs who want to accurately forecast the results of political action
  • Nonetheless, my view is that historical data do show that the most efficient political/advocacy spending, particularly aiming at candidates and issues selected with an eye to global poverty or the long term, does have higher returns than GiveWell top charities (even ignoring nonhumans and future generations or future technologies); one can connect the systemic change critique as a position in intramural debates among EAs about the degree to which one should focus on highly linear, giving as consumption, type interventions
    • E.g. I would rather see $1000 go to something like the Center for Global Development, Target Malaria's gene drive effort, or the Swiss effective foreign aid ballot initiative than the Against Malaria Foundation
    • I do think it is true that well-targeted electoral politics spending has higher returns than AMF, because of the impacts of elections on things such as science, foreign aid, great power war, AI policy, etc, provided that one actually directs one's efforts based on the neglected considerations
  • EAs who are willing to consider riskier and less linear interventions are mostly already pursuing fairly dramatic systemic change, in areas with budgets that are small relative to political spending (unlike foreign aid),
    • Global catastrophic risks work is focused on research and advocacy to shift the direction of society as a whole on critical issues, and the collapse of human civilization or its replacement by an undesirable successor would certainly be a systemic change
    • As mentioned previously, short-term animal EA work is overwhelmingly focused on systemic changes, through changing norms and laws, or producing technologies that would replace and eliminate the factory farming system
    • A number of EA global poverty focused donors do give to organizations like CGD, meta interventions to grow the EA movement (which can eventually be cashed in for larger systemic change), and groups like GiveWell or the Poverty Action Lab
      • Although there is a relative gap in longtermist and high-risk global poverty work compared to other cause areas, that does make sense in terms of ceiling effects, arguments for the importance of trajectory changes from a longtermist perspective, and the role of GiveWell as a respected charity evaluator providing a service lacking for other areas
    • Issue-specific focus in advocacy makes sense for these areas given the view that they are much more important than the average issue and with very low spending
  • As funding expands in focused EA priority issues, eventually diminishing returns there will equalize with returns for broader political spending, and activity in the latter area could increase enormously: since broad political impact per dollar is flatter over a large range political spending should either be a very small or very large portion of EA activity
    • Essentially, the cost per vote achieved through things like campaign spending is currently set by the broader political culture and has the capacity to absorb billions of dollars at similar cost-effectiveness to the current level, so it should either be the case that EA funds very little of it or enormous amounts of it
      • There is a complication in that close elections or other opportunities can vary the effectiveness of political spending over time, which would suggest saving most funds for those
    • The considerations are similar to GiveDirectly: since cash transfers could absorb all EA funds many times over at similar cost-effectiveness (with continued rapid scaling), it should take in either very little or almost all EA funding; in a forced choice it should either be the case that most funding goes to cash transfers, whereas for other interventions with diminishing returns on the relevant scale as mixed portfolio will yield more impact
    • For now areas like animal advocacy and AI safety with budgets of only tens of millions of dollars are very small relative to political spending, and the impact of the focused work (including relevant movement building) makes more of a difference to those areas than a typical difference between political candidates; but if billions of dollars were being spent in those areas it would seem that political activity could be a competitive use (e.g. supporting pro-animal candidates for office)

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-13T17:27:41.191Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

My read is that Millenarian religious cults have often existed in nontrivial numbers, but as you say the idea of systematic, let alone accelerating, progress (as opposed to past golden ages or stagnation) is new and coincided with actual sustained noticeable progress. The Wikipedia page for Millenarianism lists ~all religious cults, plus belief in an AI intelligence explosion.

So the argument seems, first order, to reduce to the question of whether credence in AI growth boom (to much faster than IR rates) is caused by the same factors as religious cults rather than secular scholarly opinion, and the historical share/power of those Millenarian sentiments as a share of the population. But if one takes a narrower scope (not exceptionally important transformation of the world as a whole, but more local phenomena like the collapse of empires or how long new dynasties would last) one sees smaller distortion of relative importance for propaganda frequently (not that it was necessarily believed by outside observers).

Comment by carl_shulman on Ask Me Anything! · 2019-09-13T01:47:38.615Z · score: 16 (6 votes) · EA · GW
She’s unsure whether this speeds up or slows down AI development; her credence is imprecise, represented by the interval [0.4, 0.6]. She’s confident, let’s say, that speeding up AI development is bad.

That's an awfully (in)convenient interval to have! That is the unique position for an interval of that length with no distinguishing views about any parts of the interval, such that integrating over it gives you a probability of 0.5 and expected impact of 0.

The standard response to that is that you should weigh all these and do what is in expectation best, according to your best-guess credences. But maybe we just don’t have sufficiently fine-grained credences for this to work,

If the argument from cluelessness depends on giving that kind of special status to imprecise credences, then I just reject them for the general reason that coarsening credences leads to worse decisions and predictions (particularly if one has done basic calibration training and has some numeracy and skill at prediction). There is signal to be lost in coarsening on individual questions. And for compound questions with various premises or contributing factors making use of the signal on each of those means your views will be moved by signal.

