[Update: since I started working at Open Philanthropy, my public conversation notes are now all available on the Open Philanthropy Project website.]
Following the example set by GiveWell and Good Ventures, I post notes from interesting conversations I have with people who have relevant expertise in cases where I think other people would benefit enough from having access to the information gained during the conversation. Unless otherwise specified, I have compiled these notes. All such notes have been approved by people participating in the conversation. In general, these conversations are recorded, I take notes on them, and then I send these notes to the other participants for review and approval. They can recommend changes to the notes to better reflect what they said, or ask that I not publish the notes (in which case the notes would not be published). This is a practice I would like to see adopted more widely.
Purpose of the call: We organized this call to learn about government policies that Seth Baum believes may reduce global catastrophic risk (GCR), for the purpose of identifying areas for deeper investigation later.
Why this person: Seth is the Executive Director of a research institute that focuses on GCRs and we had an existing relationship with him.
Summary: We had a shallow and wide-ranging conversation about nuclear weapons, biological weapons, climate change, increasing the probability of eventual recovery in the event of a global catastrophe, emerging technology governance, and promoting research and awareness of GCRs.
Purpose of the call: I wanted to learn more about interventions that would make civilization more likely to eventually recover if a global catastrophe occurred.
Why this person: Seth Baum (Executive Director, GCRI) recommended that I speak to Dave Denkenberger on the topic of increasing resilience to extreme global food crises. I previously attended an online lecture on this topic on 22 August 2013 by Dave Denkenberger.
Summary: A nuclear war, a large asteroid collision, or a large supervolcanic eruption could put large amounts of particles in the atmosphere and substantially interfere with agricultural production for years, potentially resulting in large numbers of deaths from starvation. I spoke with Dr. Denkenberger about three potential methods of rapidly scaling up non-agricultural food production for the U.K. in these scenarios. Dr. Denkenberger believes extremely few other people are thinking about how to prepare for this scenario. We discussed what the methods are and how they could be tested.
Purpose of the call: I organized this call to learn about government policies that Robin Hanson believes may reduce global catastrophic risk (GCR), for the purpose of identifying areas for deeper investigation later. I was especially looking for proposals about how we could better use prediction markets and related institutions and policies, and proposals about how to increase the probability of survival if there is a global catastrophe.
Why this person: Robin Hanson has published work on prediction markets and global catastrophic risk. I also had an existing relationship with him.
Topics discussed: We discussed refuges (to help people survive global catastrophes), disaster-contingent pricing for key infrastructure (to increase incentives to keep key infrastructure running in disaster scenarios), refuge markets (to help predict catastrophes), government prizes for people who prevent or help during major disasters (to provide better incentives to prevent and help during disasters), and research testing prediction markets (to generally improve predictions).
Why this person: Nick McCamley is the author of Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers. His research has focused on bunkers in the UK, and has primarily been historical.
We discussed UK government bunkers in history and today. The UK created many bunkers during and before the Cold War, but they were decommissioned and sold off from 1998 to 2004. The bunkers kept at most three months of food at their peak. The UK government believed that in the event of a nuclear war, most of the population would perish, but a substantial portion would survive. McCamley believes the UK now primarily uses many dispersed, mobile communication centers instead of bunkers. McCamley believes the UK would be very underprepared if there were a nuclear war today, and is much less prepared than Switzerland, which has fallout shelters for the entire population. However, he believes that creating bunkers that would be adequate in the event of a nuclear war would be prohibitively expensive.
Purpose of the call: I contacted Miles to learn about the field of responsible innovation and how it relates to potential global catastrophic risks from technologies like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology.
Why this person: My FHI college Daniel Dewey recommended that I speak with Miles Brundage because he is someone who works in responsible innovation and knows a lot about FHI’s work.
We discussed subdivisions within these fields, the policy impact of responsible innovation and related fields, overlap between FHI concerns and concerns of people working in responsible innovation and related fields, and similarities and differences between approaches. FHI works with longer time horizons and focuses more on analyzing risks associated with specific technologies. Responsible innovation and related fields focus on shorter time horizons and focus more on building robust capacities to govern new technologies in general and engaging technologies in their early stages. Miles suggested that general frameworks for integrating social and ethical concerns might usefully be applied in fields like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology in order to reduce potential global catastrophic risks from these technologies but may be insufficient over a longer time horizon.
