We can learn a lot from Tara, who left pharmacy to work in effective altruism

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Tara saved lives working as a pharmacist in Bhutan – no really we checked, and she totally did – but she nevertheless left to try to find something better.

This is part of our series of profiles of people who changed their career in a major way in order to have more impact because of their exposure to 80,000 Hours.

Today Tara Mac Aulay is the head of operations in the Centre for Effective Altruism. But just two years ago she was working as a pharmacist. How and why did she make this transition? Her career path is sufficiently fascinating it’s worth telling the story form the start.

Tara was extremely conscientious and hard-working from a very young age. As a result she was able to finish high school and start studying at university at the young age of 16, rather than the usual 18 or 19. She managed to do this while at the same time i) redesigning the staff and inventory management for an Australian restaurant chain, then, because this saved them so much money, being promoted to a more senior role to ii) travel around the country to make major changes to failing stores to save them from closure. As a teenager! Needless to say, this entrepreneurialism and ambition allowed her to develop a wide range of professional skills at a young age.

At the age of 15 she applied to study pharmacy,

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Plan change story: interview with Dillon Bowen, founder of Effective Altruism group at Tufts University

I recently interviewed Dillon Bowen, who runs the EA student group at Tufts University, about how his career plans changed as a result of interacting with 80,000 Hours. Dillon’s original plan was to do a Philosophy PhD and then go into philosophy academia. After going to a talk at Tufts by our co-founder Will MacAskill and receiving career coaching from 80,000 Hours, he started taking classes in economics, now intends to do an Economics PhD instead.

More details of the key points from the interview are below.

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The value of coordination

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This post is intended for people who are already familiar with our key content. If you’re new, read the basics first.

In assessing your positive impact on the world, you need to look at the additional good you do after taking into account what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. But how can you evaluate this?

One way is the “single player approach” – consider what would happen if you act and what would happen if you don’t act, holding everyone else constant, and then look at the difference between the two scenarios.

This approach worked pretty well in the early days of effective altruism, but it starts to break down once you’re part of a community of thousands of people who will change their behaviour depending on what you do.

When you’re part of a community, the counterfactuals become more complex, and doing the most good becomes much more of a coordination problem – it’s a multiplayer rather than a single player game.

In this post, I’ll list five situations where this insight can help us to become even more effective, and I’ll suggest new rules of thumb that I think might be the best guide in a multiplayer world. This is a complex topic, so the answers I give are still tentative. I’m keen to see many more people in the community start thinking about these issues,

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10 steps to a job in politics

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I recently interviewed 4 people who work in government, the civil service, and political parties in the UK. Here is a synthesis of the steps they consider most useful for starting a career in politics.

Net-work to get-work. Go to as many political and think tank events as you can. Talk to people. Ask advice. Make friends.

Copy your heroes. Read biographies of people whose careers/impact you’d like to emulate. Copy what they did.

Be there. Physically spend time in the places you’d like to end up. That means visiting Parliament (you can sit and watch the Commons and Lords, and attend select committees). Have a drink at the Red Lion pub, where MPs and researchers hang out. Attend the annual Party Conference of your Party.

Enter the meme-space of the political class. Listen to the Radio 4 Today Programme every morning. (Have a break at weekends). How would you answer the interviewer’s questions? What questions would you ask? Watch Newsnight in the evening.

Apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream. It’s an amazing, underrated and potentially high-impact career. The assessment process in itself is good practice, and you’ll meet some cool people if you get through to the assessment center. If you don’t get in first time, keep trying.

Organise a meeting with your local MP. Ask them for career advice.

Hit the streets. Deliver leaflets and canvass for your local Party – they always welcome new volunteers.

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Just how bad is being a CEO in big tobacco?

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In 1994 the CEOs of the largest tobacco companies all testified before congress that they thought nicotine was not addictive and were widely mocked. How much were they paid relative to the damage they were doing?

Last year I wrote about the most harmful careers and had encouraging smoking at the top. But how bad is it exactly?

Two researchers recently put together some data that can help us estimate this and the numbers are pretty remarkable.

They compared the number of deaths caused by a cigarette company with the amount the CEO was paid. For this they used market share in the cigarette industry as a proxy for harm, and the WHO’s old estimate that 5.6 million people die due to cigarettes each year – now up to 6 million.

Doing some calculations, it looks to me like across the companies they could track, which collectively make up 45% of the global market, CEOs are paid $23 for each premature death resulting from the existence of their firms.

Note that there are other moral and practical reasons not to take jobs that do harm, but here we will focus just on the direct damage caused.

