#107 – Chris Olah on what the hell is going on inside neural networks

Imagine if some alien organism landed on Earth and could do these things.

Everybody would be falling over themselves to figure out how… And so really the thing that is calling out in all this work for us to go and answer is, “What in the wide world is going on inside these systems??”

Chris Olah

Big machine learning models can identify plant species better than any human, write passable essays, beat you at a game of Starcraft 2, figure out how a photo of Tobey Maguire and the word ‘spider’ are related, solve the 60-year-old ‘protein folding problem’, diagnose some diseases, play romantic matchmaker, write solid computer code, and offer questionable legal advice.

Humanity made these amazing and ever-improving tools. So how do our creations work? In short: we don’t know.

Today’s guest, Chris Olah, finds this both absurd and unacceptable. Over the last ten years he has been a leader in the effort to unravel what’s really going on inside these black boxes. As part of that effort he helped create the famous DeepDream visualisations at Google Brain, reverse engineered the CLIP image classifier at OpenAI, and is now continuing his work at Anthropic, a new $100 million research company that tries to “co-develop the latest safety techniques alongside scaling of large ML models”.

Despite having a huge fan base thanks to his tweets and lay explanations of ML, today’s episode is the first long interview Chris has ever given. It features his personal take on what we’ve learned so far about what ML algorithms are doing, and what’s next for this research agenda at Anthropic.

His decade of work has borne substantial fruit, producing an approach for looking inside the mess of connections in a neural network and back out what functional role each piece is serving. Among other things, Chris and team found that every visual classifier seems to converge on a number of simple common elements in their early layers — elements so fundamental they may exist in our own visual cortex in some form.

They also found networks developing ‘multimodal neurones’ that would trigger in response to the presence of high-level concepts like ‘romance’, across both images and text, mimicking the famous ‘Halle Berry neuron’ from human neuroscience.

While reverse engineering how a mind works would make any top-ten list of the most valuable knowledge to pursue for its own sake, Chris’s work is also of urgent practical importance. Machine learning models are already being deployed in medicine, business, the military, and the justice system, in ever more powerful roles. The competitive pressure to put them into action as soon as they can turn a profit is great, and only getting greater.

But if we don’t know what these machines are doing, we can’t be confident they’ll continue to work the way we want as circumstances change. Before we hand an algorithm the proverbial nuclear codes, we should demand more assurance than “well, it’s always worked fine so far”.

But by peering inside neural networks and figuring out how to ‘read their minds’ we can potentially foresee future failures and prevent them before they happen. Artificial neural networks may even be a better way to study how our own minds work, given that, unlike a human brain, we can see everything that’s happening inside them — and having been posed similar challenges, there’s every reason to think evolution and ‘gradient descent’ often converge on similar solutions.

Among other things, Rob and Chris cover:

  • Why Chris thinks it’s necessary to work with the largest models
  • Whether you can generalise from visual to language models
  • What fundamental lessons we’ve learned about how neural networks (and perhaps humans) think
  • What it means that neural networks are learning high-level concepts like ‘superheroes’, mental health, and Australiana, and can identify these themes across both text and images
  • How interpretability research might help make AI safer to deploy, and Chris’ response to skeptics
  • Why there’s such a fuss about ‘scaling laws’ and what they say about future AI progress
  • What roles Anthropic is hiring for, and who would be a good fit for them

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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Is effective altruism growing? An update on the stock of funding vs. people.

In 2015, I argued that funding for effective altruism – especially within meta or longtermist areas – had grown faster than the number of people interested in it, and that this was likely to continue. This meant that there was a funding overhang, leading to a series of skill bottlenecks.

A couple of years ago, I wondered if this trend was starting to reverse. There hadn’t been any new donors on the scale of Good Ventures, which meant that total committed funds were growing slowly, giving the number of people a chance to catch up.

However, the spectacular asset returns of the last few years, and creation of FTX, seem to have shifted the balance back towards funding. Now the funding overhang seems even larger in absolute terms than 2015.

In the rest of this post, I make some rough guesses at total committed funds compared to the number of interested people, to see how the balance of funding vs. talent might have changed over time.

This will also give us an update on whether effective altruism is growing – with a focus on what I think are the two most important metrics: the stock of total committed funds, and committed people.

This analysis also made me make a small update in favour of giving now vs. investing to give later.

Here’s a summary of what’s coming up:

  • How much funding is committed to effective altruism (going forward)?

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    #106 – Cal Newport on an industrial revolution for office work

    It’s not someone acting in bad faith, where if they would just stop being such a jerk, I’d get less emails. This is the only way we have to do collaboration in our organizations. A lot of emails have to get sent. I have to answer them. And so the only solution is to say, “Forget the individuals. We have to change the workflow.”

    Cal Newport

    If you wanted to start a university department from scratch, and attract as many superstar researchers as possible, what’s the most attractive perk you could offer?

    How about just not needing an email address?

    According to today’s guest, Cal Newport — computer science professor and best-selling author of A World Without Email — it should seem obscene and absurd for a world-renowned vaccine researcher with decades of experience to spend a third of their time fielding requests from HR, building management, finance, and on and on. Yet with offices organised the way they are today, nothing could feel more natural.

    But this isn’t just a problem at the elite level — it affects almost all of us. A typical U.S. office worker checks their email 80 times a day, or once every six minutes. Data analysis by RescueTime found that a third of users checked email or Slack every three minutes or more, averaged over a full work day.

    Each time that happens our focus is broken, killing our momentum on the knowledge work we’re supposedly paid to do.

    When we lament how much email and chat have reduced our focus, increased our anxiety and made our days a buzz of frenetic activity, we most naturally blame ‘weakness of will’. If only we had the discipline to check Slack and email once a day, all would be well — or so the story goes.

    Cal believes that line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how we got to a place where knowledge workers can rarely find more than five consecutive minutes to spend doing just one thing.

    Since the Industrial Revolution, a combination of technology and better organization have allowed the manufacturing industry to produce a hundred-fold as much with the same number of people.

    Cal says that by comparison, it’s not clear that specialised knowledge workers like scientists, authors, or senior managers are any more productive than they were 50 years ago. If the knowledge sector could achieve even a tiny fraction of what manufacturing has, and find a way to coordinate its work that raised productivity by just 1%, that would generate on the order of $100 billion globally each year.

    On Cal’s account, those opportunities are staring us in the face. Modern factories operated by top firms are structured with painstaking care and two centuries of accumulated experience to ensure staff can get the greatest amount possible done.