Chapter 3 of Jeffrey Friedman's book War and Chance: Assessing Uncertainty in International Politics presents data and arguments showing large losses from coarsening credences instead of just giving a number between 0 and 1. I largely share his negative sentiments about imprecise credences, especially.

[VOI considerations around less investigated credences that are more likely to be moved by investigation are fruitful grounds to delay action to acquire or await information that one expects may be actually attained, but are not the same thing as imprecise credences.]

(In contrast, it seems you thought I was referring to AI vs some other putative great longtermist intervention. I agree that plausible longtermist rivals to AI and bio are thin on the ground.)

That was an example of the phenomenon of not searching a supposedly vast space and finding that in fact the # of top-level considerations are manageable (at least compared to thousands), based off experience with other people saying that there must be thousands of similarly plausible risks. I would likewise say that the DeepMind employee in your example doesn't face thousands upon thousands of ballpark-similar distinct considerations to assess.

Comment by carl_shulman on How do most utilitarians feel about "replacement" thought experiments? · 2019-09-08T19:05:28.039Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think that is basically true in practice, but I am also saying that even absent those pragmatic considerations constraining utilitarianism, I still would hold these other non-utilitarian normative views and reject things like not leaving some space for existing beings for a tiny proportional increase in resources for utility monsters.

Comment by carl_shulman on How do most utilitarians feel about "replacement" thought experiments? · 2019-09-08T18:55:23.724Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA · GW

The first words of my comment were "I don't identify as a utilitarian" (among other reasons because I reject the idea of things like feeding all existing beings to utility monsters for a trivial proportional gains to the latter, even absent all the pragmatic reasons not to; even if I thought such things more plausible it would require extreme certainty or non-pluralism to get such fanatical behavior).

I don't think a 100% utilitarian dictator with local charge of a society on Earth removes pragmatic considerations, e.g. what if they are actually a computer simulation designed to provide data about and respond to other civilizations, or the principle of their action provides evidence about what other locally dominant dictators on other planets will do including for other ideologies, or if they contact alien life?

But you could elaborate on the scenario to stipulate such things not existing in the hypothetical, and get a situation where your character would commit atrocities, and measures to prevent the situation hadn't been taken when the risk was foreseeable.

That's reason for everyone else to prevent and deter such a person or ideology from gaining the power to commit such atrocities while we can, such as in our current situation. That would go even more strongly for negative utilitarianism, since it doesn't treat any life or part of life as being intrinsically good, regardless of the being in question valuing it, and is therefore even more misaligned with the rest of the world (in valuation of the lives of everyone else, and in the lives of their descendants). And such responses give reason even for utilitarian extremists to take actions that reduce such conflicts.

Insofar as purely psychological self-binding is hard, there are still externally available actions, such as visibly refraining from pursuit of unaccountable power to harm others, and taking actions to make it more difficult to do so, such as transferring power to those with less radical ideologies, or ensuring transparency and accountability to them.

Comment by carl_shulman on How do most utilitarians feel about "replacement" thought experiments? · 2019-09-08T18:13:09.657Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · EA · GW
It is worth noting that this is not, as it stands, a reply available to a pure traditional utilitarian.

That's why the very first words of my comment were "I don't identify as a utilitarian."

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-07T02:19:19.233Z · score: 33 (20 votes) · EA · GW
I doubt I can easily convince you that the prior I’ve chosen is objectively best, or even that it is better than the one you used. Prior-choice is a bit of an art, rather like choice of axioms. But I hope you see that it does show that the whole thing comes down to whether you choose a prior like you did, or another reasonable alternative... Additionally, if you didn’t know which of these priors to use and used a mixture with mine weighted in to a non-trivial degree, this would also lead to a substantial prior probability of HoH.

I think this point is even stronger, as your early sections suggest. If we treat the priors as hypotheses about the distribution of events in the world, then past data can provide evidence about which one is right, and (the principle of) Will's prior would have given excessively low credence to humanity's first million years being the million years when life traveled to the Moon, humanity becoming such a large share of biomass, the first 10,000 years of agriculture leading to the modern world, and so forth. So those data would give us extreme evidence for a less dogmatic prior being correct.

Comment by carl_shulman on How do most utilitarians feel about "replacement" thought experiments? · 2019-09-06T18:04:59.214Z · score: 30 (14 votes) · EA · GW

I don't identify as a utilitarian, but I am more sympathetic to consequentialism than the vast majority of people, and reject such thought experiments (even in the unlikely event they weren't practically self-defeating: utilitarians should want to modify their ideology and self-bind so that they won't do things that screw over the rest of society/other moral views, so that they can reap the larger rewards of positive-sum trades rather than negative-sum conflict). The contractarian (and commonsense and pluralism, but the theory I would most invoke for theoretical understanding is contractarian) objection to such things greatly outweighs the utilitarian case.

