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High impact interview 1: Existential risk research at SIAI

The plan: to conduct a series of interviews with successful workers in various key candidates for high impact careers.

The first person to agree to an interview is Luke Muehlhauser (aka lukeprog of Less Wrong), the executive director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, whose mission is to influence the development of greater-than-human intelligence to try and ensure that it’s a force for human flourishing rather than extinction.

Each interview will have one or two goals. Firstly, to probe the experience of the job itself, to give readers a sense of what sort of life they’d be letting themselves in for if they followed a similar path – I’ve divided these question types under headers.

Secondly, where the interviewee’s organisation is a candidate for philanthropic funding, to seek their insiders’ perspective on why donors should consider picking them over the other options.

On with the interview:


ZR: Can you describe a typical working week for you? How many hours would you put in, what proportion of them would be spent on work you find engaging and what on admin/other chores? More importantly, what, physically do you do in what proportion from day to day? Can you give a sense of the highs and lows of the job?

LM: My work log says I’ve worked an average of 61 hours per week since the beginning of September, when I was hired. This period covers a transition from Research Fellow to Executive Director, so my “typical work week” and the ratio between engaging/boring hours has changed over time. At the moment, a typical work week consists of (1) managing the 80+ projects in my Singularity Institute project tracker, along with all the staff members and volunteers working on pieces of those projects, (2) taking calls and meetings with advisors, supporters, volunteers, and external researchers, (3) writing things like So You Want to Save the World and Facing the Singularity, and also internal documents like a list of potential AI risk papers, and (4) working directly on 10-30 of our ongoing projects: everything from our forthcoming website redesign to our monthly progress reports to strategy meetings to improving our internal systems for communication and collaboration.

Physically, it’s mostly working at a computer or sitting at a coffee or lunch meeting.

The highs come from doing things that appear to be reducing existential risk.

The lows come when I smack into the extreme complexity of the strategic considerations concerning how to get from the world in its current state to a world where people are basically happy and we didn’t destroy ourselves with our ever-increasing technological powers. How do we get from here to there? Even things you might think are “obviously” good might actually be bad for complicated sociological and technological reasons. So, I often have a nagging worry that what I’m working on only seems like it’s reducing existential risk after the best analysis I can do right now, but actually it’s increasing existential risk. That’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s the kind of uncertainty you have to live with when working on these kinds of problems. All you can do is try really hard, and then try harder.

Another low is being reminded every day that humans are quite capable of “believing” that AI risk reduction is humanity’s most important task without actually doing much about it. A few months after I first read about intelligence explosion I said, “Well, damn, I guess I need to change my whole life and help save the world,” then quit my job and moved to Berkeley. But humans rarely do things like that.


ZR: What about a slightly atypical week? What sort of events of note happen rarely, but reliably?

LM: Once a year we put on our Singularity Summit, which for about a month consumes most of our staff’s time, including mine. When I need to give a speech or finish a research paper, I will sometimes need to cut myself away from everything else for a few days in order to zoom through the writing and editing.


ZR: SIAI seems to employ a number of philosophers, as its more scientific researchers. Many readers of this blog will likely be midway through philosophy or similar degrees, which might not lead easily to high income careers. Suppose that they consider X-risk research as another option - how plausible an option is it? Ie what proportion of postgraduate philosophy students who take a specific interest in X-risk issues do you think will be able to find work at SIAI or in similar organisations?

LM: The number of x-risk organizations is growing, but they are all quite funding-limited, so jobs are not easy to find. In most cases, a skilled person can purchase more x-risk reduction by going into finance or software or something else and donating to x-risk organizations, rather than by working directly for x-risk organizations. This is true for multiple reasons.

Also, the kind of philosophy you’re trained in matters. If you’re trained in literary analysis and postmodern philosophy, that training won’t help you contribute to x-risk research. Somewhat less useless is training in standard intuitionist analytic philosophy. The most relevant kind of philosophy is naturalistic “formal philosophy” or the kind of philosophy that is almost indistinguishable from the “hard” cognitive sciences.

Mathematicians and computer scientists are especially important for work on AI risk. And physicists, of course, because physicists can do anything. Naturalistic philosophers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists who want to work on x-risk should all contact me at luke@singularity.org.

Especially if you can write and explain things. Genuine writing ability is extremely rare.