    By contrast, most knowledge work today operates with no deliberate structure at all. Instead of carefully constructed processes to get the most out of each person, we just hand out tasks and leave people to organise themselves organically in whatever way feels easiest to them.

    Since the 1990s, when everyone got an email address and most lost their assistants, that lack of direction has led to what Cal calls the ‘hyperactive hive mind’: everyone sends emails and chats to everyone else, all throughout the day, whenever they need anything.

    Rather than strategic thinkers, managers work as human switchboards, answering and forwarding dozens of emails on any and every topic to keep the system from seizing up.

    Finding a time for four people to meet might mean an eight-email thread. Annoying enough! But each of those four has to keep checking in to make sure the thread is progressing, and answer any new questions that come up. So in aggregate those four might interrupt their train of thought and check their email 20, 30 or even 40 times in the process of coordinating a single meeting.

    Cal points out that this is so normal we don’t even think of it as a way of organising work, but it is: it’s what happens when management does nothing to enable teams to decide on a better way of coordinating themselves. And if any individual tries to opt out and focus on one thing for an entire day, they’re throwing a wrench in the ‘hyperactive hive mind’, which explains why calls for individual discipline have done so little to fix the problem.

    A few industries have made progress taming the ‘hyperactive hive mind’. Cal points to tech support ticketing systems, which throttle correspondence and keep engineers focused on one problem at a time until they can’t get any further, at which point that problem is parked and they’re given a single new problem to work on next.

    He also points to ‘extreme programming’, a system in which two software engineers sit side-by-side in front of one computer and together write code to solve a specific problem for their entire work day. As they work, those software engineers have no email account and no phone number. All incoming and outgoing communication with the rest of the world is run through a dedicated liaison officer so they can maintain 100% focus. Usually after six hours of real actual work they need to go home and rest.

    But on Cal’s telling, in this interview and in A World Without Email, this barely scratches the surface of the improvements that are possible within knowledge work. And reigning in the hyperactive hive mind won’t just help people do higher quality work, it will free them from the 24/7 anxiety that there’s someone somewhere they haven’t gotten back to.

    In this interview Cal and Rob cover that, as well as:

    • Is the hyperactive hive-mind really one of the world’s most pressing problems?
    • The historical origins of the ‘hyperactive hive-mind’
    • The harm caused by attention switching
    • Who’s working to solve the problem and how
    • Why it took more than a century to come up with the ‘assembly line’ method for factory organisation
    • Cal’s top productivity advice for high school students, university students, and early-career employees
    • And much more

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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    #105 – Alexander Berger on improving global health and wellbeing in clear and direct ways

    …when I think about trying to move an amorphous, vague, hard-to-quantify measure like ‘societal judgment’ — versus just making people healthier and wealthier — I’m like wow, I’m so much more excited about making people healthier and wealthier, because we know how to do that…

    Alexander Berger

    The effective altruist research community tries to identify the highest impact things people can do to improve the world. Unsurprisingly, given the difficulty of such a massive and open-ended project, very different schools of thought have arisen about how to do the most good.

    Today’s guest, Alexander Berger, leads Open Philanthropy’s ‘Global Health and Wellbeing’ programme, where he oversees around $175 million in grants each year, and ultimately aspires to disburse billions in the most impactful ways he and his team can identify.

    This programme is the flagship effort representing one major effective altruist approach: try to improve the health and wellbeing of humans and animals that are alive today, in clearly identifiable ways, applying an especially analytical and empirical mindset.

    The programme makes grants to tackle easily-prevented illnesses among the world’s poorest people, offer cash to people living in extreme poverty, prevent cruelty to billions of farm animals, advance biomedical science, and improve criminal justice and immigration policy in the United States.

    Open Philanthropy’s researchers rely on empirical information to guide their decisions where it’s available, and where it’s not, they aim to maximise expected benefits to recipients through careful analysis of the gains different projects would offer and their relative likelihoods of success.

    Job opportunities at Open Philanthropy

    Alexander’s Global Health and Wellbeing team is hiring two new Program Officers to oversee work to reduce air pollution in south Asia — which hugely damages the health of hundreds of millions — and to improve foreign aid policy in rich countries, so that it does more to help the world’s poorest people improve their circumstances. They’re also seeking new generalist researchers.

    Learn more about these and other vacancies here.

    Disclaimer of conflict of interest: 80,000 Hours and our parent organisation, the Centre For Effective Altruism, have received substantial funding from Open Philanthropy.

    This ‘global health and wellbeing’ approach — sometimes referred to as ‘neartermism’ — contrasts with another big school of thought in effective altruism, known as ‘longtermism’, which aims to direct the long-term future of humanity and its descendants in a positive direction. Longtermism bets that while it’s harder to figure out how to benefit future generations than people alive today, the total number of people who might live in the future is far greater than the number alive today, and this gain in scale more than offsets that lower tractability.

    The debate between these two very different theories of how to best improve the world has been one of the most significant within effective altruist research since its inception. Alexander first joined the influential charity evaluator GiveWell in 2011, and since then has conducted research alongside top thinkers on global health and wellbeing and longtermism alike, ultimately deciding to dedicate his efforts to improving the world today in identifiable ways.

    In this conversation Alexander advocates for that choice, explaining the case in favour of adopting the ‘global health and wellbeing’ mindset, while going through the arguments for the longtermist approach that he finds most and least convincing.

    Rob and Alexander also tackle:

    • Why it should be legal to sell your kidney, and why Alexander donated his to a total stranger
    • Why it’s shockingly hard to find ways to give away large amounts of money that are more cost effective than distributing anti-malaria bed nets
    • How much you gain from working with tight feedback loops
    • Open Philanthropy’s biggest wins
    • Why Open Philanthropy engages in ‘worldview diversification’ by having both a global health and wellbeing programme and a longtermist programme as well
    • Whether funding science and political advocacy is a good way to have more social impact
    • Whether our effects on future generations are predictable or unforeseeable
    • What problems the global health and wellbeing team works to solve and why
    • Opportunities to work at Open Philanthropy

    Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

    Producer: Keiran Harris
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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    Expression of interest: experienced writer

    80,000 Hours is considering hiring full-time writers who have demonstrable experience writing for the public and who have a preexisting interest in and understanding of our organisation’s priorities including longtermism and effective altruism.