Purpose of the call: I organized this call to learn about FHI’s room for more funding, CSER’s room for more funding, and CSER’s current state of operations.
Why this person: Sean has responsibility for managing much of the day-to-day operations of FHI and helping to get CSER operating, as well as for mid- to long- strategy and development of the FHI and its constituent programmes (in conjunction with the Director).
Holden Karnofsky, Robert Wiblin, Paul Christiano, Carl Shulman, and I on "flow-through effects," on 19 August 2013
Audio. Transcript by Jeff Kaufman. "Flow-through effects" is a technical term for the long-term consequences of economic development and other forms of human empowerment. It was coined by Holden Karnofsky here. The conversation was about whether GiveWell should try to spend more resources on trying to understand flow-through effects.
Holden Karnofsky, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Luke Muehlhauser, and I on various topics on future-oriented effective altruism, February 2014
Lightly edited version of an email exchange.
Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Tyler to learn about his perspectives on existential risk and other long-run issues for humanity, the long-run consequences of economic growth, and the effective altruism movement. I believed Tyler was likely to have interesting views on these issues that the effective altruism community was generally unaware of. Tyler has written about some policy issues for people who care deeply about distant future generations, we have many friends in common, and he supports GiveWell.
We had a very wide-ranging conversation, but two major themes were caring about the distant future and the effective altruism movement. Tyler agrees with Nick about the importance of long-run outcomes for humanity and the importance of path-dependent outcomes in that framework. However, Tyler expressed significant skepticism about the value of philosophical work on these problems and the value of speculating about the impacts of future technology, at least in comparison with more historically grounded, tractable issues such as innovation, international conflict, geopolitics, and pandemics. He also expressed much more pessimism about humanity’s prospects for surviving and thriving for a very long time (e.g. millions of years or more). Tyler supports effective altruism, but doesn’t see it as extremely important in the grand scheme of things; others, especially innovators, will be much more important in his view. We also discussed a few philosophical issues related to historicism, literature, and rational choice ethics.
Purpose of the conversation: In discussions about effective altruism and the distant future, there is a lot of speculation about the long-run consequences of economic growth, but economists haven’t been involved in the conversation.
Why these people: Robin is an economist interested in the distant future and some issues in effective altruism. Garett specializes in growth economics, and Robin recommended that we include him in this conversation.
We discussed whether we might run out significant innovations, how to assess the long-run consequences of faster growth, whether faster growth would affect the distant future, whether donating to a charity like GiveDirectly is an effective way of speeding up growth, whether faster growth now would make permanent technological stagnation less likely, and what work in economics might illuminate such questions.
Purpose of the conversation: I organized this call to learn about the extent to which the Industrial Revolution was contingent or inevitable, and how contingent/inevitable continued technological innovation is. I see this as an input to questions about how likely civilization is to recover from global catastrophic risks and how substantial the risk of long-term technological stagnation is.
Why this person: David Christian is the author of Maps of Time, a book covering the whole natural and social history of the world, with a few chapters on the Industrial Revolution and the Modern Revolution more generally. This book covered extremely long-term historical trends in a way that few other history books I’ve read have, so I thought he might be unusually likely to be interested in my questions. He commented on the inevitability of the Industrial Revolution in Maps of Time and he was visiting Oxford to give a lecture on his approach to history.
In Professor Christian’s view, many aspects of the Industrial Revolution were not inevitable, but some extremely general aspects of industrialization (such as humans eventually gaining the ability to use fossil fuels) were essentially inevitable once there was a species capable of transferring substantial amounts of knowledge between people and across generations. He stressed that his view was not generally shared by historians. Historians tend not to discuss this question and are typically suspicious of the idea that important historical events were inevitable.
We didn’t end up discussing other transitions (e.g. the origin of life, eukaryotes, language, agriculture, agrarian civilizations, industrialization, etc.) or other possible critical junctures in the future.