For the tiny population of Earth today (which is astronomically small compared to potential future populations) the idea becomes even more absurd. I would agree with Bostrom in Superintelligence (page 219) that failing to leave one galaxy, let alone one solar system for existing beings out of billions of galaxies would be ludicrously monomaniacal and overconfident (and ex ante something that 100% convinced consequentialists would have very much wanted to commit to abstain from).

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T18:06:33.197Z · score: 29 (12 votes) · EA · GW

Szilard anticipated nuclear weapons (and launched a large and effective strategy to cause the liberal democracies to get them ahead of totalitarian states, although with regret), and was also concerned about germ warfare (along with many of the anti-nuclear scientists). See this 1949 story he wrote. Szilard seems very much like an agenty sophisticated anti-xrisk actor.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T17:34:33.016Z · score: 13 (10 votes) · EA · GW
I do agree that, at the moment, EA is mainly investing (e.g. because of Open Phil and because of human capital and because much actual expenditure is field-building-y, as you say). But it seems like at the moment that’s primarily because of management constraints and weirdness of borrowing-to-give (etc), rather than a principled plan to spread giving out over some (possibly very long) time period.

I agree that many small donors do not have a principled plan and are trying to shift the overall portfolio towards more donation soon (which can have the effect of 100% now donation for an individual who is small relative to the overall portfolio).

However, I think that institutionally there are in fact mechanisms to regulate expenditures:

  • Evaluations of investments in movement-building involve estimations of the growth of EA resources that will result, and comparisons to financial returns; as movement-building returns decline they will start to fall under the financial return benchmark and no longer be expanded in that way
  • The Open Philanthropy Project has blogged about its use of the concept of a 'last dollar' opportunity cost of funds, asking for current spending whether in expectation it will do more good than saving it for future opportunities; assessing last dollars opportunity cost involves use of market investment returns, and the value of savings as insurance for the possibility of rare conditions that could provide enhanced returns (a collapse of other donors in core causes rather than a glut, major technological developments, etc)
  • Some other large and small donors likewise take into account future opportuntiies
  • Advisory institutions such as 80,000 Hours, charity evaluators, grantmakers, and affiliated academic researchers are positioned to advise change if donors start spending down too profligately (I for one stand ready for this wrt my advice to longtermist donors focused on existential risk)

All that said, it's valuable to improve broader EA community understanding of intertemporal tradeoffs, and estimation of the relevant parameters to determine disbursement rates better.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T17:03:45.434Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · EA · GW
My view is that, in the aggregate, these outside-view arguments should substantially update one from one’s prior towards HoH, but not all the way to significant credence in HoH.
[3] Quantitatively: These considerations push me to put my posterior on HoH into something like the [1%, 0.1%] interval. But this credence interval feels very made-up and very unstable.

What credence to 'this century is the most HoH-ish there will ever be henceforth?' That claim soaks up credence from trends towards diminishing influence over time, and our time is among the very first to benefit from longtermist altruists actually existing to get non-zero returns from longtermist strategies and facing plausible x-risks. The combination of those two factors seems to have a good shot at 'most HoH century' but substantially better than that for 'most HoH century remaining.'

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T16:40:29.562Z · score: 15 (4 votes) · EA · GW
Here are two distinct views:
Strong Longtermism := The primary determinant of the value of our actions is the effects of those actions on the very long-run future.
The Hinge of History Hypothesis (HoH) :=  We are living at the most influential time ever. 
It seems that, in the effective altruism community as it currently stands, those who believe longtermism generally also assign significant credence to HoH; I’ll precisify ‘significant’ as >10% when ‘time’ is used to refer to a period of a century, but my impression is that many longtermists I know would assign >30% credence to this view.  It’s a pretty striking fact that these two views are so often held together — they are very different claims, and it’s not obvious why they should so often be jointly endorsed.

Two clear and common channels I have seen are:

  • Longtermism leads to looking around for things that would have lasting impacts (e.g. Parfit and Singer attending to existential risk, and noticing that a large portion of all technological advances have been in the last few centuries, and a large portion of the remainder look likely to come in the next few centuries, including the technologies for much higher existential risk)
  • People pay attention to the fact that the last few centuries have accounted for so much of all technological progress, and the likely gains to be had in the next few centuries (based on our knowledge of physical laws, existence proofs, from biology, and trend extrapolation), noticing things that can have incredibly long-lasting effects that dwarf short-run concerns
Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T16:32:03.719Z · score: 23 (8 votes) · EA · GW

> Then given uncertainty about these parameters, in the long run the scenarios that dominate the EV calculation are where there’s been no pre-emption and the future population is not that high. e.g. There's been some great societal catastrophe and we're rebuilding civilization from just a few million people. If we think the inverse relationship between population size and hingeyness is very strong, then maybe we should be saving for such a possible scenario; that's the hinge moment.