    This announcement is an expression of interest, rather than a role we have formally opened. Because of this, we have a high bar for responding to enquiries (see below), and typically won’t be able to respond.

    If we don’t respond, please don’t take it as a rejection! You should feel very welcome to respond to future ads for 80,000 Hours positions.

    80,000 Hours provides research and support to help people switch into careers that effectively tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

    The 80,000 Hours website gets 1-2 million unique visitors and sees over 100,000 hours of reading time per year. We are also one of the top sources of new members of the effective altruism community.

    If you join us as a writer, you’d likely be one of the most widely-read writers in effective altruism.

    Writers at 80,000 Hours produce pieces that communicate important ideas and arguments, inform readers about pressing global problems, and give advice to help readers pursue high impact career paths.

    Some examples:

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      #104 – Pardis Sabeti on the Sentinel system for detecting and stopping pandemics

      With an infectious disease, because of the exponential spread of viruses, it is true that one person could have an outsized potential to have an impact. One person can launch a pandemic, and therefore one person can stop a pandemic with their actions.

      Pardis Sabeti

      When the first person with COVID-19 went to see a doctor in Wuhan, nobody could tell that it wasn’t a familiar disease like the flu — that we were dealing with something new.

      How much death and destruction could we have avoided if we’d had a hero who could? That’s what the last Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber asked on the show back in March.

      Today’s guest Pardis Sabeti is a professor at Harvard, fought Ebola on the ground in Africa during the 2014 outbreak, runs her own lab, co-founded a company that produces next-level testing, and is even the lead singer of a rock band. If anyone is going to be that hero in the next pandemic — it just might be her.

      She is a co-author of the SENTINEL proposal, a practical system for detecting new diseases quickly, using an escalating series of three novel diagnostic techniques.

      The first method, called SHERLOCK, uses CRISPR gene editing to detect familiar viruses in a simple, inexpensive filter paper test, using non-invasive samples.

      Rapid diagnostic tests [are a] terrific technology, but usually it takes about six months to develop a new one because the proteins are a little more bespoke… Whereas the genome sequence, it’s just literally like a code, you just put it in and you immediately can target… You type it out and you have it going.

      If SHERLOCK draws a blank, we escalate to the second step, CARMEN, an advanced version of SHERLOCK that uses microfluidics and CRISPR to simultaneously detect hundreds of viruses and viral strains. More expensive, but far more comprehensive.

      Most infections all look the same — Lassa looks like Ebola, which looks like malaria, which looks like typhoid, and other things at varying stages. So you don’t want to have to know exactly what you’re looking for in a lot of cases; you want to do a broad differential that you test for.

      If neither SHERLOCK nor CARMEN detects a known pathogen, it’s time to pull out the big gun: metagenomic sequencing. More expensive still, but sequencing all the DNA in a patient sample lets you identify and track every virus — known and unknown — in a sample.

      Those are the kinds of technologies that we can have in the kinds of labs that we could have in every country on the planet, and even in a lot of regional centers. Then if something comes up and all the standard tests that you’ve run don’t know what it is, you can basically try to put it through.

      If Pardis and her team succeeds, our future pandemic potential patient zero may:

      1. Go to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, and immediately be tested using SHERLOCK — which will come back negative
      2. Take the CARMEN test for a much broader range of illnesses — which will also come back negative
      3. Their sample will be sent for metagenomic sequencing, which will reveal that they’re carrying a new virus we’ll have to contend with
      4. At all levels, information will be recorded in a cloud-based data system that shares data in real time; the hospital will be alerted and told to quarantine the patient
      5. The world will be able to react weeks — or even months — faster, potentially saving millions of lives

      It’s a wonderful vision, and one humanity is ready to test out. But there are all sorts of practical questions, such as:

      • How do you scale these technologies, including to remote and rural areas?
      • Will doctors everywhere be able to operate them?
      • Who will pay for it?
      • How do you maintain the public’s trust and protect against misuse of sequencing data?
      • How do you avoid drowning in the data the system produces?

      In this conversation Pardis and Rob address all those questions, as well as:

      • Pardis’ history with trying to control emerging contagious diseases
      • The potential of mRNA vaccines
      • Other emerging technologies
      • How to best educate people about pandemics
      • The pros and cons of gain-of-function research
      • Turning mistakes into exercises you can learn from
      • Overcoming enormous life challenges
      • Why it’s so important to work with people you can laugh with
      • And much more

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →

      #103 – Max Roser on building the world's first great source of COVID-19 data at Our World in Data

      The real story was the growth rate. [That’s] the key thing that you have to know in an outbreak of an infectious disease, and the focus wasn’t on the growth rate. And I was going mad. I just couldn’t believe how poor this reporting was.

      Max Roser

      History is filled with stories of great people stepping up in times of crisis. Presidents averting wars; soldiers leading troops away from certain death; data scientists sleeping on the office floor to launch a new webpage a few days sooner.

      That last one is barely a joke — by our lights, people like today’s guest Max Roser should be viewed with similar admiration by COVID-19 historians.

      Max runs Our World in Data, a small education nonprofit which began the pandemic with just six staff. But since last February his team has supplied essential COVID statistics to over 130 million users — among them BBC, the Financial Times, The New York Times, the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF, Donald Trump, Tedros Adhanom, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, just to name a few.

      An economist at Oxford University, Max Roser founded Our World in Data as a small side project in 2011 and has led it since, including through the wild ride of 2020. In today’s interview, Max explains how he and his team realized that if they didn’t start making COVID data accessible and easy to make sense of, it wasn’t clear when anyone would.

      But Our World in Data wasn’t naturally set up to become the world’s go-to source for COVID updates. Up until then their specialty had been in-depth articles explaining century-length trends in metrics like life expectancy — to the point that their graphing software was only set up to present yearly data.

      But the team eventually realized that the World Health Organization was publishing numbers that flatly contradicted themselves, most of the press was embarrassingly out of its depth, and countries were posting case data as images buried deep in their sites, where nobody would find them. Even worse, nobody was reporting or compiling how many tests different countries were doing, rendering all those case figures largely meaningless.

      As a result, trying to make sense of the pandemic was a time-consuming nightmare. If you were leading a national COVID response, learning what other countries were doing and whether it was working would take weeks of study — and that meant, with the walls falling in around you, it simply wasn’t going to happen. Ministries of health around the world were flying blind.