The authors draw a comparison to the life-saving treatments available if these CEOs wanted to make up for their harmful work by donating to charity:

If it is assumed that all of the CEOs analyzed are attempting to maximize their income in order to give to charities to save lives [25],

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Is now the time to do something about AI?

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The Open Philanthropy Project recently released a review of research on when human level artificial intelligence will be achieved. The main conclusion of the report was we’re really uncertain. But the author (Luke Muehlhauser, an expert in the area) also gave his 70% confidence interval: 10-120 years.

That’s a lot of uncertainty.

And that’s really worrying. This confidence interval suggests the author puts significant probability on human-level artificial intelligence (HLAI) occurring within 20 years. A survey of the top 100 most cited AI scientists also gave a 10% chance that HLAI is created within ten years (this was the median estimate; the mean was a 10% probability in the next 20 years).

This is like being told there’s a 10% chance aliens will arrive on the earth within the next 20 years.

Making sure this transition goes well could be the most important priority for the human race in the next century. (To read more, see Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, and this popular introduction by Wait But Why).

We issued a note about AI risk just over a year ago when Bostrom’s book was released. Since then, the field has heated up dramatically.

In January 2014, Google bought Deepmind for $400m. This triggered a wave of investment into companies focused on building human-level AI. A new AI company seems to arrive every week.

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Where should you donate to have the most impact during giving season 2015?

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Many of our readers choose to give away substantial sums over the ‘giving season’ around Christmas and New Year. Where should they give so that their money has the biggest social impact?

This post is based on a combination of my existing knowledge, some judgement calls based on three years working in effective altruism, and brief consultation with the people involved in the groups below. It’s not based on in-depth research, and the recommendations could easily change. Take this post as a starting point for your own analysis.

Note that we’re looking for the charities that help others the most, treating everyone’s welfare as equal. If you have a particular attachment to a specific cause, you’ll need to factor that in separately.

This flowchart is a summary of the advice below. Read on for more details.

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Podcast with Ben West, who expects to donate tens of millions for charity through tech entrepreneurship

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I recently interviewed Ben West (second to left), the founder of Health eFilings. After reading 80,000 Hours’ website, Ben entered tech entrepreneurship – from software engineering – in order to ‘earn to give’. Amazingly, Ben pledged to donate any money he made above the minimum wage. His company helps American physicians file paperwork with the US government, and collect ‘performance based pay’, much more easily. Several other 80,000 Hours alumni have ended up working in his company. You can read a summary of the key points from the interview below.

Summary of the interview

  • Ben West was influenced by Peter Singer’s work when he was young to start donating his income. Four years ago he was a software engineer donating to New Harvest, a meat substitute organisation.
  • He spent almost a decade at a large healthcare IT company, which helped to prepare him for what he’s doing now. He doesn’t think he could have successfully started this company without having experience in the health IT sector first.
  • He learned about 80,000 Hours through a link on the blog Overcoming Bias. Reading our work on entrepreneurship made him willing to consider starting his own business despite the fact that he’s risk averse by nature. He then spoke with some other well-informed people, including Carl Shulman (who volunteered for 80,000 Hours in the early days), who gave him more information about what the path involved.

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Even if we can’t lower catastrophic risks now, we should do something now so we can do more later

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Does that fit with your schedule Mr President?

A line of argument I frequently encounter is that it is too early to do anything about ‘global catastrophic risks’ today (these are also sometimes called ‘existential risks’).

For context, see our page on assessing the biggest problems in the world, evaluation of opportunities to lower catastrophic risks and our review of becoming an AI safety researcher.

This line of argument doesn’t apply so much to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, or containing disease pandemics – the potential to act on these today is about at the same level as it will be in the future.

But what about new technologies that don’t exist yet: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, atomically precise manufacturing, and others we haven’t thought about yet? There’s a case that we should wait until they are closer to actually being developed – at that point we will have a much better idea of:

  • what form those technologies will take, if any at all;
  • what can be done to make them less risky;
  • who we need to talk to to make that happen.

Superficially this argument seems very reasonable. Each hour of work probably does get more valuable the closer you are to a ‘critical juncture in history’.

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What’s the easiest way anyone can have a big social impact?

Many people want a career that contributes to the world, that helps others live happier lives. To do this, some become teachers, some work in the nonprofit sector, and others work in many other sectors. Sometimes this involves significant personal sacrifice – at the very least, “socially good” jobs usually have lower earnings.

Let’s suppose you want to minimise sacrifice and maximise social impact. What should you choose then? What would be good is a career option that’s:

  1. Open to most of our audience (college grads in developed countries).
  2. Involves little or no sacrifice.
  3. Has as large a social impact as possible, with high confidence.