I agree (and have used in calculations about optimal disbursement and savings rates) that the chance of a future altruist funding crash is an important reason for saving (e.g. medium-scale donors can provide insurance against a huge donor like the Open Philanthropy Project not entering an important area or being diverted). However, the particularly relevant kind of event for saving is the possibility of a 'catastrophe' that cuts other altruistic funding or similar while leaving one's savings unaffected. Good Ventures going awry fits that bill better than a nuclear war (which would also destroy a DAF saving for the future with high probability).

Saving extra for a catastrophe that destroys one's savings and the broader world at the same rate is a bet on proportional influence being more important in the poorer smaller post-disaster world, which seems like a weaker consideration. Saving or buying insurance to pay off in those cases, e.g. with time capsule messages to post-apocalyptic societies, or catastrophe bonds/insurance contracts to release funds in the event of a crash in the EA movement, get more oomph.

I'll also flag that we're switching back and forth here between the question of which century has the highest marginal impact per unit resources and which periods are worth saving/expending how much for.

>Then given uncertainty about these parameters, in the long run the scenarios that dominate the EV calculation are where there’s been no pre-emption and the future population is not that high.

I think this is true for what little EV of 'most important century' remains so far out, but that residual is very small. Note that Martin Weitzman's argument for discounting the future at the lowest possible rate (where we consider even very unlikely situations where discount rates remain low to get a low discount rate for the very long-term) gives different results with an effectively bounded utility function. If we face a limit like '~max value future' or 'utopian light-cone after a great reflection' then we can't make up for increasingly unlikely scenarios with correspondingly greater incremental probability of achieving ~ that maximum: diminishing returns mean we can't exponentially grow our utility gained from resources indefinitely (going from 99% of all wealth to 99.9% or 99.999% and so on will yield only a bounded increment to the chance of a utopian long-term). A related limit to growth (although there is some chance it could be avoided, making it another drag factor) comes if the chances of expropriation rise as one's wealth becomes a larger share of the world (a foundation with 50% of world wealth would be likely to face new taxes).

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T16:10:28.429Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Thinking further, I would go with importance among those options for 'total influence of an era' but none of those terms capture the 'per capita/resource' element, and so all would tend to be misleading in that way. I think you would need an explicit additional qualifier to mean not 'this is the century when things will be decided' but 'this is the century when marginal influence is highest, largely because ~no one tried or will try.'

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T06:36:47.672Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · EA · GW

I'd guess a longtermist altruist movement would have wound up with a flatter GCR porfolio at the time. It might have researched nuclear winter and dirty bombs earlier than in OTL (and would probably invest more in nukes than today's EA movement), and would have expedited the (already pretty good) reaction to the discovery of asteroid risk. I'd also guess it would have put a lot of attention on the possibility of stable totalitarianism as lock-in.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T06:31:52.526Z · score: 22 (7 votes) · EA · GW
You might think the counterfactual is unfair here, but I wouldn’t regard it as accessible to someone in 1600 to know that they could make contributions to science and the Enlightenment as a good way of influencing the long-run future. 

Is longtermism accessible today? That's a philosophy of a narrow circle, as Baconian science and the beginnings of the culture of progress were in 1600. If you are a specialist focused on moral reform and progress today with unusual knowledge, your might want to consider a counterpart in the past in a similar position for their time.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-05T06:27:14.811Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
But ‘doesn't seem to be at all an option’ seems overstated to me.

In expectation, just as a result of combining comparability within a few OOM on likelihood of a hinge in the era/transition, but far more in population. I was not ruling out specific scenarios, in the sense that it is possible that a random lottery ticket is the winner and worth tens of millions of dollar, but not an option for best investment.

Generally, I'm thinking in expectations since they're more action-guiding.

Comment by carl_shulman on Aging research and population ethics · 2019-09-05T01:29:29.280Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA · GW
it turns out that saving people by hastening the arrival of LEV wouldn't prevent births and could actually increase the average fertility rate of the world. This leads to a counterintuitive result: Aging research could be even more valuable under the impersonal view of population ethics.

The sense of 'even more valuable' meant here seem to be something like 'more adjusted morally relevant QALYs.' But a total view of population ethics (contrasted with a symmetric person-affecting view) generically massively increases the potential QALYs at stake, and shifts the relative choiceworthiness of different options, so that on the impersonal view life extension is less valuable compared to the alternatives (and thus less of a priority for actual efforts) even if more important in absolute terms:

  • Because animal populations turn over extremely rapidly and our interventions generally take too long to help current animals (only changing the conditions of future generations), the impersonal view vastly amplifies the relative importance of helping them relative to long-lived humans
  • Considerations of existential risk for future generations potentially affect populations many orders of magnitude larger than current human populations (and most of those generations will in any case have access to life-extension), so the total view strongly favors interventions that yield QALYs through effects on long run civilizational trajectories or survival, rather than effects like those from medical life extension
  • Life extension may help affect distant future generations, and fertility boosts increase growth, but doesn't seem very well-targeted to that task

So I think the counterintuitive result is counterintuitive because it's not asking the right (action-guiding) question, and in action-guiding terms the person-affecting view does much more strongly favor life extension.