      Disbelief ultimately turned to determination, and the Our World in Data team committed to do whatever had to be done to fix the situation. Overnight their software was quickly redesigned to handle daily data, and for the next few months Max and colleagues like Edouard Mathieu and Hannah Ritchie did little but sleep and compile COVID data.

      In this episode Max explains how Our World in Data went about filling a huge gap that never should have been there in the first place — and how they had to do it all again in December 2020 when, eleven months into the pandemic, there was still nobody else to compile global vaccination statistics.

      We also talk about:

      • Our World in Data’s early struggles to get funding
      • Why government agencies are so bad at presenting data
      • Which agencies did a good job during the COVID pandemic (shout out to the European CDC)
      • How much impact Our World in Data has by helping people understand the world
      • How to deal with the unreliability of development statistics
      • Why research shouldn’t be published as a PDF
      • Why academia under-incentivises data collection
      • The history of war
      • And much more

      Final note: We also want to acknowledge other groups that did great work collecting and presenting COVID-19 data early on during the pandemic, including the Financial Times, Johns Hopkins University (which produced the first case map), the European CDC (who compiled a lot of the data that Our World in Data relied on), the Human Mortality Database (who compiled figures on excess mortality), and no doubt many others.

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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      #102 – Tom Moynihan on why prior generations missed some of the biggest priorities of all

      I think these people weren’t less intelligent than us, not at all, but I guess one of the fundamental lessons from all this is that background assumptions really matter. Not just on what might seem like an atomistic claim about the way the world is, but also what we should do in it.

      Tom Moynihan

      It can be tough to get people to truly care about reducing existential risks today. But spare a thought for the longtermist of the 17th century: they were surrounded by people who thought extinction was literally impossible.

      Today’s guest Tom Moynihan, intellectual historian and author of the book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, says that until the 18th century, almost everyone — including early atheists — couldn’t imagine that humanity or life could simply disappear because of an act of nature.

      This is largely because of the prevalence of the ‘principle of plenitude’, which Tom defines as saying:

      Whatever can happen will happen. In its stronger form it says whatever can happen will happen reliably and recurrently. And in its strongest form it says that all that can happen is happening right now. And that’s the way things will be forever.

      This has the implication that if humanity ever disappeared for some reason, then it would have to reappear. So why would you ever worry about extinction?

      Here are 4 more commonly held beliefs from generations past that Tom shares in the interview:

      • All regions of matter that can be populated will be populated: In other words, there are aliens on every planet, because it would be a massive waste of real estate if all of them were just inorganic masses, where nothing interesting was going on. This also led to the idea that if you dug deep into the Earth, you’d potentially find thriving societies.
      • Aliens were human-like, and shared the same values as us: they would have the same moral beliefs, and the same aesthetic beliefs. The idea that aliens might be very different from us only arrived in the 20th century.
      • Fossils were rocks that had gotten a bit too big for their britches and were trying to act like animals: they couldn’t actually move, so becoming an imprint of an animal was the next best thing.
      • All future generations were contained in miniature form, Russian-doll style, in the sperm of the first man: preformation was the idea that within the ovule or the sperm of an animal is contained its offspring in miniature form, and the French philosopher Malebranche said, well, if one is contained in the other one, then surely that goes on forever.

      And here are another three that weren’t held widely, but were proposed by scholars and taken seriously:

      • Life preceded the existence of rocks: Living things, like germs or microorganisms, came first, and they extruded the earth.
      • No idea can be wrong: Nothing we can say about the world is wrong in a strong sense, because at some point in the future or the past, it has been true.
      • Maybe we were living before the Trojan War: Aristotle said that we might actually be living before Troy, because it — like every other event — will repeat at some future date. And he said that actually, the set of possibilities might be so narrow that it might be safer to say that we actually live before Troy.

      But Tom tries to be magnanimous when faced with these incredibly misguided worldviews.

      I think that something almost similar to scope neglect can happen, where we see the sheer extent of ignorance in the past and therefore think that is boundless. And this could lead you to think therefore our progress is also made insignificant within this boundless sea, but no, I think it’s structured. There are bounds to ignorance and we’re making progress, but within a space that’s potentially far bigger than we can currently think of.

      In this nearly four-hour long interview, Tom and Rob cover all of these ideas, as well as:

      • How we know the ancients really believed such things
      • How we should respond to wacky old ideas
      • How we moved on from these theories
      • How future intellectual historians might view our beliefs today
      • The distinction between ‘apocalypse’ and ‘extinction’
      • The history of probability
      • Utopias and dystopias
      • Big ideas that haven’t flowed through into all relevant fields yet
      • Intellectual history as a possible high-impact career
      • And much more

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →

      #101 – Robert Wright on using cognitive empathy to save the world

      If you say, well, could we just try to understand how the regime is looking at things in Russia and in China and Iran and North Korea, people call you an apologist. And I think that’s one of the things we need to get over.

      Robert Wright

      In 2003, Saddam Hussein refused to let Iraqi weapons scientists leave the country to be interrogated. Given the overwhelming domestic support for an invasion at the time, most key figures in the U.S. took that as confirmation that he had something to hide — probably an active WMD program.

      But what about alternative explanations? Maybe those scientists knew about past crimes. Or maybe they’d defect. Or maybe giving in to that kind of demand would have humiliated Hussein in the eyes of enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

      According to today’s guest Robert Wright, host of the popular podcast The Wright Show, these are the kinds of things that might have come up if people were willing to look at things from Saddam Hussein’s perspective.

      He calls this ‘cognitive empathy’. It’s not feeling-your-pain-type empathy — it’s just trying to understand how another person thinks.

      He says if you pitched this kind of thing back in 2003 you’d be shouted down as a ‘Saddam apologist’ — and he thinks the same is true today when it comes to regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

      The two Roberts in today’s episode — Bob Wright and Rob Wiblin — agree that removing this taboo against perspective taking, even with people you consider truly evil, could potentially significantly improve discourse around international relations.

      They feel that if we could spread the meme that if you’re able to understand what dictators are thinking and calculating, based on their country’s history and interests, it seems like we’d be less likely to make terrible foreign policy errors.

      But how do you actually do that?

      Bob’s new ‘Apocalypse Aversion Project’ is focused on creating the necessary conditions for solving non-zero-sum global coordination problems, something most people are already on board with.

      And in particular he thinks that might come from enough individuals “transcending the psychology of tribalism”. He doesn’t just mean rage and hatred and violence, he’s also talking about cognitive biases.

