Centre for the Study of Existential Risk update 2016-08-31T09:06:12.796Z
Environmental risk postdoctoral research position at CSER. 2016-04-20T12:12:10.471Z
New Leverhulme Centre on the Future of AI (developed at CSER with spokes led by Bostrom, Russell, Shanahan) 2015-12-03T10:02:10.216Z
New positions and recent hires at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk 2015-10-05T17:55:07.679Z
Postdoctoral research positions at CSER (Cambridge, UK) 2015-03-26T18:03:27.544Z


Comment by Sean_o_h on BERI seeking new collaborators · 2021-04-30T09:34:13.737Z · EA · GW

+1; BERI have been a brilliant support. Strongly recommend applying!

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-04-27T15:42:19.970Z · EA · GW

Thank you.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-04-27T12:42:56.004Z · EA · GW

I don't know how to embed snapshots, but anyone who wishes is welcome to type "phil torres" into linkedin or email me for the snapshots I've just taken right now - it brings up "Researcher at Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge". As I say, it's unclear if this is deliberate - it may well be an oversight, but it has contributed to the mistaken external impression that Phil Torres is or was research staff at CSER.

Comment by Sean_o_h on EA Debate Championship & Lecture Series · 2021-04-07T09:44:51.916Z · EA · GW

+1 from my own experience in debate (also british style). Truth-seeking / identifying and meaningfully resolving points of disagreement between different positions is a very different skill to trying to win a debate, and the skillsets/mindsets developed in the latter seem like they might actively work against the former unless the people doing it are very careful and self-aware.

Comment by Sean_o_h on New Top EA Causes for 2021? · 2021-04-01T10:26:44.793Z · EA · GW

Related cause area: Deepfake dub-over all 80k podcasts so that they're presented by David Attenborough for prestige gains.

Comment by Sean_o_h on New Top EA Causes for 2021? · 2021-04-01T08:30:46.985Z · EA · GW

EA projects should be evidence based: I've done a survey of myself, and the results conclusively show that if 80,000 hours produced dubstep remixes of its podcasts, I would actually listen to them. The results were even more conclusive when the question included "what if Wiblin spliced in 'Wib-wib-wib' noises whenever crucial considerations were touched on?".

Comment by Sean_o_h on Any EAs familiar with Partha Dasgupta's work? · 2021-03-31T14:33:35.774Z · EA · GW

(Disclaimer: am co-director of CSER): EA is a strong influence at CSER, but one of a number. At a guess, I'd say maybe a third to a half of people actively engage with EA/EA-led projects (some ambiguity based on how you define), but a lot are coming from other academic backgrounds relevant to GCR and working in broader GCR contexts, and there's no expectation or requirement to be invoved with EA. We aim to be a broad church in this regard.

Among our senior advisers/board, folks like Martin Rees and Jaan Tallinn engage more actively with EA.  There's been little Partha/EA engagement to my knowledge. (At least some of the conversations that would ultimately lead to there being a CSER predated EA's existence). I think I'd agree with comments elsewhere that Partha's work on biodiversity loss might be considered a lower priority through an EA lens than through some other lenses (e.g. ones that place 'intrinsic value of biological diversity/ecosystem preservation' more highly, or ones that place higher weight on sub-existential catastrophes or systemic vulnerabilities) although I'm glad to see it considered through an EA lens and will be interested to see EA perspectives on it.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-20T11:39:53.759Z · EA · GW

Here is an article by Phil Torres arguing that the rise of Islam represents a very significant and growing existential risk.

I will quote a key paragraph:

"Consider the claim that there will be 2.76 billion Muslims by 2050. Now, 1% of this number equals 27.6 million people, roughly 26.2 million more than the number of military personnel on active duty in the US today. It follows that if even 1% of this figure were to hold “active apocalyptic” views, humanity could be in for a catastrophe like nothing we’ve ever experienced before."

Firstly, this is nonsense. The proposition that 1% of Muslims would hold "active apocalyptic" views and be prepared to act on it is pure nonsense. And "if even 1%" suggests this is the author lowballing.

Secondly, this is fear-mongering against one of the most feared and discriminated-against communities in the West, being written for a Western audience.

Thirdly, it utilises another standard racism trope, population replacement - look at the growing number of scary 'other'. They threaten to over-run the US's good 'ol apple pie armed forces.

This was not a paragraph in a thesis. It was a public article, intended to reach as wide an audience as possible. It used to be prominently displayed on his now-defunct website. The article above was written several years more recently than Beckstead's thesis.

I will say, to Torres's credit, that his views on Islam have become more nuanced over time, and that I have found his recent articles on Islam less problematic. This is to be praised. And he has moved on from attacking Muslims to 'critiquing' right-wing Americans, the Atheist community, and the EA community. This is at least punching sidewards, rather than down.