Comment by carl_shulman on Ask Me Anything! · 2019-09-04T23:20:21.358Z · score: 16 (10 votes) · EA · GW

> From the perspective of longtermism, for any particular action, there are thousands of considerations/ scenarios that point in the direction of the action being good, and thousands of considerations/ scenarios that point in the direction of the action being bad.

I worry that this type of problem is often exaggerated, e.g. with the suggestion that 'proposed x-risk A has some arguments going for it, but one could make arguments for thousands of other things' when the thousands of other candidates are never produced and could not be produced and appear to be in the same ballpark. When one makes a serious effort to catalog serious candidates at reasonable granularity the scope of considerations is vastly more manageable than initially suggested, but cluelessness is invoked in lieu of actually doing the search, or a representative subset of the search.

Comment by carl_shulman on Ask Me Anything! · 2019-09-04T23:06:53.307Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

People didn't quite have the relevant knowledge, since they didn't have sound plant and animal breeding programs or predictions of inheritance.

Comment by carl_shulman on Are we living at the most influential time in history? · 2019-09-04T22:38:00.815Z · score: 88 (35 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for this post Will, it's good to see some discussion of this topic. Beyond our previous discussions, I'll add a few comments below.


I'd like to flag that I would really like to see a more elegant term than 'hingeyness' become standard for referring to the ease of influence in different periods.

Even just a few decades ago, a longtermist altruist would not have thought of risk from AI or synthetic biology, and wouldn’t have known that they could have taken action on them.

I would dispute this. Possibilities of AGI and global disaster were discussed by pioneers like Turing, von Neumann, Good, Minsky and others from the founding of the field of AI.

The possibility of engineered plagues causing an apocalypse was a grave concern of forward thinking people in the early 20th century as biological weapons were developed and demonstrated. Many of the anti-nuclear scientists concerned for the global prospects of humanity were also concerned about germ warfare.

Both of the above also had prominent fictional portrayals to come to mind for longtermist altruists engaging in a wide-ranging search. If there had been a longtermist altruist movement trying to catalog risks of human extinction I think they would have found both of the above, and could have worked to address them (there was reasonable scientific uncertainty about AI timelines, and people could reasonably have developed a lot more of the theory and analysis for AI alignment related topics at the time; on biological weapons arms control could have been much more effective, better governance of DURC developed, etc).

I think this goes to a broader question about the counterfactual to use for your HoH measure: there wasn't any longtermist altruist community as such in these periods, so the actual returns of all longtermist altruist strategies were zero. To talk about what they would have been one needs to consider a counterfactual in which we anachronistically introduce at least some minimal version of longtermist altruism, and what one includes in that intervention will affect the result one extracts from the exercise.

So, in general, hinginess is increasing, because our ability to think about the long-run effects of our actions, evaluate them, and prioritise accordingly, is increasing. 

I agree we are learning more about how to effectively exert resources to affect the future, but if your definition is concerned with the effect of a marginal increment of resources (rather than the total capacity of an era), then you need to wrestle with the issue of diminishing returns. Smallpox eradication was extraordinarily high return compared to the sorts of global health interventions being worked on today with a more crowded field. Founding fields like AI safety or population ethics is much better on a per capita basis than expanding them by 1% after they have developed more. The longtermist of 1600 would indeed have mostly 'invested' in building a movement and eventually in things like financial assets when movement-building returns fell below financial returns, but they also should have made concrete interventions like causing the leveraged growth of institutions like science and the Enlightenment that looked to have a fair chance of contributing to HoH scenarios over the coming centuries, and those could have paid off.

This is analogous to the general point in financial markets that asset classes with systematically high returns only have them before those returns are widely agreed on to be valuable and accessible. So startup founders or CEOs can earn large excess returns in expected value for their huge concentrated positions in their firms (in their founder shareholding and stock-based compensation) because of asymmetric information and incentive problems: investors want the founder or CEO to have a concentrated position to ensure good management, but the risk-adjusted value of a concentrated position is less for the same expected value, so the net arrangement delivers a lot of excess expected value.

A world in which everyone has shared correct values and strong knowledge of how to improve things is one in which marginal longtermist resources are gilding the lily. Insofar as one knows that longtermist altruists happen to find themselves with some advantages (e.g. high education in an era of educational inequality, and longtermism relevant values or knowledge in particular) is a potentially important asset to make use of.

The simulation update argument against HoH

I would note that the creation of numerous simulations of HoH-type periods doesn't reduce the total impact of the actual HoH folk. E.g. say that HoH folk get to influence 10^60 future people, and also get their lives simulated 10^50 times (with no ability to impact things beyond their own lives), while folk in a non-HOH Earthly period get to influence 10^55 future people and get simulated 10^42 times. Because simulations account for a small minority of the total influence, the expected value of an action (or the evidential value of a strategy across all like minds) is still driven primarily by the non-simulated cases. Seeming HoH folk may be simulated more often, but still have most of their influence through unsimulated shaping of history.

