Differential technological development: some early thinking

Note: this post aims to help a particular subset of our audience understand the assumptions behind our work on science philanthropy and global catastrophic risks. Throughout, “we” refers to positions taken by the Open Philanthropy Project as an entity rather than to a consensus of all staff.

Two priorities for the Open Philanthropy Project are our work on science philanthropy and global catastrophic risks. These interests are related because—in addition to greatly advancing civilization’s wealth and prosperity—advances in certain areas of science and technology may be key to exacerbating or addressing what we believe are the largest global catastrophic risks. (For detail on the idea that advances in technology could be a driver, see “‘Natural’ GCRs appear to be less harmful in expectation” in this post.) For example, nuclear engineering created the possibility of nuclear war, but also provided a source of energy that does not depend on fossil fuels, making it a potential tool in the fight against climate change. Similarly, future advances in bioengineering, genetic engineering, geoengineering, computer science (including artificial intelligence), nanotechnology, neuroscience, and robotics could have the potential to affect the long-term future of humanity in both positive and negative ways.

Therefore, we’ve been considering the possible consequences of advancing the pace of development of various individual areas of science and technology in order to have more informed opinions about which might be especially promising to speed up and which might create additional risks if accelerated. Following Nick Bostrom, we call this topic “differential technological development.” We believe that our views on this topic will inform our priorities in scientific research, and to a lesser extent, global catastrophic risks. We believe our ability to predict and plan for future factors such as these is highly limited, and we generally favor a default presumption that economic and technological development is positive, but we also think it’s worth putting some effort into understanding the interplay between scientific progress and global catastrophic risks in case any considerations seem strong enough to influence our priorities.

The first question our investigation of differential technological development looked into was the effect of speeding progress toward advanced AI on global catastrophic risk. This post gives our initial take on that question. One idea we sometimes hear is that it would be harmful to speed up the development of artificial intelligence because not enough work has been done to ensure that when very advanced artificial intelligence is created, it will be safe. This problem, it is argued, would be even worse if progress in the field accelerated. However, very advanced artificial intelligence could be a useful tool for overcoming other potential global catastrophic risks. If it comes sooner—and the world manages to avoid the risks that it poses directly—the world will spend less time at risk from these other factors.

Curious about how to compare these two factors, I tried looking at a simple model of the implications of a survey of participants at a 2008 conference on global catastrophic risk organized by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. I found that speeding up advanced artificial intelligence—according to my simple interpretation of these survey results—could easily result in reduced net exposure to the most extreme global catastrophic risks (e.g., those that could cause human extinction), and that what one believes on this topic is highly sensitive to some very difficult-to-estimate parameters (so that other estimates of those parameters could yield the opposite conclusion). This conclusion seems to be in tension with the view that speeding up artificial intelligence research would increase risk of human extinction on net, so I decided to write up this finding, both to get reactions and to illustrate the general kind of work we’re doing to think through the issue of differential technological development.

Below, I:

  • Describe our simplified model of the consequences of speeding up the development of advanced AI on the risk of human extinction using a survey of participants at a 2008 conference on global catastrophic risk organized by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
  • Explain why, in this model, the effect of faster progress on artificial intelligence on the risk of human extinction is very unclear.
  • Describe several of the model’s many limitations, illustrating the challenges involved with this kind of analysis.

We are working on developing a broader understanding of this set of issues, as they apply to the areas of science and technology described above, and as they relate to the global catastrophic risks we focus on.


Open Philanthropy Project update

This post gives an overall update on progress and plans for the Open Philanthropy Project. Our last update was about six months ago, and the primary goals it laid out were six-month goals.


The overall theme is that we are putting most of our effort into capacity building (recruiting, trial hires, onboarding new hires). This is in contrast to six months ago, when most of our effort went into selecting focus areas. Six months from now, we hope to be putting most of our effort into recommending grants and putting out public content. (Specifically, we hope that our efforts within the “U.S. policy” and “global catastrophic risks” categories will fit this description. We expect it to take longer to choose focus areas within scientific research.)


Donating to help with the Syrian refugee crisis

We’ve received a number of questions about where to donate to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. Millions of Syrians have fled the war in their country, risking their lives. Images of the immense suffering accompanying this journey have captured headlines in recent weeks.

Although GiveWell hasn’t focused its work on disaster relief organizations, we have in the past recommended support to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which we feel has distinguished itself as a relief organization with above-average transparency. Previous general advice from GiveWell on giving to help with disaster relief can be found here.