But he has not subject his own body of work, or other more harmful materials, to anything like the level of critique that he has subjected Beckstead, Mogensen etc al. I consider this deeply problematic in terms of scholarly responsibility.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-20T11:22:46.230Z · EA · GW

Happy to have a go; the "in/out of context" is a large part of the problem here. (Note that I don't think I agree with Beckstead's argument for reasons given towards the end).

(1) The thesis (198 pages of it!) is about shaping the far future, and operates on staggering timescales. Some of it like this quote is written in the first person, which has the effect of putting it in the present-day context, but these are at their heart philosophical arguments abstracted from time and space. This is a thing philosophers do.

If I were to apply the argument to the 12th century world, I might claim that saving a person in what is now modern day Turkey would have greater ripple effects than saving a person in war-ravaged Britain.  The former was lightyears further ahead in science and technology, chock full of incredible muslim scholar-engineers like Al Jazari (seriously; read about this guy). I might be wrong of course;  the future is unpredictable  and these ripples might be wiped out in the next century by a Mongol Horde (as for the most part did happen); but wrong on different grounds.

And earlier in the thesis Beckstead provides a whole heap of caveats (in addition to 'all other things being equal', including that his argument explicitly does not address issues "such as whose responsibility that is, how much the current generation should be required to sacrifice for the sake of future generations, how shaping the far future stacks up against special obligations or issues of justice"; these are all "good questions" but out of scope.)

If Beckstead further developed the 'it is better to save lives in rich countries' argument in the thesis, explicitly embedding it within the modern context and  making practical recommendations that would exacerbate the legacy of harm of postcolonial inequality, then Torres might have a point. He does not. It's a paragraph on one page of a 198 page PhD thesis. Reading the paragraph in the context of the overall thesis gives a very different impression than the deliberately leading context that Torres places the paragraph in.

(2) Now consider the further claims that Torres has repeatedly made - that this paragraph taints the entire field in white supremacy; and that any person or organisation who praised the thesis is endorsing white supremacy. This is an even more extreme version of the same set of moves. I have found nothing - nothing -anywhere  in the EA or longtermist literature building on and progressing this argument.

(3) The same can be seen, but in a more extreme fashion, for the Mogensen paper. Again, an abstract philosophical argument. Here Mogensen (in a very simplified version) observes that over three dimensions - the world - total utilitarianism says you should spread your resources over all people in that space. But if you introduce a 4th dimension - time, then the same axiology says you should spread your resources over space and time, and the majority of that obligation lies in the future. It's an abstract philosophical argument. Torres reads in white supremacy, and invites the reader to read in white supremacy.

(4) The problem here is that no body of scholarship can realistically withstand this level of hostile scrutiny and leading analysis. And no field can realistically withstand the level of hostile analysis where one paragraph in a PhD thesis taken out of context is used to damn an entire field.  I don't think I personally agree with the argument on its own terms - it's hard to prove definitively but I would have a concern that inequality has often been argued to be a driver of systemic instability, and that if so, any intervention that increases inequality might contribute to negative 'ripple effects' regardless of what countries were rich and poor at a given time. And I think the paragraph itself could reasonably be characterised as 'thoughtless', given the author is a white western person writing in C21, even if the argument is not explicitly in this context.

However the extreme criticism presented in Torres's piece stands in stark contrast to the much more serious racism that goes unchallenged in so much of scholarship and modern life. Any good-faith actor will in the first instance pursue these, rather than reading the worst ills possible into a paragraph of a PhD thesis. I've run out of time, but will illustrate this shortly with a prominent example of what I consider to be much more significant racism from Torres's own work.

Comment by Sean_o_h on ESG investing isn’t high-impact, but it could be · 2021-03-19T19:21:01.585Z · EA · GW

A quick note that there's a session on it at this weekend's EA Global: Reconnect (which Sanjay is speaking at): it might catalyse formation of such a group!

Comment by Sean_o_h on AMA: Holden Karnofsky @ EA Global: Reconnect · 2021-03-16T19:37:41.784Z · EA · GW

I haven't done a systematic analysis, but at a quick glance I'd note that quite a number of the grants in scientific research seem like their outputs would directly support main EA cause areas such as biorisk and global health - e.g. in the last 1-2 years I see a number on malaria prevention, vaccine development, antivirals, disease diagnostics etc. 

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-10T09:59:12.947Z · EA · GW

>but I think it's worth noting that, were various longtermist ideas to enter mainstream discourse, this is exactly the kind of critique they'd receive (unfairly or not!) - so it's worth considering how plausible these charges are, and how longtermists might respond.

This is a good point, and worth being mindful of as longtermism becomes more mainstream/widespread.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-09T14:25:56.004Z · EA · GW

Addendum: There's a saying that "no matter what side of an argument you're on, you'll always find someone on your side who you wish was on the other side".