If simulations were so numerous that most of the value in history lay in simulations, rather than in basement-level influence, then things might be different. But I think argument #3 doesn't work for this reason.

Third, even if we’re at some enormously influential time right now, if there’s some future time that is even more influential, then the most obvious EA activity would be to invest resources (whether via financial investment or some sort of values-spreading) in order that our resources can be used at that future, more high-impact, time. Perhaps there’s some reason why that plan doesn’t make sense; but, currently, almost no-one is even taking that possibility seriously. 

I think this overstates the case. Diminishing returns to expenditures in a particular time favor a nonzero disbursement rate (e.g. with logarithmic returns to spending at a given time 10x HoH levels would drive a 10x expenditure for a given period).

Most resources associated with EA are in investments. As Michael Dickens writes, small donors are holding most of their assets as human capital and not borrowing against it, while large donors such as Good Ventures are investing the vast majority of their financial assets for future donations. Insofar as people who have not yet entered EA but will are part of the broad EA portfolio, the annual disbursement rate of the total portfolio is even lower, perhaps 1-2% or less. And investment returns mean that equal allocation of NPV of current assets between time periods yields larger total spending in future periods (growing with the investment rate).

Moreover, quite a lot of EA donations actually consist in field- and movement-building (EA, longtermism, x-risk reduction), to the point of drawing criticism about excessive inward focus in some cases. Insofar as those fields are actually built they will create and attract resources with some flexibility to address future problems, and look like investments (this is not universal; e.g. GiveDirectly cash transfers had a larger field-building element when GiveDirectly was newer, but it is hard to recover increased future altruistic capacities later from cash transfers).

Looking through history, some candidates for particularly influential times might include the following (though in almost every case, it seems to me, the people of the time would have been too intellectually impoverished to have known how hingey their time was and been able to do anything about it

I would distinguish between an era being important (on the metric of how much an individual or unit of resource could do) because its population was low, because there was important potential for a lock-in event in a period, and because of high visibility/tractability of longtermist altruists affecting such events (although the effects of that on marginal returns are nonobvious because of crowding, and the highest returns being on neglected assets).

The population factor gets ~monotonically and astronomically worse over time. The chance of lock-in should be distributed across eras (more by technological levels than calendar years), with more as technology advances towards actual high-fidelity stabilization as a possibility (via extinction or lock-in), and less over time thereafter due to pre-emption (if there is a 1/1000 year chance of stabilization in extinction or a locked-in civilization, then the world will almost certainly be in a stable state a million years hence, thus the expected per year chance of stabilization needs to decline enormously on average over the coming era, in addition to falling per capita influence; this is related to LaPlace's rule of succession, the longer we go under some conditions without an event happening the less likely that it will happen on the next timestep, even aside from the object-level reasons re the speed of light and lock-in tech).

So I would say both the population and pre-emption (by earlier stabillization) factors intensely favor earlier eras in per resource hingeyness, constrained by the era having any significant lock-in opportunities and the presence of longtermists.

When I check that against the opportunities of past periods that does make sense to me. It seems quite plausible that 1960 was a much better time for a marginal altruist to take object-level actions to reduce long-run x-risk (and better in expected terms without the benefit of hindsight regarding things like nuclear doomsday devices and AI and BW timelines) by building relevant fields with less crowding (building a good EAish movement looks even better; 'which is the hingeyest period' is distinct from 'is hingeyness declining faster than ROI for financial instruments or movement-building').

The growth of a longtermist altruist movement in particular would mean marginal per capita hingeyness (drawn around longtermist interests) should seriously decline going forward.

In contrast, if the hingiest times are in the future, it’s likely that this is for reasons that we haven’t thought of. But there are future scenarios that we can imagine now that would seem very influential

For the later scenarios here you're dealing with much larger populations. If the plausibility of important lock-in is similar for solar colonization and intergalactic colonization eras, but the population of the latter is billions of times greater, it doesn't seem to be at all an option that it could be the most HoH period on a per resource unit basis.

Comment by carl_shulman on Ask Me Anything! · 2019-08-20T20:55:14.741Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

The annual total of all spending on electoral campaigns in the US is only a few billion dollars. So aggregating across all of that activity the per $ (and per staffer) impact is still going to be quite large.

Comment by carl_shulman on "Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty · 2019-07-26T01:55:52.466Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA · GW

One way of thinking about this from a recent Open Phil blog post:

We have only explored a small portion of the space of possible causes in this broad area, and continue to expect that advocacy or scientific research, perhaps more squarely aimed at the global poor, could have outsized impacts. Indeed, GiveWell seems to agree this is possible, with their expansion into considering advocacy opportunities within global health and development...One hypothesis we’re interested in exploring is the idea of combining multiple sources of leverage for philanthropic impact (e.g., advocacy, scientific research, helping the global poor) to get more humanitarian impact per dollar (for instance via advocacy around scientific research funding or policies, or scientific research around global health interventions, or policy around global health and development).