ZR: Can you describe roughly the breakdown of different types of specialist who SIAI employs, so that anyone wanting to dedicate themselves to working for you can see what the most plausible routes in are? Are there any other relevant factors they should be aware of? (eg you employ more people from field x than y, but so many people from x apply that it makes y a better prospect)

LM: More important than our current staff composition is who we want to hire. The most important and difficult hires we need to make are people who can solve the fundamental problems in decision theory, mathematics, and AI architectures that must be solved for Friendly AI to be possible. These are people with extremely high mathematical ability: gold-medalists in the International Math Olympiad, or people who ranked top 10 on the Putnam, for example. For short, we refer to this ideal team as “9 young John Conways” + Eliezer Yudkowsky, but that’s not to say we know that 9 is the best number nor that they all need exactly the same characteristics of a young John Conway. We also need a math-proficient Oppenheimer to manage the team.

Most young elite mathematicians do not realize that “save the world” is a career option for them. I want to get that message out there.


ZR: Overall, what would you say is the primary limiting factor in attaining SIAI’s goals? In other words, would someone keen to help you by any means necessary do better by going into professional philanthropy and donating to you, or by training themselves in the skills you look for, assuming they could expect to be about equivalently successful in either route? (or some third option I haven’t thought of?)

LM: Funding is our main limiting factor. The possible non-existence of 9 young John Conways is another limiting factor. But if we could find the right people, it’s actually not that expensive to take a shot at saving the world once and for all with a tightly-focused team of elite mathematicians. The cost could be as low as $5 million per year, which is far less than is spent on cosmetics research every year. Unfortunately, humanity’s funding priorities are self-destructive.


Considerations for philanthropists

ZR: Givewell & Giving What We Can’s research has tended to focus on health interventions, since QALYs and similar offer simple metrics for judging how well each organisation does at achieving the underlying goal. It’s understandable given the data available, but makes it tough for people considering other types of cause. So I’ll throw the challenge over to you - treating your goal simply as reducing X-risk, can you think of any measure by which someone could evaluate how effective you guys are? - ie the effect of a dollar spent on SIAI vs FHI vs one spent on something more conventional with a similar goal? (CND or asteroid defence, for example)

LM: Alas, there is no QALY-like unit for measuring existential risk reduction! Measuring how much x-risk reduction is purchased per marginal dollar invested in the Singularity Institute vs. the Future of Humanity Institute vs. other organizations is difficult to measure. Rather than get into a long and fuzzy analysis about that, I can approach this topic from another angle. The short story is:

In the next two centuries we will have a multitude of chances to destroy ourselves with powerful new technologies. AI looks like it may be one of the first existential threats to be created. But unlike the others, doing AI right can actually prevent the other existential risks from happening. There is no more important thing humanity can do. So, prioritize support for the organizations that look like understand the problem better than everyone else and can make progress on it. Right now, the two most plausible candidates for this are the Future of Humanity Institute and the Singularity Institute.


ZR: In a recent interview, Nick Bostrom was asked who he would recommend giving to of SIAI and FHI given their similarities. His reply, slightly paraphrased (Thanks to George McGowan for transcribing (and asking!) this.):

The two organizations have a lot of overlap in terms of their missions. They are pretty synergistic - and therefore if one were about to go under you should probably donate to that one. There is also a lot of collaboration between the two organizations - in papers we write and so on. However there are notable differences. SI doesn’t have to deal with bureaucracy and try to get grants (as we do). They can also more easily hire people from non-academic backgrounds to do useful work. On the other hand - we have more influence in academia and turn out a greater number of papers. Our sights are on all x-risks, whereas SI focuses just on AI. So it’s really a question of which set of characteristics you think are the most important.

ZR: Do you agree with his answer? Is there anything you’d add to it?

LM: Yes, actually. I made roughly those same comments about the synergy between the two organizations a few months before that Q&A with Nick was posted online.

I think focusing on AI risk is most important, and Nick might actually agree. He has spent much of the last year writing a book analyzing the AI risk situation, and myself and others at the Singularity Institute have given him comments on early drafts.


Lastly, Luke has kindly agreed to field some follow-up questions. If there’s an important question I didn’t ask, or you’d like clarification on any of hi replies, post the question in the replies by Sunday 8th February. Luke won’t have time to check back on this thread, but has kindly agreed to field some follow-up questions, so I’ve agreed to be pass on the questions to him in a single email by that date.

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