There is a seam running through Torres's work that challenges xrisk/longtermism/EA on the grounds of the limitations of being led and formulated by a mostly elite, developed-world community.

Like many people in longtermism/xrisk, I think there is a valid concern here.  xrisk/longtermism/EA all started in a combination of elite british universities + US communities e.g. bay. They had to start somewhere. I am of the view that they shouldn't stay that way. 

I think it's valid to ask whether there are assumptions embedded within these frameworks at this stage that should be challenged, and to posit that these would be challenged most effectively by people with a very different background and perspective. I think it's valid to argue that thinking, planning for, and efforts to shape the long-term future should not be driven by a community that is overwhelmingly from one particular background and that doesn't draw on and incorporate the perspectives of a community that reflects more of global societies and cultures. Work by such a community would likely miss important values and considerations, might reflect founder-effect biases, and would lack legitimacy and buy-in when it came to implementation. I think it's valid to expect it to engage with frameworks beyond utilitarianism, and I'm pleased to see GPI, The Precipice, amongst others do this.

As both xrisk and longtermism grow and mature, a core part of the project should be, in my view, and likely will be, expanding beyond this starting point. Such efforts are underway. They take a long time. And I would like to see people, both internal and external to the community, challenge the community on this where needed .

However, for someone on this side of the argument, I am deeply frustrated by Torres's approach. It salts the earth for engagement with people who disagree with this view and actively works against finding common ground. It alienates people from diverse backgrounds outside xrisk/longtermism from engaging with xrisk/longtermism, and thus makes the project harder. And it strengthens the views of those who disagree with the case I've put, especially when they perceive those they disagree with acting in bad faith. The book ends with the claim "More than anything, I want this mini-book to help rehabilitate “longtermism,” and hence Existential Risk Studies." I do not believe this hostile, polemical approach serves that aim; rather I worry that it is undermining it.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-09T13:03:17.560Z · EA · GW

[disclaimer: I am co-Director at CSER. While much of what I will write intersects with professional responsibilities, it is primarily written from a personal perspective, as this is a deeply personal matter for me. Apologies in advance if that's confusing, this is a distressing and difficult topic for me, and I may come back and edit. I may also delete my comment, for professional or personal/emotional reasons].

I am sympathetic to Halstead's position here, and feel I need to write my own perspective. Clearly to the extent that CSER has - whether directly or indirectly - served to legitimise such attacks by Torres on colleagues in the field, I bear a portion of responsibility as someone in a leadership position. I do not feel it would be right or appropriate for me to speak for all colleagues, but I would like to emphasise that individually I do not, in any way, condone this conduct, and I apologise for it, and for any failings on my individual part that may have contributed.

My personal impression supports the case Halstead makes. Comments about my 'whiteness', and insinuations regarding my 'real' reasons for objecting to positions taken by Torres only came after I objected publicly to Torres's characterisations of Halstead, Olle Hagstrom, Nick Beckstead, Toby Ord and others. I have been informed by Torres that I owe him an apology for not siding with him.

As well as the personal motivation, this mode of engagement reflects another aspect of this discourse I find deeply troubling: while I think there are valid arguments against longtermism, and alternative perspectives, it becomes impossible to discuss the issues, and in particular, the unfair characterisation of individuals, on the object level. Object level disagreement is met with an insinuation that this is the white supremacists closing ranks. I do believe there is a valid argument in some cases that one can be unaware of biases, and one can be unconsciously influenced by the 'background radiation' of a privileged society. Personally I have experienced this in unconscious, and sometimes deliberate, racism experienced as an Irish person living in Britain, and I have no doubt that non-white people have it much worse. However, this principle can also most certainly be overused uncharitably, or even 'weaponised' to shut down constructive intellectual engagement. And it is profoundly anti-intellectual to permit only those from outside a system of privilege to challenge scholarship.

There are other rhetorical moves I find deeply troubling. The common-society use of 'white supremacy' is something like "people who believe that white people are superior to other races and should dominate them; and are willing to act on that through violent means.". Torres has typically not defined the term, but when challenged, he has explained that he is using the term in the more narrowly-used way used in critical race theory; of "of white people benefiting from and maintaining a system where the legacy of colonial privilege is maintained". (note that he does define it in the mini-book, although as the 'academic' definition, which I think is overstatement). When challenged, Torres insults people for not automatically knowing he is using the more esoteric CRT definition rather than the common-use definition. This is not a reasonable position to take. And it is not reasonable to expect people not to be deeply hurt and offended by the language used.

Even accounting for the CRT definition, this is still an extremely serious and harmful accusation, and one that should not be made without extremely careful consideration and very strong evidence. In my own case,  as someone from a culture  overwhelmingly defined by the harms of colonialism, it is another way of shutting down any possible discussion; it is so violently upsetting that it renders me incapable of continuing to engage.