I agree with the thesis that EA focused on global poverty on average has neglected research and advocacy on pro-development institutions relative to their importance and cost.

Comment by carl_shulman on Cash prizes for the best arguments against psychedelics being an EA cause area · 2019-05-12T20:01:46.201Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

> I'm at like 30-40% that the beneficial effects are real.)

Right, so you would want to show that 30-40% of interventions with similar literatures pan out. I think the figure is less.

Scott referred to [edit: one] failure to replicate in his post.

Comment by carl_shulman on Cash prizes for the best arguments against psychedelics being an EA cause area · 2019-05-12T19:58:13.626Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW


Comment by carl_shulman on Cash prizes for the best arguments against psychedelics being an EA cause area · 2019-05-11T20:10:27.811Z · score: 48 (16 votes) · EA · GW

That sounds a bit like the argument 'either this claim is right, or it's wrong, so there's a 50% chance it's true.'

One needs to attend to base rates. Our bad academic knowledge-generating process throws up many, many illusory interventions with purported massive effects for each amazing intervention we find, and the amazing interventions that we do find disproportionately were easier to show (with the naked eye, visible macro-correlations, consistent effects with well-powered studies, etc).

People are making similar arguments about cold fusion, psychic powers (of many different varieties), many environmental and nutritional contaminants, brain training, carbon dioxide levels, diets, polyphasic sleep, assorted purported nootropics, many psychological/parenting/educational interventions, etc.

Testing how your prior applies across a spectrum of other cases (past and present) is helpful for model checking. If psychedelics are a promising EA cause how many of those others qualify? If many do, then any one isn't so individually special, although one might want to have a systematic program of systematically doing rigorous testing of all the wacky claims of large impact that can be tested cheaply.

If not, then it would be good to explain what exactly makes psychedelics different from the rest.

I think the case for psychedelics the OP has made doesn't pass this standard yet, so doesn't meet the standard for an EA cause area.

Comment by carl_shulman on Cash prizes for the best arguments against psychedelics being an EA cause area · 2019-05-11T06:39:14.063Z · score: 27 (12 votes) · EA · GW
On the flip side, it may be possible that the "true believers" actually are on to something, but they have a hard time formalizing their procedure into something that can be replicated on a massive scale. So if larger studies fail to replicate the results from the small studies, this may be the reason why.

Do you have any examples of this actually happening? I have seen it as an excuse for things that never pan out many times, but I don't recall an instance of it actually delivering. E.g. in Many Labs 2 and other mass reproducibility efforts, you don't find a minority of experimenters with a 'knack' who get the effect but can't pass it on to others.

Comment by carl_shulman on Small animals have enormous brains for their size · 2019-02-27T22:56:30.276Z · score: 23 (8 votes) · EA · GW

Recent large sample within-family data does seem to establish causal effects of brain size on intelligence and educational attainment. The genetic correlation is ~0.4, so most of the genetic variance isn't working through overall brain size.

Some kinds of features that could contribute to genetic variance in humans, but not scale for arbitrary differences across species:

  • Mutation load (the rate at which this is trimmed back, and thus the equilibrium load, depends on the strength of selection for cognitive abilities)
  • Motivation: attention to learning, play, imitation, and language comes at the expense of attention to other things
  • Pleiotropy with other selection combined with evolutionary limits (selection for lower aggression also causes white patches in fur via changes in neural crests, and retention of a variety of juvenile features), e.g. selection for disease resistance changing pathways so as to accidentally impair brain function (with the change surviving because of its benefits)
  • Alleles that provide resistance to disease (genetic variance is maintained in a Red Queen's Race) that damages the brain would be a source of genetic variance, likewise variants affecting nutrition or other environmental influences
Comment by carl_shulman on Quantifying anthropic effects on the Fermi paradox · 2019-02-27T21:41:30.313Z · score: 15 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Thank you for this excellent and detailed post, I expect to use it in the future as a go-to reference for explaining this point. You might be interested in an old paper where Nick Bostrom and I went through some of this reasoning (with similar conclusions but much less explanation) in the course of discussing the implications of anthropic theories for the possible difficulty of evolving intelligence.

I am not so sure about the specific numerical estimates you give, as opposed to the ballpark being within a few orders of magnitude for SIA and ADT+total views (plus auxiliary assumptions), i.e. the vicinity of "(roughly the largest value that doesn’t make the Fermi observation too unlikely, as shown in the next two sections". But that's compatible with much or most of our expected on the total view coming from scenarios where we don't overlap with aliens much.

" However, varying the planet formation rate at particular times in the history of the Universe can make a large difference."

We also update our uncertainty about this sort of temporal structure to some extent from our observation of late existence. Ideally we would want to let as much as possible vary so that we don't asymmetrically immunize some parameters against update.

"For this reason I will ignore scenarios where life is extraordinarily unlikely to colonise the Universe, by making fs loguniform between 10−4 and 1."