According to its website, MSF is operating six medical facilities in northern Syria and is directly supporting over 100 health posts and field hospitals across the country, including in besieged areas. MSF has also provided health services to Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as Roszke, Hungary. MSF generally asks that donors make unrestricted donations to enable the organization to allocate its resources where needs are the greatest, a position we support.

We have not looked into other organizations that are fundraising to support their work on this crisis.

Journalists report on deworming program supported by Deworm the World Initiative in Kenya

Last year, Jacob Kushner, a journalist living in Kenya, reported on his observations from villages in which GiveDirectly had distributed some of its earliest cash transfers. This year, we funded him to report on the National School-Based Deworming Programme in Kenya, a program supported by Deworm the World.

Mr. Kushner’s article follows. His colleague, Anthony Langat, observed the program and interviewed some stakeholders; his interview notes are posted here.

In addition to Mr. Kushner’s article:

  • We summarize our takeaways here.
  • Evidence Action, which runs Deworm the World, responds to the article here.

School-based deworming: A parent’s perspective

In Kenya, some parents fear potential, minor side effects of deworming, and a few may even oppose it for religious reasons. Others say they just want to be better informed.

By Jacob Kushner and Anthony Langat

Since 2009, Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative has provided technical assistance to the highly praised government-run National School-Based Deworming Programme, in Kenya. Last year the program de-wormed 6.4 million students in 16,000 schools. The Deworm the World Initiative encourages a multi-faceted strategy toward informing parents about the program, using radio announcements, community meetings, and by training teachers to encourage students to let their parents know about the program in advance of each ‘deworming day.’

But to ensure that each and every parent is made aware of it beforehand is impossible. Many families in rural Kenya lack radios, and communication between schools and certain families can be limited. And it’s safe to assume that children don’t always dutifully relay to parents each and every announcement they hear in class.


Incoming Program Officer: Lewis Bollard

We’re excited to announce that Lewis Bollard has accepted our offer to join the Open Philanthropy Project as a Program Officer, leading our work on treatment of animals in industrial agriculture.

Lewis currently works as Policy Advisor & International Liaison to the CEO at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Prior to that, he was a litigation fellow at HSUS, a law student at Yale, and an associate consultant at Bain & Company.

Our process, and our bet on Lewis

We hired Lewis using a broadly similar process and criteria to what we described previously. (Because we have recently laid out the basics of that process, this post is much shorter.)

In Lewis’s case, the “mini-trial” we did as part of the interview process focused on exploring some disagreements we had about the relative value of (a) targeting corporations in the hopes of improving farm conditions vs. (b) targeting the broader public. Lewis created writeups laying out his thinking, and we had extensive discussions that resulted in some updating on both sides. We will be writing more about our strategy for this cause in the future.

Lewis initially came to us via a referral from Howie Lempel, who co-led an animal law reading group with him when they were both in law school, and was then recommended by several other people we spoke to in the field. Based on the referrals, interviews and the “mini-trial,” we see the following strengths:

  • We’ve been extremely impressed by his thinking and communication style. We see him as a very strong generalist.
  • We believe Lewis has a passion for, and strong knowledge of, the cause he will be focusing on.
  • We believe that our core values with respect to this cause are highly aligned. In particular, our primary goal is to reduce suffering of animals as much as possible, and we believe this will sometimes mean pushing for incremental improvements in how animals are treated rather than focusing exclusively on reducing meat production/consumption.

Our reservations come from the fact that Lewis is relatively early in his career:

  • He has only 3 years of work experience, and accordingly does not have a very informative track record as a funder or advocate.
  • While he has some strong relationships in the field, he is not as well-connected as a more senior candidate would likely be.
  • We believe he will have a steep learning curve in order to get up to speed on philanthropy, and, secondarily, on some parts of the field he has been less exposed to.

We are betting that Lewis’s strong generalist qualities will allow him to quickly develop the relationships and expertise he needs to recommend outstanding grants. We recognize that this is a risky proposition. We are comfortable with the risk, partly because we feel that this cause (treatment of animals in industrial agriculture) has relatively few organizations working on it, and the need for pre-existing expertise and connections is not as great as it is for our criminal justice reform Program Officer.

Because Lewis is a New Zealand citizen, our offer and his acceptance are conditional on our ability to secure a work visa for him. We expect that to be completed in a few weeks, and we’re anticipating that he will start in October.

September 2015 Open Thread

Following up on our open thread in April, we wanted to have another one.

Our goal is to give blog readers an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about GiveWell or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@givewell.org if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.