      Bob makes the striking claim that if enough people in the U.S. had been able to combine perspective taking with mindfulness — the ability to notice and identify thoughts as they arise — then the U.S. might have even been able to avoid the invasion of Iraq.

      Rob pushes back on how realistic this approach really is, asking questions like:

      • Haven’t people been trying to do this since the beginning of time?
      • Is there a really good novel angle that will move the needle and change how a lot of people think and behave?
      • Wouldn’t it be better to focus on a much narrower task, like getting more mindfulness and meditation and reflectiveness among the U.S. foreign policy elite?

      But despite the differences in approaches, Bob has a lot of common ground with 80,000 Hours — and the result is a fun back-and-forth about the best ways to achieve shared goals.

      This is a crossover episode, also appearing on The Wright Show, with Bob and Rob taking turns interviewing each other.

      Bob starts by questioning Rob about effective altruism, and they go on to cover a bunch of other topics, such as:

      • Specific risks like climate change and new technologies
      • How to achieve social cohesion
      • The pros and cons of society-wide surveillance
      • How Rob got into effective altruism
      • And much more

      If you’re interested to hear more of Bob’s interviews you can subscribe to The Wright Show anywhere you’re getting this one. You can also watch videos of this and all his other episodes on Bloggingheads.tv.

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →

      #100 – Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome

      When I found out that I was going to miss my flight, it would have just taken an email that said “I am not doing okay. … I might be out for a while.” And I think everybody there would have been so understanding and it would have been fine. It’s probably the biggest regret of my life that I didn’t do that.


      Today’s episode is one of the most remarkable and really, unique, pieces of content we’ve ever produced (and I can say that because I had almost nothing to do with making it!).

      The producer of this show, Keiran Harris, interviewed our mutual colleague Howie about the major ways that mental illness has affected his life and career. While depression, anxiety, ADHD and other problems are extremely common, it’s rare for people to offer detailed insight into their thoughts and struggles — and even rarer for someone as perceptive as Howie to do so.

      The first half of this conversation is a searingly honest account of Howie’s story, including losing a job he loved due to a depressed episode, what it was like to be basically out of commission for over a year, how he got back on his feet, and the things he still finds difficult today.

      The second half covers Howie’s advice. Conventional wisdom on mental health can be really focused on cultivating willpower — telling depressed people that the virtuous thing to do is to start exercising, improve their diet, get their sleep in check, and generally fix all their problems before turning to therapy and medication as some sort of last resort.

      Howie tries his best to be a corrective to this misguided attitude and pragmatically focus on what actually matters — doing whatever will help you get better.

      Mental illness is one of the things that most often trips up people who could otherwise enjoy flourishing careers and have a large social impact, so we think this could plausibly be one of our more valuable episodes.

      If you’re in a hurry, we’ve extracted the key advice that Howie has to share in a section below.

      Howie and Keiran basically treated it like a private conversation, with the understanding that it may be too sensitive to release. But, after getting some really positive feedback, they’ve decided to share it with the world.

      Here are a few quotes from early reviewers:

      I think there’s a big difference between admitting you have depression/seeing a psych and giving a warts-and-all account of a major depressive episode like Howie does in this episode… His description was relatable and really inspiring.

      Someone who works on mental health issues said:

      This episode is perhaps the most vivid and tangible example of what it is like to experience psychological distress that I’ve ever encountered. Even though the content of Howie and Keiran’s discussion was serious, I thought they both managed to converse about it in an approachable and not-overly-somber way.

      And another reviewer said:

      I found Howie’s reflections on what is actually going on in his head when he engages in negative self-talk to be considerably more illuminating than anything I’ve heard from my therapist.

      We also hope that the episode will:

      1. Help people realise that they have a shot at making a difference in the future, even if they’re experiencing (or have experienced in the past) mental illness, self doubt, imposter syndrome, or other personal obstacles.

      2. Give insight into what it’s like in the head of one person with depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome, including the specific thought patterns they experience on typical days and more extreme days. In addition to being interesting for its own sake, this might make it easier for people to understand the experiences of family members, friends, and colleagues — and know how to react more helpfully.

      Several early listeners have even made specific behavioral changes due to listening to the episode — including people who generally have good mental health but were convinced it’s well worth the low cost of setting up a plan in case they have problems in the future.

      So we think this episode will be valuable for:

      • People who have experienced mental health problems or might in future;
      • People who have had troubles with stress, anxiety, low mood, low self esteem, imposter syndrome and similar issues, even if their experience isn’t well described as ‘mental illness’;
      • People who have never experienced these problems but want to learn about what it’s like, so they can better relate to and assist family, friends or colleagues who do.

      In other words, we think this episode could be worthwhile for almost everybody.

      Just a heads up that this conversation gets pretty intense at times, and includes references to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

      If you don’t want to hear or read the most intense section, you can skip the chapter called ‘Disaster’. And if you’d rather avoid almost all of these references, you could skip straight to the chapter called ‘80,000 Hours’.

      We’ve collected a large list of high quality resources for overcoming mental health problems in our links section below.

      If you’re feeling suicidal or have thoughts of harming yourself right now, there are suicide hotlines at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. (800-273-8255) and Samaritans in the U.K. (116 123). You may also want to find and save a number for a local service where possible.

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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      Career plan template

      This 8-step career planning template is designed to help you write an in-depth and actionable career plan, so that you can find and follow your highest impact path.

      Key parts of the career planning template:

      1. What does a fulfilling, high-impact career look like for you? (What are your career goals?)
      2. Clarify your views of which global problems are the most pressing
      3. Generate ideas for longer-term paths
      4. Clarify your strategic focus
      5. Determine your best-guess next career step
      6. Plan to adapt
      7. Get feedback, investigate key uncertainties, and make a judgement call
      8. Put your plan into action

      If you complete each part, you will have worked through the most important issues you need to think about when planning your career, considered your most promising career options, identified next steps to help you achieve your long term goals, and have all your answers sketched out in one place.

      The template is designed to be used alongside our in-depth career planning process, though it can also be used directly — we link to relevant sections of the process throughout.

      Continue reading →

      #99 – Leah Garcés on turning adversaries into allies to change the chicken industry

      I think it’s about the story we tell as well, and leveraging that narrative, and changing the narrative about who animal rights folks are. That we’re not just these adversarial people coming to take jobs away from rural America and choices away from meat eaters. We’re actually building something better that benefits everyone.