This seems overall too pessimistic to me as a pre-anthropic prior for colonization (~10% credence).

Comment by carl_shulman on Cost-Effectiveness of Aging Research · 2019-01-31T17:23:00.909Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I don't think you can define aging research so narrowly and get the same expected impact. E.g. De Grey's SENS includes curing cancer as one of many subgoals, and radical advances in stem cell biology and genetic engineering, massive fields that don't fall under 'aging research.' The more dependent progress in an area is advances from outside that field, the less reliable this sort of projection will be.

Comment by carl_shulman on Expected cost per life saved of the TAME trial · 2019-01-29T23:47:14.071Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Emanuele,

I saw your request for commentary on Facebook, so here are some off-the-cuff comments (about 1 hour's worth so take with appropriate grains of salt, but summarizing prior thinking):

  • My prior take on metformin was that it seems promising for its space (albeit with mixed evidence, and prior longevity drug development efforts haven't panned out, but the returns would be very high for medical research if true), although overall the space looks less promising than x-risk reduction to me; the following comments will be about details of the analysis where I would currently differ
  • The suggestion of this trial moving forward LEV by 3+ years through an icebreaker effect boosting research looks wildly implausible to me
    • LEV is not mainly bottlenecked on 'research on aging,' e.g. de Grey's proposals require radical advances in generally medically applicable stem cell and genetic engineering technologies that already receive massive funding and are quite challenging; the ability to replace diseased cells with genetically engineered stem cell derived tissues is already a major priority, and curing cancer is a small subset of SENS
    • Much of the expected gain in biomedical technology is not driven by shifts within biology, and advances within a particular medical field are heavily driven by broader improvements (e.g. computers, CRISPR, genome sequencing, PCR, etc); if LEV is far off and heavily dependent on other areas, then developments in other fields will make it comparatively easy for aging research to benefit from 'catch up growth' reducing the expected value of immediate speedup (almost all of which would have washed away if LEV happens in the latter half of the century)
    • In particular, if automating R&D with AI is easier than LEV, and would moot prior biomedical research, then that adds an additional discount factor; I would bet that this happens before LEV through biomedical research
    • Getting approval to treat 'aging' isn't actually particularly helpful relative to approval for 'diseases of aging' since all-cause mortality requires larger trials and we don't have great aging biomarkers; and the NIH has taken steps in that direction regardless
    • Similar stories have been told about other developments and experiments, which haven't had massive icebreaker effects
    • Combined, these effects look like they cost a couple orders of magnitude
  • From my current epistemic state the expected # of years added by metformin looks too high
  • Re the Guesstimate model the statistical power of the trial is tightly tied to effect size; the larger the effect size the fewer people you need to show results; that raises the returns of small trials, but means you have diminishing returns for larger ones (you are spending more money to detect smaller effects so marginal cost-effectiveness goes a lot lower than average cost-effectiveness, reflecting high VOI of testing the more extravagant possibility)
  • Likewise the proportion using metformin conditional on a positive result is also correlated with effect size (which raises average EV, but shifts marginal EV lower proportionate to average EV); also the proportion of users seems too low to me conditional on success

Comment by carl_shulman on A general framework for evaluating aging research. Part 1: reasoning with Longevity Escape Velocity · 2019-01-29T23:45:41.446Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

One issue I would add to your theoretical analysis: with assigning 1000+ QALYs to letting someone reach LEV is that people commonly don't claim linear utility with lifespan, i.e. they would often prefer to live to 80 with certainty rather than die at 20 with 90% probability and live to 10,000 with 10% probability.

I agree it's worth keeping the chance that people will be able to live much longer in the future in mind when assessing benefits to existing people (I would also add the possibility of drastic increases in quality of life through technology). I'd guess most of this comes from broader technological improvements (e.g. via AI) rather than reaching LEV through biomedical approaches), but not with extreme confidence.

However, I don't think it has very radical implications for cause prioritization since, as you note, deaths for any reason (include malaria and global catastrophes) deny those people a chance at LEV. LEV-related issues are also mainly a concern for existing humans, so to the extent one gives a boost for enormous impacts on nonhuman animals and the existence of future generations, LEV speedup won't reap much of those boosts.

Within the field of biomedical research, aging looks relatively promising, and I think on average the best-targeted biomedical research does well for current people compared to linear charity in support of deployment (e.g. gene drives vs bednets). But it's not a slam dunk because the problems are so hard (including ones receiving massive investment). I don't see it as strongly moving most people who prefer to support bednets over malaria gene drives, farmed animal welfare over gene drives, or GCR reduction over gene drives.

Comment by Carl_Shulman on [deleted post] 2018-12-30T17:51:22.749Z

" Oh, is the concern that they're looking at a more biased subset of possible effects (by focusing primarily on effects that seem positive)? "

Yes. It doesn't mention other analyses that have come to opposite conclusions by considering effects on wild animals and long-term development.