Purpose of the call: I wanted to learn about the extent to which the Industrial Revolution is regarded as contingent or inevitable by economic historians, partly in hopes of illuminating the extent to which sustained economic progress in the future was likely to be contingent or inevitable, and what might affect whether there is sustained economic progress in the future.
Why this person: Mokyr is an eminent economic and technological historian who seemed especially likely to have plausible ideas about how the Industrial Revolution may have been highly contingent. He has also written about economic stagnation, arguing against his colleague Robert Gordon.
In Mokyr’s view, if the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened in Britain, it would have still happened elsewhere in Europe, though in a different form (emphasizing different technologies and happening at a later time). However, if it were not for Europe, he believes that other countries would probably never have developed advanced technologies like digital computers, antibiotics, and nuclear reactors. The Industrial Revolution relied on the a certain type of scientific culture which involved (i) an emphasis on experimentation and willingness to question conventional wisdom and authority, (ii) its ambition (illustrated in the thought of Francis Bacon) to find lawlike explanations for natural events, and (iii) its desire to use scientific discoveries to make useful technological advances. Independently of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, we have not seen this kind of scientific culture significantly develop elsewhere in the world, even sometimes despite otherwise favorable conditions (e.g. as in Song China).
Contra proponents of economic and technological stagnation, Mokyr argues that there will be innovation will accelerate in the foreseeable future. A major driver of scientific progress is improvement in scientific instruments, and Mokyr sees many such improvements underway. His main worry about continuing innovation is not running out of good ideas or low-hanging fruit, but political and social institutions that are hostile to innovation.
Purpose of the call: I contacted Anders to learn about the feasibility of space colonization and who the experts in the area were.
Why this person: Anders Sandberg has published a paper on the feasibility of space colonization and has a long-term interest of the subject.
Anders listed space debris (in Earth’s orbit), space dust, large expenses, lack of interest in space colonization, lack of nitrogen, and space radiation as potential roadblocks to space colonization. In his view, space colonization is definitely possible for an advanced civilization with the appropriate motivations—none of these potential roadblocks is likely to reliably prevent it. It is physically possible given our current understanding of physics; a factor making it impossible must either be new physics or some universal socio-economic law that has a far more definite applicability across all societies than we have ever seen before. Space colonization is especially likely to be possible if advanced AGI and molecular manufacturing are possible—as Anders believes they are—though he also thinks it is possible if they are impossible.
I also asked Anders about concerns about energy requirements, replicator technology, terraforming, long-term data storage, human reproduction in space, and slowing down at the end of the trip. Anders felt that none of these posed a plausible in-principle roadblock to space colonization.
Anders was aware of no credible critic of the in-principle feasibility of space colonization. The closest he could think of was Charles Stross—a sophisticated science fiction author—who is skeptical of space colonization except under very favorable assumptions, but still believes that it is possible in principle.
Purpose of the call: I contacted Dr. Landis to learn about the feasibility of space colonization (especially interstellar colonization) and who the most informed people on that issue are.
Why this person: Anders Sandberg recommended that I speak with him. According to Wikipedia, Dr. Landis works for NASA on planetary exploration, interstellar propulsion, solar power and photovoltaics.
We discussed Dr. Landis’s views about the feasibility of interstellar colonization, the main potential show-stoppers that might make interstellar colonization impossible, and other informed people on these issues. We discussed making machines that continue to function for long interstellar voyages, building ships that humans could survive on for a long time, developing advanced power sources, finding habitable targets, interstellar matter, radiation, and the will to do it. In Dr. Landis’s view, interstellar travel will be extremely difficult, but it’s definitely possible in principle.
Purpose of the conversation: I organized this call to learn about the feasibility of space colonization in the very long run.
Why this person: Robert Zubrin is the founder of the Mars Society—a group advocating for colonizing Mars. He is also the author of two books on space colonization: The Case for Mars and Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (with a few chapters on interstellar colonization). Anders Sandberg recommended that I speak more with him to learn about this issue.
Dr. Zubrin believes there are no insurmountable obstacles to colonizing planets in this solar system or other solar systems. He is aware of no compelling technical arguments to the contrary, thought the potential obstacles discussed could be overcome (energy requirements, high costs, inhospitable atmospheres, space dust, radiation), and couldn’t imagine learning anything remotely plausible which would change his mind. There is abstract and ideological resistance to the feasibility of space colonization in some environmental quarters, but these skeptics do not meaningfully engage with technical arguments, in his view.
Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Stross to learn about the feasibility of space colonization (especially interstellar colonization).
Why this person: Stross was recommended by others I spoke to as one of the most informed people that is pessimistic about the feasibility of space colonization, and this fit my experience in a brief literature search.
Stross is highly skeptical of the feasibility of space colonization without radical advances in AI or mind uploading, though he believes space colonization—including interstellar colonization—would be feasible given such advances. Obstacles we discussed included cosmic radiation, finding a hospitable location, sociological adaptation, lack of motivation for space colonization, and propulsion systems. Stross was not aware of other, more developed critiques of the feasibility of space colonization.
Effective altruism organizations
Summary: We organized this call to learn more about Effective Fundraising’s overall strategy and room for more funding. We found their model promising and were considering donating.
Effective fundraising is a new organization (started in July 2013) that aims to fundraise for outstanding charities. They are currently writing grants for the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and The Humane League (THL). They are looking for 1400-4400 GBP more GBP to operate for their first six months.
We are enthusiastic about Effective Fundraising’s overall strategy and their plans for monitoring and evaluation. We have some concerns about whether the co-Founders have the necessary experience to do the work effectively, but feel that there is a low overall cost to their attempt and a strong learning opportunity. The anonymous donor will be making a donation of 1400 GBP to Effective Fundraising.
We removed part of the audio on this file where we discussed secondhand opinions of Effective Fundraising.
Purpose of the call: I organized this call to learn about GWWC’s room for more funding, primarily to help a friend who was considering making a donation to GWWC.
Why these people: Michelle runs GWWC. GWWC is a sub-organization in CEA and receives support from CEA, and Rob is the person to ask about that.
GWWC would like to raise £170,000 over the next 12 months, supporting an annual budget of £140,000. This would allow them to keep six months in reserves. Over the last year, GWWC spent about £62,000. They have been growing and they currently spend about £9,000 per month. They raised about £100,000 in the last year and hold £30,000 in reserves.
GWWC has specific people they would like to hire in the near future and would use additional funding to hire them. Additional employees cost about £20,000 per year.
GWWC has some plans for increased monitoring and evaluation in the coming year.
Purpose of the call: We organized this call to learn more about Howard’s work aimed at increasing the flow of humanitarian refugees to Canada with private charitable sponsorship. We were interested in this because of the large welfare and economic impacts migration to developed countries can have for refugees from poor countries. Also, it is unusual to find opportunities for private donations to directly enable migration, and we wanted to learn more about the situation in Canada.
Why this person: Howard Adelman has done extensive work on refugee issues as an academic and activist, including the formation of Operation Lifeline, in which private charitable efforts enabled tens of thousands of refugees to come to Canada. He is currently involved in revitalizing that system.
Topics discussed: We discussed the history and mechanics of Canada’s program for private sponsorship of immigrants, current bottlenecks for its humanitarian impacts, recent political developments, and the role of efforts by Howard and colleagues to enable growth in the program. We also discussed Howard’s views on room for more funding for refugee and migration related work, and how his career came to have so much impact on refugee issues.
Audio (40 minutes of audio recording are missing due to a malfunction of the recording device). Full notes.
Purpose of the call: Jess Whittlestone and I organized this call to learn more about the value of getting a PhD in economics to help advise people considering that path.
Why this person: We sought Robin’s thoughts because he is a like-minded economics professor with whom we already had a relationship.
Summary: We discussed what career options are available to people who get PhDs in economics, who is a good fit for a PhD in economics, and how to maximize one’s impact in economics. We did not discuss highly data-oriented questions, such as PhD acceptance rates, tenure rates, and portions of economics PhDs working in different areas.
An economics PhD is
Good indicators of fit for an economics PhD include aptitude for math, interest in economics, being open-minded about research topics, being able to work on challenging tasks with little direction from others, and being willing to put in a lot of hours. A firm grasp of basic economics concepts and theory, developed through years of practice, is very valuable for understanding how the social world works, which is helpful for evaluating causes and interventions.