      Leah Garcés

      For a chance to prevent enormous amounts of suffering, would you be brave enough to drive five hours to a remote location to meet a man who seems likely to be your enemy, knowing that it might be an ambush?

      Today’s guest — Leah Garcés — was.

      That man was a chicken farmer named Craig Watts, and that ambush never happened. Instead, Leah and Craig forged a friendship and a partnership focused on reducing suffering on factory farms.

      Leah, now president of Mercy For Animals (MFA), tried for years to get access to a chicken farm to document the horrors she knew were happening behind closed doors. It made sense that no one would let her in — why would the evil chicken farmers behind these atrocities ever be willing to help her take them down?

      But after sitting with Craig on his living room floor for hours and listening to his story, she discovered that he wasn’t evil at all — in fact he was just stuck in a cycle he couldn’t escape, forced to use methods he didn’t endorse.

      Most chicken farmers have enormous debts they are constantly struggling to pay off, make very little money, and have to work in terrible conditions — their main activity most days is finding and killing the sick chickens in their flock. Craig was one of very few farmers close to finally paying off his debts, which made him slightly less vulnerable to retaliation. That, combined with his natural tenacity and bravery, opened up the possibility for him to work with Leah.

      Craig let Leah openly film inside the chicken houses, and shared highly confidential documents about the antibiotics put into the feed. That led to a viral video, and a New York Times story. The villain of that video was Jim Perdue, CEO of one of the biggest meat companies in the world. They show him saying, “Farmers are happy. Chickens are happy. There’s a lot of space. They’re clean.” And then they show the grim reality.

      For years, Perdue wouldn’t speak to Leah. But remarkably, when they actually met in person, she again managed to forge a meaningful relationship with a natural adversary. She was able to put aside her utter contempt for the chicken industry and see Craig and Jim as people, not cartoonish villains.

      Leah believes that you need to be willing to sit down with anyone who has the power to solve a problem that you don’t — recognising them as human beings with a lifetime of complicated decisions behind their actions. And she stresses that finding or making a connection is really important. In the case of Jim Perdue, it was the fact they both had adopted children. Because of this, they were able to forget that they were supposed to be enemies in that moment, talk about their experience as parents, and build some trust.

      The other lesson that Leah highlights is that you need to look for win-wins and start there, rather than starting with disagreements. With Craig Watts, instead of opening with “How do I end his job”, she thought, “How can I find him a better job?” If you find solutions where everybody wins, you don’t need to spend resources fighting the former enemy. They’ll come to you.

      Typically animal activists are seen as coming into rural areas to take away jobs and choices — but MFA are trying to do the opposite. They want to create new opportunities, and give farmers a level of freedom they haven’t had since they first set foot on the factory farming debt treadmill.

      It turns out that conditions in chicken houses are perfect for growing hemp or mushrooms, so Mercy For Animals have started their ‘Transfarmation project’ to help farmers like Craig escape from the prison of factory farming by converting their production from animals to plants. To convince farmers to leave behind a life of producing suffering, all you need to do is find them something better — which for many of them is almost anything else.

      Leah and Rob also talk about:

      • Mercy for Animals’ overall strategy for ending factory farming sooner than later
      • Why conditions for farmers are so bad
      • The importance of building on past work
      • The benefits of creating a ranking and scoring companies against each other
      • Why we should drive up the price of factory farmed meat by any means necessary
      • The difficulty of enforcing corporate pledges
      • Her disagreements with others in the animal welfare movement
      • And much more

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →

      How much do people differ in productivity? What the evidence says.

      People sometimes point out that performance is ‘power law’ distributed, e.g. they’ll point out that the top 10% of scientists get 5x more citations over their career than the other 90% of scientists, or that the top 1% of startup founders get 80% of the equity value.

      But is this true? And if so, what does it imply?

      I think these differences in performance can be really important, and their significance is often not properly appreciated. But it’s also often oversold.

      To better understand how much people predictively differ in productivity, Max Daniel of the Future of Humanity Institute and I did an informal review of the academic research.

      We found there’s relevant research in several fields (often pursued independently) including economics, organisational psychology, expert performance, scientometrics, and physics.

      We aimed to get an overview of what’s out there and combine it with our own understanding to see if we could draw any practical lessons for hiring managers or people planning their careers.

      Here’s a summary of some of the data we found in the review:

      Data on the dispersion of staff productivity

      And here’s a 10-point summary of what we learned. (See the full write up here, and discussion on the EA Forum.)

      1) ‘Power law’ sounds catchy, but identifying which distribution to use is hard to do, statistically.

      Distinguishing power laws from log-normal distributions is notoriously difficult,

      Continue reading →

      80,000 Hours Annual Review — November 2020

      We’ve released our 2020 annual review. The full document is available as a google doc, and we’ve copied the summary below.

      Progress in 2020

      80,000 Hours provides research and support to help people switch into careers that effectively tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

      Our goal for 2020 was to continue all our programmes (key ideas and other web content, podcast, job board, advising, and headhunting) with the aim of growing the number of plan changes we cause.

      We also aimed to grow team capacity at a moderate rate (+2.5 FTE as well as onboarding Habiba), so that we’re working towards our longer-term vision, but going slowly enough that we can continue to focus on improving our programmes, resolving key uncertainties, and preserving culture.

      I thought we made good progress on continued delivery (e.g. released 64% more content with +30% inputs & fixed some gaps in key ideas), though we missed our target for the number of advising calls.

      On plan change impact, we tracked 11 net new ‘top plan changes’ and 188 ‘criteria-based plan changes’.

      My best guess at the ratio of plan changes to full-time equivalents (FTE) for 2018–2019 went down 20% from what I estimated last year, though my estimate for 2016–2017 went up. I became more confident that 80,000 Hours is useful to the most promising new longtermist EAs. Otherwise, I didn’t make significant updates about our cost effectiveness.

      Continue reading →

      Planning a high-impact career: a summary of everything you need to know in 7 points

      We took ten years of research and what’s we’ve learned advising 1,000+ people on how to build high impact careers, compressed that into an 8-week course to create your career plan, and then compressed that into this 3 page summary of the main points.

      (It’s especially aimed at people who want a career that’s both satisfying and has a significant positive impact, but much of the advice applies to all career decisions.)

      1. Use these factors to clarify what a successful career looks like.

      You can divide career aims into three categories: (i) personal priorities (ii) impartial positive impact, and (iii) other moral values. We’d encourage you to make your own definition of each.