To the extent that scholars at CSER are still collaborating with Torres: I am not. I have spoken regarding my concerns to those who have let me know they are still collaborating with him, and have let them make their own choices. Most collaborations  are the legacy of projects initiated during his visit 2 years ago (which I authorised, not knowing some of the more serious issue Halstead raises, but being aware of some more minor concerns). Papers take a long time to go through the academic system, and it would be a very unusual and hostile step to e.g. take an author's name off a paper against their wishes. In some instances, people wished to engage with some aspects of Torres' critique and collaborate with presenting them in a more constructive and less polemical way (e.g. see several examples of Beard+Torres). I have respected their choices. This may not be the case with all collaborations; at CSER's current size I am not always aware of every paper being written. But I think it is fair to say my view on this style of engagement are well-known.

I have not taken the step of banning colleagues at CSER from collaborating with Torres. This would be an extremely unusual step in academia, running contrary to some fundamental principles of academic freedom. I am also concerned taking such a step would open the door to aspects of 'cancel culture' I am uncomfortable with. Further, I am concerned that such steps would reinforce another set of attack lines: Torres has already publicly claimed that he 'has no doubt' that employees at CSER that disagreed with me would be fired for it. I value having scope for intellectual disagreement greatly, and I would not want this perspective to take hold. 

I do not claim that my decisions have been correct. 

I do think there is significant value in engaging with critics. I admire engagement of the sort that Haydn has just undertaken. As a committed longtermist, to 'turn the other cheek' and engage in good faith with a steelmanned, charitable interpretation of a polemical and hostile document is something I find admirable in itself. And as noted elsewhere in this discussion, enough people have found some value in the challenge Torres has presented to ideas within longtermism (even where presented uncharitably) that it seems reasonable for some to engage with it. However at the same time, I do worry that beyond some point, engaging so charitably may legitimise a mode of discourse that I find distressingly hostile and inimical to kind and constructive, and open discourse.

These are challenging, and sometimes controversial topics. There will very often be issues on which reasonable people will disagree. There will sometimes be positions taken that others will be profoundly uncomfortable with. This is not unique to Xrisk or longtermism; the same is true of global development and animal rights. I believe it is of paramount importance that we be able to interact with each other as thinkers and doers in a kind, constructive and charitable way; and above all to adopt these principles when we critique each other. After all, when we are wrong, this is nearly always the most effective way to change minds. While not everyone will agree with me on this, this is the view I have always put forward in the centres I have been a part of.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’ · 2021-03-08T18:42:27.541Z · EA · GW

A quick point of clarification that Phil Torres was never staff at CSER; he was a visitor for a couple of months a few years ago. He has unfortunately misrepresented himself as working at CSER on various media (unclear if deliberate or not). (And FWIW he has made similar allusions, albeit thinly veiled, about me).

Comment by Sean_o_h on Notes on "Bioterror and Biowarfare" (2006) · 2021-03-01T15:31:40.660Z · EA · GW

Very helpful, thanks. Separately, I'd note that several of the biosecurity researchers most actively getting involved with the GCR community (e.g. Piers Millett at FHI and Catherine Rhodes at CSER) did PhD/postdoc work with Malcolm. (I've also found him a lovely and approachable person, generous with guidance and feedback - we've had him at several workshops).

Comment by Sean_o_h on Google's ethics is alarming · 2021-02-25T12:28:43.798Z · EA · GW

For context, the specific 'question about the ethics of political violence' was  itself somewhat inflammatory:

"So you’re in favor of mob violence, as long as it comes from the left?"

Comment by Sean_o_h on 10 Habits I recommend (2020) · 2021-01-06T17:14:12.669Z · EA · GW

Found this very helpful, thank you!

Comment by Sean_o_h on What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others? · 2020-11-19T14:16:13.377Z · EA · GW

There's a powerful poem in my native language (Irish) that was published in 1971, whose title loosely translates to "Indifference cannot be permitted". It calls for equality, compassion, and our obligation towards people in all parts of the world, people with mental illness, non-human animals, and (depending on how one translates) possible life beyond earth. It was my first introduction to principles such as those that underpin EA. I won't try to translate it, but it's talked about (and part of it translated) in a recent blog post here:


Níl cuil, níl leamhan, níl beach
Dar chruthaigh Dia, níl fear,
Nach dualgas dúinn a leas,
Níl bean; ní ceadmhach neamhshuim
A dhéanamh dá n-imní;
Níl gealt i ngleann na ngealt,
Nár chuí dhúinn suí lena ais,
Á thionlacan an fhaid
A iompraíonn thar ár gceann
Ár dtinneas-ne ‘na mheabhair.

