Speeding up social science 10-fold, how to do research that’s actually useful, & why plenty of startups cause harm

What is the best, state-of-the-art therapy for depression? Do most meat eaters think it’s wrong to hurt animals? How likely do Americans think climate change is to cause human extinction? How do we make academics more intellectually honest, so we can actually trust their findings? How can we speed up social science research 10-fold? Do most startups improve the world, or make it worse? Why is research in top journals less reliable?

If you’re interested in these questions, this interview is for you.

A scientist, entrepreneur, writer and mathematician, Spencer Greenberg is constantly working to create tools to speed up and improve research and critical thinking. These include:

  • Rapid public opinion surveys – which he has used to learn public opinion on animal consciousness, farm animal welfare, the impact of developing world charities and the likelihood of extinction by various different means;
  • Tools to enable social science research to be run en masse very cheaply by anyone;
  • ClearerThinking.org, a highly popular site for improving people’s judgement and decision-making;
  • Ways to transform data analysis methods to ensure that papers only show true findings;
  • Ways to decide which research projects are actually worth pursuing.

In this episode of the show, Spencer discusses all of these and more. If you don’t feel like listening, that just shows that you have poor judgement and need to benefit from his wisdom even more!

Enjoy:

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Podcast: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?

What if you were in a position to give away billions of dollars to improve the world? What would you do with it? This is the problem facing Program Officers at the Open Philanthropy Project – people like Dr Nick Beckstead.

Following a PhD in philosophy, Nick works to figure out where money can do the most good. He’s been involved in major grants in a wide range of areas, including ending factory farming through technological innovation, safeguarding the world from advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and spreading rational compassion.

This episode is a tour through some of the toughest questions ‘effective altruists’ face when figuring out how to best improve the world, including:

  • Should we mostly try to help people currently alive, or future generations? Nick studied this question for years in his PhD thesis, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. (The first 31 minutes is a snappier version of my conversation with Toby Ord.)
  • Is clean meat (aka in vitro meat) technologically feasible any time soon, or should we be looking for plant-based alternatives?
  • To stop malaria is it more cost-effective to use technology to eliminate mosquitos than to distribute bed nets?
  • What are the greatest risks to human civilisation continuing?
  • Should people who want to improve the future work for changes that will be very useful in a specific scenario,

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Our computers are fundamentally insecure. Here’s why that could lead to global catastrophe.

Take a trip to Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s, when going to space sounded like a good way to get around environmental limits, people started cryogenically freezing themselves, and nanotechnology looked like it might revolutionise industry – or turn us all into grey goo.

In this episode of the 80,000 Hours Podcast Christine Peterson takes us back to her youth in the Bay Area, the ideas she encountered there, and what the dreamers she met did as they grew up. We also discuss how she came up with the term ‘open source software’ (and how she had to get someone else to propose it).

Today Christine helps runs the Foresight Institute, which fills a gap left by for-profit technology companies – predicting how new revolutionary technologies could go wrong, and ensuring we steer clear of the downsides.

We dive into:

  • Can technology ‘move fast and break things’ without eventually breaking the world? Would it be better for technology to advance more quickly, or more slowly?
  • Whether the poor security of computer systems poses a catastrophic risk for the world.
  • Could all our essential services be taken down at once? And if so, what can be done about it? Christine makes a radical proposal for solving the problem.
  • Will AIs designed for wide-scale automated hacking make computers more or less secure?
  • Would it be good to radically extend human lifespan?

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Ending factory farming as soon as possible

Every year tens of billions of animals are raised in terrible conditions in factory farms before being killed for human consumption. Despite the enormous scale of suffering this causes, the issue is largely neglected, with only about $50 million dollars spent each year tackling the problem globally.

Over the last two years Lewis Bollard – Project Officer for Farm Animal Welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project – has conducted extensive research into the best ways to eliminate animal suffering in farms as soon as possible.

This has resulted in $30 million in grants, making the Open Philanthropy Project one of the largest funders in the area.

Our conversation covers almost every approach being taken, which ones work, how individuals can best contribute through their careers, as well as:

  • How young people can set themselves up to contribute to scientific research into meat alternatives
  • How genetic manipulation of chickens has caused them to suffer much more than their ancestors, but could also be used to make them better off
  • Why Lewis is skeptical of vegan advocacy
  • Open Phil’s grants to improve animal welfare in China, India and South America
  • Why Lewis thinks insect farming would be worse than the status quo, and whether we should look for ‘humane’ insecticides
  • Why Lewis doubts that much can be done to tackle factory farming through legal advocacy or electoral politics
  • Which species of farm animals is best to focus on first
  • Whether fish and crustaceans are conscious,

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Is it time for a new scientific revolution? Julia Galef on how to make humans smarter, why Twitter isn’t all bad, and where effective altruism is going wrong

The scientific revolution in the 16th century was one of the biggest societal shifts in human history, driven by the discovery of new and better methods of figuring out who was right and who was wrong.