      We define ‘impartial positive impact’ as what helps the most people live better lives in the long term, treating everyone’s interests as equal.

      You can analyse the impact of a career opportunity in terms of:

      1. How pressing the problem is that you’d address
      2. How effective the opportunity is at tackling the problem
      3. Your personal fit with the opportunity, which depends on your abilities and ‘career capital’ (skills, connections, and reputation).

      The goal is to maximise the product of these three factors over your career.

      Because most people reach their peak productivity between age 40–60, you need your work to be personally satisfying enough to stick with it for the long haul,

      Continue reading →

      #98 – Christian Tarsney on future bias and a possible solution to moral fanaticism

      If you think that there is no fundamental asymmetry between the past and the future, maybe we should be sanguine about the future — including sanguine about our own mortality — in the same way that we’re sanguine about the fact that we haven’t existed forever.

      Christian Tarsney

      Imagine that you’re in the hospital for surgery. This kind of procedure is always safe, and always successful — but it can take anywhere from one to ten hours. You can’t be knocked out for the operation, but because it’s so painful — you’ll be given a drug that makes you forget the experience.

      You wake up, not remembering going to sleep. You ask the nurse if you’ve had the operation yet. They look at the foot of your bed, and see two different charts for two patients. They say “Well, you’re one of these two — but I’m not sure which one. One of them had an operation yesterday that lasted ten hours. The other is set to have a one-hour operation later today.”

      So it’s either true that you already suffered for ten hours, or true that you’re about to suffer for one hour.

      Which patient would you rather be?

      Most people would be relieved to find out they’d already had the operation. Normally we prefer less pain rather than more pain, but in this case, we prefer ten times more pain — just because the pain would be in the past rather than the future.

      Christian Tarsney, a philosopher at Oxford University’s Global Priorities Institute, has written a couple of papers about this ‘future bias’ — that is, that people seem to care more about their future experiences than about their past experiences.

      That probably sounds perfectly normal to you. But do we actually have good reasons to prefer to have our positive experiences in the future, and our negative experiences in the past?

      One of Christian’s experiments found that when you ask people to imagine hypothetical scenarios where they can affect their own past experiences, they care about those experiences more — which suggests that our inability to affect the past is one reason why we feel mostly indifferent to it.

      But he points out that if that was the main reason, then we should also be indifferent to inevitable future experiences — if you know for sure that something bad is going to happen to you tomorrow, you shouldn’t care about it. But if you found out you simply had to have a horribly painful operation tomorrow, it’s probably all you’d care about!

      Another explanation for future bias is that we have this intuition that time is like a videotape, where the things that haven’t played yet are still on the way.

      If your future experiences really are ahead of you rather than behind you, that makes it rational to care more about the future than the past. But Christian says that, even though he shares this intuition, it’s actually very hard to make the case for time having a direction.

      It’s a live debate that’s playing out in the philosophy of time, as well as in physics. And Christian says that even if you could show that time had a direction, it would still be hard to explain why we should care more about the past than the future — at least in a way that doesn’t just sound like “Well, the past is in the past and the future is in the future”.

      For Christian, there are two big practical implications of these past, present, and future ethical comparison cases.

      The first is for altruists: If we care about whether current people’s goals are realised, then maybe we should care about the realisation of people’s past goals, including the goals of people who are now dead.

      The second is more personal: If we can’t actually justify caring more about the future than the past, should we really worry about death any more than we worry about all the years we spent not existing before we were born?

      Christian and Rob also cover several other big topics, including:

      • A possible solution to moral fanaticism, where you can end up preferring options that give you only a very tiny chance of an astronomically good outcome over options that give you certainty of a very good outcome
      • How much of humanity’s resources we should spend on improving the long-term future
      • How large the expected value of the continued existence of Earth-originating civilization might be
      • How we should respond to uncertainty about the state of the world
      • The state of global priorities research
      • And much more

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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      #97 – Mike Berkowitz on keeping the U.S. a liberal democratic country

      When you have leaders who feel no adherence to norms or customs, [there’s] nothing preventing them from violating them.

      Mike Berkowitz

      Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election split the Republican party. There were those who went along with it — 147 members of Congress raised objections to the official certification of electoral votes — but there were others who refused. These included Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence.

      Although one could say that the latter Republicans showed great courage, the key to the split may lie less in differences of moral character or commitment to democracy, and more in what was being asked of them. Trump wanted the first group to break norms, but he wanted the second group to break the law.

      And while norms were indeed shattered, laws were upheld.

      Today’s guest Mike Berkowitz, executive director of the Democracy Funders Network, points out a problem we came to realize throughout the Trump presidency: So many of the things that we thought were laws were actually just customs.

      So once you have leaders who don’t buy into those customs — like, say, that a president shouldn’t tell the Department of Justice who it should and shouldn’t be prosecuting — there’s nothing preventing said customs from being violated.

      And what happens if current laws change?

      A recent Georgia bill took away some of the powers of Georgia’s Secretary of State — Brad Raffensberger. Mike thinks that’s clearly retribution for Raffensperger’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election results. But he also thinks it means that the next time someone tries to overturn the results of the election, they could get much farther than Trump did in 2020.

      In this interview Mike covers what he thinks are the three most important levers to push on to preserve liberal democracy in the United States:

      1. Reforming the political system, by e.g. introducing new voting methods
      2. Revitalizing local journalism
      3. Reducing partisan hatred within the United States

      Mike says that American democracy, like democracy elsewhere in the world, is not an inevitability. The U.S. has institutions that are really important for the functioning of democracy, but they don’t automatically protect themselves — they need people to stand up and protect them.

      In addition to the changes listed above, Mike also thinks that we need to harden more norms into laws, such that individuals have fewer opportunities to undermine the system.

      And inasmuch as laws provided the foundation for the likes of Raffensperger, Kemp, and Pence to exhibit political courage, if we can succeed in creating and maintaining the right laws — we may see many others following their lead.

      As Founding Father James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

      Mike and Rob also talk about:

      • What sorts of terrible scenarios we should actually be worried about, i.e. the difference between being overly alarmist and properly alarmist
      • How to reduce perverse incentives for political actors, including those to overturn election results
      • The best opportunities for donations in this space
      • And much more

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

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      Launching a new resource: ‘Effective Altruism: An Introduction’

      Today we’re launching a new podcast feed that might be useful to you or someone you know.

      It’s called Effective Altruism: An Introduction, and it’s a carefully chosen selection of ten episodes of The 80,000 Hours Podcast, with various new intros and outros to guide folks through them.