Níl alt, níl sruth, níl sceach,
Dá iargúlta iad, níl leac,
Bídís thuaidh, thoir, thiar nó theas,
Nár cheart dúinn machnamh ar a suíomh
Le gean is le báidhíocht;
Dá fhaid uainn Afraic Theas,
Dá airde í gealach,
Is cuid dínn iad ó cheart:
Níl áit ar fuaid na cruinne
Nach ann a saolaíodh sinne.

Comment by Sean_o_h on What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others? · 2020-11-19T14:00:51.995Z · EA · GW

If you liked that, you might appreciate Stephen Fry denouncing god in no-holds-barred fashion on an Irish religious programme (I must confess feeling a little sorry for the presenter Gay Byrne - I don't think he got what he was bargaining for):

Comment by Sean_o_h on Donating against Short Term AI risks · 2020-11-17T10:56:08.248Z · EA · GW

A couple of resources that may be of interest here:

- The work of Aviv Ovadya of the Thoughtful Technology Project; don't think he's an EA (he may be, but it hasn't come up in my discussions with him):

- CSER's recent report with Alan Turing Institute and DSTL, which isn't specific to AI and social media algorithms only, but addresses these and other issues in crisis response:
"Tackling threats to informed decisionmaking in democratic societies"

- Recommendations for reducing malicious use of machine learning in synthetic media (Thoughtful Technology Project's Aviv Ovadya and CFI's Jess Whittlestone)

- And a short review of some recent research on online targeting harms by CFI researchers

Comment by Sean_o_h on OPIS policy paper: Legalising access to psilocybin for the treatment of cluster headaches · 2020-11-12T12:29:52.775Z · EA · GW

Well done on this, important work and a strong set of signatories.

Comment by Sean_o_h on When does it make sense to support/oppose political candidates on EA grounds? · 2020-10-16T08:17:17.218Z · EA · GW

Yes, and this is likely to reflect that (1) initial outbreaks were concentrated in cities/international hubs, more of which vote democrat and (2) in the initial outbreak testing capacity was lower, meaning that there were likely many more undiagnosed cases in these states. Treatment and therefore survival has improved too, but I think overall Linch's suggestion of mortality is a fairer metric for covid prevalence.

Comment by Sean_o_h on AI Governance: Opportunity and Theory of Impact · 2020-10-15T17:13:40.282Z · EA · GW

A quick note on epistemic security: we've just published a report exploring some of these ideas (previously discussed with GovAI) in partnership with the Alan Turing Institute and the UK's Defence Science Technology Laboratory, and building on a previous series of workshops (which Eric Drexler among others participated in). For those interested, it's available below.

"Access to reliable information is crucial to the ability of a democratic society to coordinate effective collective action when responding to a crisis, like a global pandemic, or complex challenge like climate change. Through a series of workshops we developed and analysed a set of hypothetical yet plausible crisis scenarios to explore how technologically exacerbated external threats and internal vulnerabilities to a society’s epistemic security – its ability to reliably avert threats to the processes by which reliable information is produced, distributed, and assessed within the society – can be mitigated in order to facilitate timely decision-making and collective action in democratic societies.

Overall we observed that preserving a democratic society’s epistemic security is a complex effort that sits at the interface of many knowledge domains, theoretical perspectives, value systems, and institutional responsibilities, and we developed a series of recommendations to highlight areas where additional research and resources will likely have a significant impact on improving epistemic security in democratic societies"

Comment by Sean_o_h on Open Communication in the Days of Malicious Online Actors · 2020-10-07T12:05:52.283Z · EA · GW

As a datapoint, the issues Ozzie raises feel quite relevant to issues I find myself needing to think about where it comes to different communities engaging with Xrisk-related issues and different aspects of our (an xrisk/gcr centre's) work - especially when it comes to different communities with different epistemic and communication norms - so I find it relevant and helpful in that sense.

Comment by Sean_o_h on What are the leading critiques of "longtermism" and related concepts · 2020-07-20T15:59:03.055Z · EA · GW


Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T18:47:51.311Z · EA · GW

Thanks Juan, I hadn't seen that most recent R0 estimate you link to - concerning.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T18:26:04.600Z · EA · GW
I'm not convinced that we would have already seen a significant uptick in reported/confirmed case numbers quite yet (weren't the largest protests this past Saturday?). The median incubation period is ~5 days, most people don't get tested at the time of symptom onset, and the PCR test turnaround time still seems to still be at least a day or two. Perhaps most importantly, most of the protestors seem to be relatively young and so many may be asymptomatic or may have mild cold/flu-like symptoms. I'm more interested in (and concerned about) any secondary transmission events that may involve older family members that protestors might live with/come into contact with. Many of these older folks would presumably have more serious symptoms and so would be more likely to show up in confirmed cases/hospitalizations data over the coming weeks.