Julia Galef – a well-known writer and researcher focused on improving human judgment, especially about high stakes questions – believes that if we could develop new techniques to resolve disagreements, predict the future and make sound decisions together, we could again dramatically improve the world. We brought her in to talk about her ideas.

Julia has hosted the Rationally Speaking podcast since 2010, co-founded the Center for Applied Rationality in 2012, and is currently working for the Open Philanthropy Project on an investigation of expert disagreements.

This interview complements a new detailed review of whether and how to follow Julia’s career path

We ended up speaking about a wide range of topics, including:

  • Her research on how people can have productive intellectual disagreements.
  • Why she once planned on becoming an urban designer.
  • Why she doubts people are more rational than 200 years ago.
  • What the effective altruism community is doing wrong.
  • What makes her a fan of Twitter (while I think it’s dystopian).
  • Whether more people should write books.
  • Whether it’s a good idea to run a podcast, and how she grew her audience.
  • Why saying you don’t believe X often won’t convince people you don’t.

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How Alex GB earned millions for charity within years by working in quant trading

Quantitative financial trading is one of the highest paying parts of the world’s highest paying industry. 25 to 30 year olds with outstanding maths skills can earn millions a year in an obscure set of ‘quant trading’ firms, where they program computers with predefined algorithms to trade very quickly and effectively.

This makes it an attractive workplace for people who want to ‘earn to give’, and we know several people who are able to donate over a million dollars a year to effective charities by working in quant trading. Who are these people? What is the job like? And is there a risk that their trading work directly harms the world?

To learn about all this I spoke at length with Alexander Gordon-Brown, who has worked as a quant trader in London for the last three and a half years and donated hundreds of thousands of pounds. We covered:

  • What quant traders do and how much they earn;
  • Whether their work is beneficial or harmful for the world;
  • How to figure out if you’re a good fit for quant trading, and if so how to break into the industry;
  • Whether Alex enjoys the work and finds it motivating, as well as what alternatives careers he considered;
  • What variety of positions are on offer in quant trading, and what the culture is like in the various firms;
  • How he decides where to donate, and whether he has persuaded his colleagues to join him in becoming major philanthropists.

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Podcast: We aren’t that worried about the next pandemic. Here’s why we should be – and specifically what we can do to stop it.

What natural disaster is most likely to kill more than 10 million human beings in the next 20 years?

Terrorism? Famine? An asteroid?

Actually it’s probably a pandemic: a deadly new disease that spreads out of control. We’ve recently seen the risks with Ebola and swine flu, but they pale in comparison to the Spanish flu which killed 3% of the world’s population in 1918 to 1920. If a pandemic of that scale happened again today, 200 million would die.

Looking back further, the Black Death killed 30 to 60% of Europe’s population, which would today be two to four billion globally.

The world is woefully unprepared to deal with new diseases. Many countries have weak or non-existent health services. Diseases can spread worldwide in days due to air travel. And international efforts to limit the spread of new diseases are slow, if they happen at all.

Even more worryingly, scientific advances are making it easier to create diseases much worse than anything nature could throw at us – whether by accident or deliberately.

In this in-depth interview I speak to Howie Lempel, who spent years studying pandemic preparedness for the Open Philanthropy Project. We spend the first 20 minutes covering his work as a foundation grant-maker, then discuss how bad the pandemic problem is, why it’s probably getting worse, and what can be done about it. In the second half of the interview we go through what you personally could study and where you could work to tackle one of the worst threats facing humanity.

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Podcast: How to train for a job developing AI at OpenAI or DeepMind

Just two years ago OpenAI didn’t exist. It’s now among the most elite groups of machine learning researchers. They’re trying to make an AI that’s smarter than humans and have $1b at their disposal.

Even stranger for a Silicon Valley start-up, it’s not a business, but rather a non-profit founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman among others, to ensure the benefits of AI are distributed broadly to all of society.

I did a long interview with one of its first machine learning researchers, Dr Dario Amodei, to learn about:

  • OpenAI’s latest plans and research progress.
  • His paper Concrete Problems in AI Safety, which outlines five specific ways machine learning algorithms can act in dangerous ways their designers don’t intend – something OpenAI has to work to avoid.
  • How listeners can best go about pursuing a career in machine learning and AI development themselves.