I think a path like this exists, as I’ll argue in the rest of this post. I call it the easy baseline:

  1. Take whichever job you’d find most personally fulfilling.
  2. Give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people.

As of 2008, you can give your income to the world’s poorest people through GiveDirectly, a charity that provides one-off cash transfers to the poorest people in Kenya via mobile app. Every $1 you give results in $0.90 in the hands of one of the world’s poorest people. This intervention could soak up billions of dollars in the coming years, so could be pursued by many people.

If you want to have a social impact with your career, giving 10% is the easiest thing you can do, and I think almost everyone reading this should do it. You can take a public pledge to do so in just a few minutes.

Below I’ll explain in more detail why doing so is such an attractive option.

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Plan change story: from neuroscience academia to cost-effectiveness research

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Hauke did a PhD in Neuroscience and was planning to go into academia. But after reading our research, he changed his plans and applied to jobs in German politics, consulting, tech-startups and our parent organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism. He’s now Director of Research at Giving What We Can, where he researches which charities most effectively alleviate extreme poverty.

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Help finish off our winter fundraising round

Our winter fundraising round is in progress.

We’ve already raised £172,000, and are looking to raise £48,000 more.

If we make this target, then we’ll be able to cover:

  • All our costs for 2016 (mostly salaries for 4.3 full-time staff).
  • Plus hire a full-time coach.
  • And then have 12 months’ reserves remaining to start of our next fundraising round.

In the last year, we grew our newsletter five-fold to over 23,000, and increased web traffic three-fold to 60,000 unique visits per month. We accomplished this with only a small increase in costs.

During 2016, we’ll focus on converting more of this interest into plan changes by improving the online guide, such as by adding a series of intro videos and more career reviews. Our target is to increase the rate of significant plan changes five-fold.

If you’ve benefitted from our advice and would like to help us expand, please make a donation.

If you have any questions, just drop me an email at ben@80000hours.org.

You can find much more detail about our plans and progress in the evaluations section of our site, as well as fortnightly updates here.

Donate here

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Lehua closed down her fundraising startup after reading our blog: plan change story

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Learning about ‘counterfactual analysis’ threw some puts on sunglasses cold water on Lehua’s startup idea.

Lehua Gray’s story is an interesting ‘significant plan change’ because she increased her social impact simply by realising what she was doing was not accomplishing anything when the true counterfactual was taken into account.

Lehua is an entrepreneur in Texas who studied environmental sciences but afterwards taught herself coding. In late 2014, along with two co-founders she had just met at the eBay Hackathon, she founded a company that offered charities an innovative fundraising platform and took a cut of the money raised. Her role in the startup was a combination of coding, UX and sales.

The team’s hope was to make the viral nature of the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ replicable. In their platform, someone would donate money to a charity, but it would only actually be delivered if, say, 3 friends who they nominated matched their donation. They might also be offered the option to do a public challenge on social media that would spread the fundraiser instead of donating the full amount, as in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

Over a period of 9 months they had built this platform and were improving it while some charities tested it out.

However, in the first half of 2015 Lehua started following me on Facebook and so started regularly encountering and reading new 80,000 Hours’ blog posts about how to have more social impact.

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How to pursue a career in research to lower the risks from superintelligent machines: a new career review.

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This is a summary of our full career review on artificial intelligence risk research.

Have you read the profile and think you want to contribute to artificial intelligence risk research? Fill out this form and we’ll see if we can help.

Many people we coach are interested in doing research into artificial intelligence (AI), in particular how to lower the risk that superintelligent machines do harmful things not intended by their creators – a field usually referred to as ‘AI risk research’. The reasons people believe this is a particularly pressing area of research are outlined in sources such as:

Our goal with this career review was not to assess the cause area of AI risk research – on that we defer to the authors above. Rather we wanted to present some concrete guidance for the growing number of people who want to work on the problem.

We spoke to the leaders in the field, including top academics, the head of MIRI and managers in AI companies, and the key findings are:

  • Some organisations working on this problem,

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Working at effective altruist organisations: good or bad for career capital?

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Working in effective altruism directly is a good way to build career capital in some respects, and a bad way in others. How about on balance?

Many people in our community are interested in working at “effective altruist” (EA) organisations, which I define as organisations whose leaders aim to do the most good on the basis of evidence and reason, and explicity identify as part of the effective altruism movement (see a list).

These jobs are often seen as higher-impact and more fulfilling than alternatives, but there’s a common worry: they’ll provide worse career capital, putting you in a worse position in the long-term.

I argued here that career capital might not be a strong enough consideration to outweigh the additional impact.