Right. But with regard to R0 =0.9, I understand R0=0.9 was being used as the background R0 prior to the impact of the protest, rather than the R0 following the impact of the protests (if 'background' R0 is <1, then the impact of an R0-increasing event/set of events will have a lesser effect than if 'background' R0 is >1). It may be the case, as you suggest, that R0 has increased significantly since the start of the protests until now (whether due to the protests or in combination of other factors), in which case protests right now are happening against a higher R0 than these estimates assume - but we don't have the data. I agree that NYC will be interesting.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T17:04:41.291Z · EA · GW

R0 could certainly be much higher in principle, though if it is, it doesn't seem to be reflected in the number of positive cases being recorded in the US - which has been holding steady or slightly declining for the past month - or the number of deaths (declining, although there would be a lag there). These indicators could be misleading of course - the US, like the UK, is nearly certainly undertesting and undercounting cases. However, the number of tests has been going up, and if the number of cases being 'caught' isn't increasing this is some indication that R0 is somewhere a little below 1. So I would tentatively agree with the OP's suggestion here.

One reason looking at different assessments based on R0=0.9 is informative is that it illustrates just how high the uncertainty and room for error is in these sorts of analysis. The OP predicts 75,000 deaths as a plausible possibility; Bedford predicts 150-600/day, so 2,100 -8,400 over the course of 2 weeks of protests (assuming each day carries the same impact on R0, which is probably wrong); both using R0=0.9 as a central assumption, and recognising that the present R0 is a key factor. Because present value of R0 is such a critical factor, comparing different estimates at the same R0 makes it easier to compare/contrast.

One of my personal concerns is that the BLM protests may end up unduly scapegoated (in terms of their role being overestimated) for any increase in cases and deaths; the US administration has done quite a bit of scapegoating already in my view, and there are many ways in which its own response has been far from adequate. My intuition is that other aspects of states reopening prematurely are likely to play a bigger impact in a possible second wave. If there were a significant overestimation of the impact of the BLM protests for example, this would be bad not only for the BLM movement and antiracism in the US; it would also be bad in terms of understanding the other causes of increase of R0 and putting in the appropriate planning overall for preventing and responding to future waves. (Likewise however, if those of us who think the impact of the protests is lower than in reality are wrong, it would be good to update).

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T10:51:08.384Z · EA · GW

He did another analysis assuming R0 of 0.9, obtaining estimate of 150-600 downstream deaths per day of protests.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T10:32:12.060Z · EA · GW

I would expect deaths to be on a lag (it takes a few weeks on average for people to get sick enough to die). At a quick glance, France, Spain, Italy and Germany are reporting an average of well under 1k new cases a day for the last 7 days, compared to 19-25K/day for the US (obviously necessary to correct for the USA having a 5-6x larger population than these countries).

Edit: this site estimates R0 as being 1.02 in the US overall, and <1 in all western and northern European countries (although >1 in several eastern european countries)

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-09T07:54:02.849Z · EA · GW

There are other factors (relating to points made in the post) to suggest the protests in UK and EU may carry less risk comparatively. Police tactics at protests in different countries may be a relevant consideration - e.g. the heavy use of tear gas in the US (bad for spreading covid, as larks notes) isn't happening in the UK. R0 also a relevant consideration - likely much lower in many european countries now than in many parts of the US.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-03T21:08:08.672Z · EA · GW

I am also sceptical about the central scenario. Protests have disproportionately high visibility relative to the numbers participating. If the 28% reduction Brauner et al estimate was the result of banning protests, parades, sporting events, concerts, political rallies, beach gatherings, lectures, house parties, crowded gyms and restaurants, yoga classes, and many other categories of >10 people gatherings, plus the indirect effects (e.g. on public transport etc) of these measures, then it seems unlikely to me that the recent protests could have an equivalent reverse impact, despite how relatively widespread they have been.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Projects tackling nuclear risk? · 2020-05-30T16:10:53.980Z · EA · GW

I'd suggest considering:

Comment by Sean_o_h on What are examples of EA work being reviewed by non-EA researchers? · 2020-03-29T15:53:53.878Z · EA · GW

Likewise for publications at CSER. I'd add that for policy work, written policy submissions often provide summaries and key takaways and action-relevant points based on 'primary' work done by the centre and its collaborators, where the primary work is peer-reviewed.

We've received informal/private feedback from people in policy/government roles at various points that our submissions and presentations have been particularly useful or influential. And we'll have some confidential written testimony to support this for a few examples for University REF (research excellence framework) assessment purposes; however unfortunately I don't have permission to share these publicly at this time. However, this comment I wrote last year provides some info that could be used as indirect indications of the work being seen as high-quality (being chosen as a select number to be invited to present orally; follow-up engagement, etc).

Comment by Sean_o_h on Coronavirus Research Ideas for EAs · 2020-03-28T16:56:30.920Z · EA · GW

Thanks Peter, that's awesome!