We suggest subscribing, so you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and get notified about future episodes. You can subscribe by searching ‘80,000 Hours’ wherever you get your podcasts (RSS, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher).

The audio, summary, extra resources and full transcript are below.

Overview of the discussion

1m33s – What OpenAI is doing, Dario’s research and why AI is so important
15m50s –

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Which professions are paid too much given their value to society?

Many jobs have spillover effects on the rest of society. For instance, the value of new treatments discovered by biomedical researchers is far greater than what they or their employers get paid, so they have positive spillovers. Other jobs have negative spillovers, such as those that generate pollution.

A forthcoming paper, by economists at UPenn and Yale, reports a survey of the economic literature on these spillover benefits for the 11 highest-earning professions.

There’s very little literature, so all these estimates are very, very uncertain, and should be not be taken literally. But it’s interesting reading – it represents a survey of what economists think they know about this topic, and it’s surprisingly little.

Here are the bottom lines – see more detail on the estimates below. (Note that we already discussed an older version of this paper, but the estimates have been updated since then.)

We calculated mean income for 2005 in an earlier article. We increased income by 30% to account for nominal wage growth since then.

The paper uses the expressions spillover and ‘externality’. An ‘externality’ is a technical term for a ‘cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.’ The authors of the paper call it an ‘externality’ when someone who buys a service does (or does not) benefit after taking account of the cost of purchasing it. This is a nonstandard usage,

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Podcast: The world desperately needs AI strategists. Here’s how to become one.

If a smarter-than-human AI system were developed, who would decide when it was safe to deploy? How can we discourage organisations from deploying such a technology prematurely to avoid being beaten to the post by a competitor? Should we expect the world’s top militaries to try to use AI systems for strategic advantage – and if so, do we need an international treaty to prevent an arms race?

Questions like this are the domain of AI policy experts.

We recently launched a detailed guide to pursuing careers in AI policy and strategy, put together by Miles Brundage at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

It complements our article outlining the importance of positively shaping artificial intelligence and a podcast with Dr Dario Amodei of OpenAI on more technical artificial intelligence safety work which builds on this one. If you are considering a career in artificial intelligence safety, they’re all essential reading.

I interviewed Miles to ask remaining questions I had after he finished his career guide. We discuss the main career paths; what to study; where to apply; how to get started; what topics are most in need of research; and what progress has been made in the field so far.

The audio, summary and full transcript are below.

We suggest subscribing, so you can listen at leisure on your phone,

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How much do hedge fund traders earn?

Hedge fund trading may be the highest paying job in the world, so to learn more, we spoke with a former manager at one of the world’s leading hedge funds. They gave us the following information, which allowed us to make a rough estimate of the typical earnings of hedge fund traders.

We also ran this document past several other people in the industry and asked them to point out mistakes.

We found that junior traders typically earn $300k – $3m per year, and it’s possible to reach these roles in 4 – 8 years. Senior portfolio managers can easily earn over $10m per year, though average earnings are probably lower. Read on for the details.

How do hedge funds make money and how is it shared among the employees?

Hedge funds trade in financial markets on behalf of clients in exchange for annual fees, and a cut of the profits. They’re similar to mutual funds but face fewer restrictions on what they can invest in, and can only be used by accredited investors.

The revenue of a hedge fund comes from the fees on the assets it manages. The typical fund charges a fee of 2% of assets under management per year, plus a performance fee. The performance fee is typically 20% of any returns it makes for the clients over and above the 2% base fee. So, if a fund makes 10% returns in a year,

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The rent is too damn high – should you work on reforming land use regulations?

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on reform of how land is used in cities.

Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, which drives up prices, especially in a few large high-wage urban areas. The increased prices transfer wealth from renters to landowners and push people away from centres of economic activity, which reduces their ability to get a job or earn higher wages, likely by a very large amount.

An opportunity to tackle the problem which nobody has yet taken is to start a non-profit or lobbying body to advocate for more housing construction in key urban areas and states. Another option would be to try to shift zoning decisions from local to state governments, where they are less likely to be determined by narrow local interests, especially existing land-owners who benefit from higher property prices.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that working on land use reform is among the best uses of your time.
  • How to use your career to make housing in prospering cities more accessible to ordinary people.

Read our full profile on land use reform.

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New career review: web designer

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What is the best career for someone whose main strengths are in visual design?