      We think that it fills a gap in the introductory resources about effective altruism that are already out there. It’s a particularly good fit for people who:

      • prefer listening over reading, or conversations over essays
      • have read about the big central ideas, but want to see how we actually think and talk
      • want to get a more nuanced understanding of how the community applies EA principles in real life — as an art rather than science.

      The reason we put this together now, is that as the number of episodes of The 80,000 Hours Podcast show has grown, it has become less and less practical to suggest that new subscribers just ‘go back and listen through most of our archives.’

      We hope EA: An Introduction will guide new subscribers to the best things to listen to first in order to quickly make sense of effective altruist thinking.

      Across the ten episodes, we discuss:

      • What effective altruism at its core really is
      • The strategies for improving the world that are most popular within the effective altruism community,

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      #96 – Nina Schick on disinformation and the rise of synthetic media

      Technology is just going to be an amplifier of human intention, this human innate desire…to deceive, to manipulate. The visual medium is a very powerful way of doing that.

      Nina Schick

      You might have heard fears like this in the last few years: What if Donald Trump was woken up in the middle of the night and shown a fake video — indistinguishable from a real one — in which Kim Jong Un announced an imminent nuclear strike on the U.S.?

      Today’s guest Nina Schick, author of Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse, thinks these concerns were the result of hysterical reporting, and that the barriers to entry in terms of making a very sophisticated ‘deepfake’ video today are a lot higher than people think.

      But she also says that by the end of the decade, YouTubers will be able to produce the kind of content that’s currently only accessible to Hollywood studios. So is it just a matter of time until we’ll be right to be terrified of this stuff?

      Nina thinks the problem of misinformation and disinformation might be roughly as important as climate change, because as she says: “Everything exists within this information ecosystem, it encompasses everything.” We haven’t done enough research to properly weigh in on that ourselves, but Rob did present Nina with some early objections, such as:

      • Won’t people quickly learn that audio and video can be faked, and so will only take them seriously if they come from a trusted source?
      • If photoshop didn’t lead to total chaos, why should this be any different?

      But the grim reality is that if you wrote “I believe that the world will end on April 6, 2022” and pasted it next to a photo of Albert Einstein — a lot of people would believe it was a genuine quote. And Nina thinks that flawless synthetic videos will represent a significant jump in our ability to deceive.

      She also points out that the direct impact of fake videos is just one side of the issue. In a world where all media can be faked, everything can be denied.

      Consider Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape. If that happened in 2020 instead of 2016, he would have almost certainly claimed it was fake — and that claim wouldn’t be obviously ridiculous. Malignant politicians everywhere could plausibly deny footage of them receiving a bribe, or ordering a massacre. What happens if in every criminal trial, a suspect caught on camera can just look at the jury and say “that video is fake”?

      Nina says that undeniably, this technology is going to give bad actors a lot of scope for not having accountability for their actions.

      As we try to inoculate people against being tricked by synthetic media, we risk corroding their trust in all authentic media too. And Nina asks: If you can’t agree on any set of objective facts or norms on which to start your debate, how on earth do you even run a society?

      Nina and Rob also talk about a bunch of other topics, including:

      • The history of disinformation, and groups who sow disinformation professionally
      • How deepfake pornography is used to attack and silence women activitists
      • The key differences between how this technology interacts with liberal democracies vs. authoritarian regimes
      • Whether we should make it illegal to make a deepfake of someone without their permission
      • And the coolest positive uses of this technology

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: Type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →

      #95 – Kelly Wanser on whether to deliberately intervene in the climate

      We have a massive toxic spill into the atmosphere. And the immediate most damaging effect of that is heat energy trapped in the system. And so the question is, do you try to do something to counter that or to abate it?

      Kelly Wanser

      How long do you think it’ll be before we’re able to bend the weather to our will? A massive rainmaking program in China, efforts to seed new oases in the Arabian peninsula, or chemically induce snow for skiers in Colorado.

      100 years? 50 years? 20?

      Those who know how to write a teaser hook for a podcast episode will have correctly guessed that all these things are already happening today. And the techniques being used could be turned to managing climate change as well.

      Today’s guest, Kelly Wanser, founded SilverLining — a nonprofit organization that advocates research into climate interventions, such as seeding or brightening clouds, to ensure that we maintain a safe climate.

      Kelly says that current climate projections, even if we do everything right from here on out, imply that two degrees of global warming are now unavoidable. And the same scientists who made those projections fear the flow-through effect that warming could have.

      Since our best case scenario may already be too dangerous, SilverLining focuses on ways that we could intervene quickly in the climate if things get especially grim — their research serving as a kind of insurance policy.

      After considering everything from mirrors in space, to shiny objects on the ocean, to materials on the Arctic, their scientists concluded that the most promising approach was leveraging one of the ways that the Earth already regulates its temperature — the reflection of sunlight off particles and clouds in the atmosphere.

      Cloud brightening is a climate control approach that uses the spraying of a fine mist of sea water into clouds to make them ‘whiter’ so they reflect even more sunlight back into space.

      These ‘streaks’ in clouds are already created by ships because the particulates from their diesel engines inadvertently make clouds a bit brighter.

      Kelly says that scientists estimate that we’re already lowering the global temperature this way by 0.5–1.1ºC, without even intending to.

      While fossil fuel particulates are terrible for human health, they think we could replicate this effect by simply spraying sea water up into clouds. But so far there hasn’t been funding to measure how much temperature change you get for a given amount of spray.

      And we won’t want to dive into these methods head first because the atmosphere is a complex system we can’t yet properly model, and there are many things to check first. For instance, chemicals that reflect light from the upper atmosphere might totally change wind patterns in the stratosphere. Or they might not — for all the discussion of global warming the climate is surprisingly understudied.

      The public tends to be skeptical of climate interventions, otherwise known as geoengineering, so in this episode we cover a range of possible objections, such as:

      • It being riskier than doing nothing
      • That it will inevitably be dangerously political
      • And the risk of the ‘double catastrophe’, where a pandemic stops our climate interventions and temperatures sky-rocket at the worst time.

      Kelly and Rob also talk about:

      • The many climate interventions that are already happening
      • The most promising ideas in the field
      • And whether people would be more accepting if we found ways to intervene that had nothing to do with making the world a better place.

      Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: Type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

      Producer: Keiran Harris
      Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
      Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

      Continue reading →