Comment by Sean_o_h on Coronavirus Research Ideas for EAs · 2020-03-28T09:52:10.920Z · EA · GW

Thank you for writing this up; it's extremely helpful, especially in such a rapidly developing space. A very optional request: might you consider updating this e.g. once a week with significant relevant developments on these ideas/questions? With so many of us involved in many different ways, it could provide a helpful evolving roadmap. Feel free to ignore if too much hassle or redundant with summaries elsewhere.

Comment by Sean_o_h on The best places to donate for COVID-19 · 2020-03-21T12:25:47.808Z · EA · GW

[disclaimer: I am co-director of CSER, but giving an individual view]. Hi, a quick comment (apologies that I may not have time to respond to replies, very busy period).

>“We understand that CSER’s work mostly has little direct relevance to COVID-19, but some of it is relevant to pandemics and that they are looking to expand this element of their team. We believe that this may be a suitable choice for funders inspired to support pandemics as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.”

This is accurate in my view. However, I would emphasise that for EA funders keen to support (a) *direct* response to Covid-19 and/or (b) most time-effective use of funds relating to the current situation within the next 6 months, my view is that there are likely to be more timely interventions than supporting CSER at this immediate time.

E.g. we ourselves are working to support other initiatives by collaborators relating to the immediate situation (I have been looking for ways to support Univursa*, whose researchers we’ve worked with before, and which I individually consider particularly promising in the current situation). As the writeup says, our work is more focused on broader GCR and pandemic/biorisk goverance and preparedness. We are in the process of making a number of hires (50% of whom are biorisk/epidemiology/biosecurity specialists). I expect we will have a lesser need for additional funding in the 0-6 month window. In the >6 month window, as the world (hopefully) moves from immediate crisis response to better preparedness/governance/biosecurity, and as our expanded bio team develops expands its work relevant to this, we are likely to have significantly more RFMF (although I could not give a view at this time on comparative value of funds with other orgs in future). I should also mention that some of our work is likely to be under the banner of other initiatives our researchers are a part of (e.g. the Biorisc initiative, which has gained good traction in the UK policy context

Very grateful to Sanjay, and to everyone else working hard to identify opportunities to combat Covid-19!

*Footnote on my being excited about Univursa: While the approach was initially developed with a focus on haemorrhagic epidemics (e.g. ebola), based on my analysis of the method, and discussion with the researchers, I believe it will be very suitable for adaptation to covid-19 diagnostics (although no guarantees can be made until database development and field testing completed); and could play a v important role in resource-limited settings like sub-saharan Africa where testing and outbreak detection ability is extremely limited. Further, above and beyond regional benefits, it is my understanding that unless appropriate tools are provided to these regions, getting this pandemic under control globally will be a lot more challenging.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Toby Ord’s ‘The Precipice’ is published! · 2020-03-11T20:23:16.827Z · EA · GW

That would be a shame. If you're fairly familiar with Xrisk literature and FHI's work in particular, then a lot of the juiciest facts and details are in the footnotes - I found them fascinating.

Comment by Sean_o_h on COVID-19 brief for friends and family · 2020-03-04T15:59:02.957Z · EA · GW

Datapoint (my general considerations/thought processes around this, feeding into case-by case decisions about my own activities rather than a blanket decision): I am (young healthy male) pretty unconcerned personally about risk to myself individually; but quite concerned about becoming a vector for spread (especially to older or less robust people). While I have a higher-than-some-people personal risk tolerance, I don't like the idea of imposing my risk tolerance on others. Particularly when travelling/fatigued/jetlagged, I'm not 100% sure I trust my own attention to detail quite enough on reliably taking all the necessary steps carefully enough, so this makes me a little hesitant to take on long-haul travel to international events (I also work/interact with older colleagues reasonably regularly, and am concerned re: the indirect activities of my actions on them).

I would also like to see society-level actions that reduce disease spread, and I intuitively feel that EA should be a participant in such actions, given it takes such risks seriously as a community.

Comment by Sean_o_h on COVID-19 brief for friends and family · 2020-03-03T15:35:31.232Z · EA · GW

The information Singapore is gathering, collating and making available is fascinating.

Singapore is also one of the nations that appears to be dealing most effectively with their coronavirus outbreak (rate of new cases is comparatively low). The country also had a very effective response to SARS in 2003. (Although by Western standards the extent to which they gather information on the population might be uncomfortable).

Comment by Sean_o_h on COVID-19 brief for friends and family · 2020-03-02T19:53:51.266Z · EA · GW

6 deaths now reported in Washington State is also consistent with the outbreak there being substantially larger than the 14 cases currently recorded.

Comment by Sean_o_h on COVID-19 brief for friends and family · 2020-03-01T10:23:28.425Z · EA · GW

FYI, sequencing from the Snohomish county washington cases suggest there has been cryptic transmission in washington state for the last 3-6 weeks, and potentially a substantial outbreak (a few hundred cases) ongoing in washington state (likely missed because of the focus on travellers returning from China).