To start figuring that out we’ve released a new career review on web design.

Here’s a quick summary:

Pros

  • Web designers can work on a broad range of high impact projects because they are in-demand across many types of organisations, including charities, governments and startups.
  • As a backup, web designers can enter paths with good pay, like UX design ($80,000 median salary), and earn to give.

Cons

  • Good design is hard to measure, which makes it hard to prove your abilities to potential employers, meaning entry and progression can be difficult.

Who should do it?

  • You should consider web design if you studied graphic design or a related field; you’ve already spent several years developing web-design skills; and you are persuasive enable you to get a foot in the door when you’re starting out.
  • However if you have the technical skills to do web development, we recommend you do that instead, since it wins over web design on most dimensions (salary, number of jobs, job growth rate, quality of work is easier to measure).

Read the full review.

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What the literature says about the earnings of entrepreneurs

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It depends what kind of business you’re running.

This piece is part of our series on high impact entrepreneurship. Sign up to our newsletter and we’ll email you with the rest of the series.

Summary

  • Until recently, academics lumped ‘entrepreneurs’ together with all the ‘self-employed’. A new paper, however, split the self-employed into those who owned incorporated businesses and those who don’t. (Though note that the incorporated self-employed are still very different from startup founders.)
  • Self-employed people who own incorporated businesses earn about 50% more than people with regular jobs.
  • Most of this is due to them being more educated and working harder. However, even if you correct for these factors, it seems like shifting into owning an incorporated business boosts income by about 18%.
  • The unincorporated self-employed (mostly running things like hairdressers, restaurants, corner shops etc.) earn less than salaried workers on average.
  • Once you try to compare like-for-like workers, you find that when people switch into unincorporated self-employment, 50% earn less than they would as a salaried worker (but gain more freedom), and 30% earn more. The overall average is about the same.

Introduction

It’s widely believed that entrepreneurs earn more than salaried workers. However, until recently the research did not seem to back this up. In fact, the findings of several studies in 1989 presented a puzzle: entrepreneurs appeared to earn less than their salaried counterparts.

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Use our tool to decide whether you’re on the right career path

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You know how you should review your career at least once a year to make sure that you’re on the right path and set goals for the coming year?

You did that already, right?

Oh, no?

Well, in that case we’ve created a tool to make it quick and easy. Just answer the questions, and we’ll email you your answers when you’re done. There are only six key questions:

Do your annual career review

 
Once you’re done and have decided what steps to take, you can relax about your career trajectory for another 12 months!

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Is nursing or headhunting the best career for you?

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Read our full review of nursing.
Read our full review of executive search.

 
One of the most frequent criticisms of our career recommender is that it usually recommends highly competitive options that are beyond the reach of most people. Furthermore, it disproportionately recommends careers for people with strong mathematical skills.

To begin to address this we have written two shallow career reviews of options that are both less competitive and less quantitative – nursing and executive search (also known as headhunting). Both are primarily ‘earning to give‘ careers.

Try our career recommender to get personalised career ideas.

Join our newsletter for regular updates about all our new career reviews.

What were the bottom lines?

Nursing:

  • is quite well paid in some countries, with a low risk of unemployment
  • provides a launching pad for a career in medical management
  • is satisfying work for most nurses, with flexibility around hours, though nurse ‘burn out’ at unusually high rates
  • offers the opportunity to study advanced nursing degrees which are even better paid.

On the other hand,

  • we expect more nurses in the developed world will improve health outcomes only a small amount
  • we are cautious about recommending a nursing degree to high-school leavers because it won’t be much use to them if they decide not to become nurses –

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How important is finding a career that matches your strengths?

One of the most common ideas in career advice is that finding a good career is a matter of finding the role that uniquely matches who you are. You’ll be fantastic at the career that best matches you, and terrible at other careers, so the mission should be to find the career that’s the best match.

We haven’t found much support for this idea so far. The most in-depth attempt to study “match” is Holland-types, but several meta-analyses have found no or only a very weak relationship between Holland-type match and performance (or job satisfaction). On the other hand, we’ve encountered some important general predictors of success. For instance, hundreds of studies have found that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to succeed in almost every career. With a general predictor like intelligence, more is always better – it’s not that it means you’ll do well in some jobs but worse in others depending on your “match”.

However, a new line of research into “strengths” might shift the picture. There have been two attempts – the Virtues in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths test and Strengths Finder – to determine people’s character strengths, and study the importance of leading a career in line with them.

We did a review of the literature to see whether we should incorporate them into our advice, which we summarise 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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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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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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