In this post, I’ll explore whether the career capital you get from working at EA orgs really is worse than the alternatives. I’ll outline arguments give for and against, arguing the career capital is better than is often assumed.

Arguments against working in effective altruist organisations for career capital
Less prestige

The jobs are less prestigious – few people have heard of organisations like GiveWell or the Center for Effective Altruism – and so these jobs don’t provide as impressive general-purpose credentials as working at a brand name employer like Google or McKinsey.

Less concrete career progression

The jobs don’t come with an obvious career path.

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Why you should focus more on talent gaps, not funding gaps

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Many members of the effective altruism community see making a difference primarily in terms of moving money to fill funding gaps rather than moving talent to fill talent gaps. This seems to me to be one of the community’s more serious mistakes, which causes us to:

  • Put too much weight on earning to give and fundraising.
  • Put too little weight on gaining expertise and developing the skills needed for direct work.
  • Overlook pressing causes that aren’t funding constrained.

In the rest of the post, I’ll:

  1. Outline what I mean by talent gaps.
  2. Suggest why the community might be biased towards focusing on funding gaps.
  3. Argue there are whole cause areas we’ve completely overlooked due to this focus.
  4. Argue that many of the causes the community does support are also more talent constrained than funding constrained.
  5. Argue that the importance of talent constraints compared to funding constraints is likely to increase over the next 2-5 years.
  6. Argue further that this imbalance is likely to persist in the long-term.
  7. Consider some of the arguments against focusing on talent gaps.
  8. Give ideas for what the community should do differently in order to focus more on talent gaps. In particular, I’ll outline who should earn to give and who shouldn’t, and list the greatest talent needs within the community.

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One of the most exciting new effective altruist organisations: An interview with David Goldberg of the Founders Pledge

It’s my pleasure to introduce David Goldberg to those who in the effective altruism community who don’t yet know him. He’s behind the Founders Pledge, which in just 8 months has raised $64 million in legally binding pledges of equity, is growing fast, and has got some very exciting (but currently confidential) plans in the works. I met him when I was representing 80,000 Hours at the Founders Forum conference earlier this year and introduced him in more depth to the idea of effective altruism, which he’s now built into the core of the Founders Pledge’s mission.

Tell us about your background

I did my undergraduate work at UCLA in Political Science and Public Policy and then continued with postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge focusing on International Relations. My plan was to get a PhD and then stay in academics and shape International Security policy. However a year in, I realised that the practical impact of my work would be marginal at best, so I finished with a Master’s degree and began to look for opportunities that would actually have a discernible effect on the world. I got involved with Founders Forum For Good — the precursor to what I do now with the Founders Pledge — where I focused on helping social entrepreneurs build and scale businesses. Before all that, I spent a couple years in finance in the US, started and sold a business in Europe, and ran a chain of Segway dealerships in California.

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Take the growth approach to evaluating startup non-profits, not the marginal approach

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In its first 2 years, Google made no revenue. Did this indicate it was a bad idea to invest or work there?

We spent the summer in Y Combinator, and one of the main things we learned about is how Y Combinator identifies the best startups. What we learned made me worry that many in the effective altruism community are taking the wrong approach to evaluating startup non-profits.

In summary, I’ll argue:

  1. There’s two broad approaches to assessing projects – the marginal cost-effectiveness approach and the growth approach.
  2. The community today often wrongly applies the marginal approach to fast growing startups.
  3. This means we’re supporting the wrong projects and not investing enough in growth.

At the end I’ll give some guidelines on how to use the growth approach to evaluate non-profits.

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Stop assuming ‘declining returns’ in small charities

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Amazon is one of the world’s largest companies and is still achieving lower marginal costs as it gets larger. Organisations with just a few people will frequently do much better as they get larger.

We often hear people in our community state, as if obvious, that becoming the 5th employee of an organisation creates less impact than becoming the 4th employee. Similarly, later donations are thought to create less impact than earlier donations. This sentiment was widespread in recent discussion about whether to donate to Giving What We Can, discussions on the EA forum about where to donate, and in discussions I’ve had with people about where to work.

The reason stated is “diminishing marginal returns”. The first staff members take the best opportunities, so the extra opportunities available at the margin are worse, so each extra staff member has less impact.

The problem is, assuming diminishing returns to small organisations contradicts basic economic theory.

According to economics, as an organisation scales up, there’s two opposing forces:

  1. Economies of scale.
  2. Diminishing returns.

Economies of scale are a force for increasing returns, and they win out while still at a small scale, so the impact of the 5th staff member can easily be greater than the 4th.

Economies of scale are caused by:

  1. Gains from specialisation. In a one person organisation,

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