Comment by Sean_o_h on COVID-19 brief for friends and family · 2020-02-29T15:25:55.538Z · EA · GW

Too early to have confidence on higher temperatures limiting spread IMO (although some reason to hope, certainly); cases in japan are only <2.5x higher than singapore (234 vs 102 last I saw, and IIRC it got to japan slightly earlier); surveillance and testing in African nations unlikely to be as extensive as e.g. Japan/SK; likely less volume of travel going through african nations than some of the Asian hubs.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Concerning the Recent 2019-Novel Coronavirus Outbreak · 2020-02-27T18:49:06.364Z · EA · GW

I must admit, I would not make the same bet at the same odds on the 27th of February 2020.

Comment by Sean_o_h on My Charitable Giving Report 2019 · 2020-02-27T17:47:46.020Z · EA · GW

Well done on your charitable giving, and thank you for sharing! For me, it's important and inspirational to hear about giving at all levels (and sometimes we hear less about giving at the level less high-earning people can afford, so this is great).

Comment by Sean_o_h on Concerning the Recent 2019-Novel Coronavirus Outbreak · 2020-02-27T12:35:38.863Z · EA · GW

Hi Wei,

Sorry I missed this. My strongest responses over the last while have fallen into the categories of: (1) responding to people claiming existential risk-or-approaching potential (or sharing papers by people like Taleb stating we are entering a phase where this is near-certain; e.g.

(shared in one xrisk group, for example, as "X-riskers, it would appear your time is now: "With increasing transportation we are close to a transition to conditions in which extinction becomes certain both because of rapid spread and because of the selective dominance of increasingly worse pathogens.". My response: "We are **not** "close to a transition to conditions in which extinction becomes certain both because of rapid spread and because of the selective dominance of increasingly worse pathogens".)

Or, responding to speculation that nCov is a deliberately developed bioweapon, or was accidentally released from a BSL4 lab in Wuhan. There isn't evidence for either of these and I think they are unhelpful types of speculation to be made without evidence, and such speculations can spread widely. Further, some people making the latter speculation didn't seem to be aware what a common class of virus coronaviruses are (ranging from common cold thru to SARS). Whether or not a coronavirus was being studied at the Wuhan lab, I think it would not be a major coincidence to find a lab studying a coronavirus in a major city.

A third example was clarifying that the event 201 exercise Johns Hopkins did (which involved 65 million hypothetical deaths) was a tabletop simulation , not a prediction, and therefore could not be used to extrapolate an expectation of 65 million deaths from the current outbreak.

I made various other comments as part of discussions, but more providing context or points for discussion etc as I recall as opposed to disagreeing per se, and don't have time to dig them up.

The latter examples don't relate to predictions of the severity of the outbreak, more so to what I perceived at the time to be misunderstandings, misinformation, and unhelpful/ungrounded speculations.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Any response from OpenAI (or EA in general) about the Technology Review feature on OpenAI? · 2020-02-25T10:41:23.474Z · EA · GW

On (2), I would note that the 'hype' criticism is one that is commonly made about the claims of both a range of individual groups in AI, and about the field as a whole. Criticisms of DeepMind's claims, and IBM's (usefulness/impact of IBM Watson in health) come immediately to mind, as well as claims by a range of groups re: deployment of self-driving cars. It's also a criticism made of the field as a whole (e.g. see various of Gary Marcus, Jack Stilgoe's comments etc). This does not necessarily mean that it's untrue of OpenAI (or that OpenAI are not one of the 'hypier'), but I think it's worth noting that this is not unique to OpenAI.

Comment by Sean_o_h on Any response from OpenAI (or EA in general) about the Technology Review feature on OpenAI? · 2020-02-21T09:51:39.182Z · EA · GW

A few comments from Xrisk/EA folks that I've seen (which I agree with):

FHI's Markus Andjerlung:

CSER's Haydn Belfield:

To me, AI heavyweight and past president of AAAI (and past critic of OpenAI) Rao Kambhampati put it well - written like / has tone of a hit piece, but without an actual hit (i.e. any relevation that actually justifies it):

Comment by Sean_o_h on Concerning the Recent 2019-Novel Coronavirus Outbreak · 2020-02-03T19:55:21.002Z · EA · GW

I don't think so to any significant extent in most circumstances. And any tiny spike counterbalanced by general benefits pointed to by David. My understanding (former competitive runner) is that extended periods of heavily overdoing it with exercise (overtraining) can lead to an inhibited immune system among other symptoms, but this is rare with people generally keeping fit (other than e.g. someone jumping into marathon/triathlon training without building up). Other things to avoid/be mindful of are the usual (hanging around in damp clothes in the cold, hygiene in group sporting/exercise contexts etc).