Expression of interest: headhunting lead

About 80,000 Hours

80,000 Hours’ mission is to get talented people working on the world’s most pressing problems. The effective altruism community, which we are part of, is growing in reach. But how do we make sure people are pursuing the right kinds of work in order to turn all those resources into long-term impact? This is the problem 80,000 Hours is trying to solve.

We’ve had over eight million visitors to our website (with over 100,000 hours of reading time per year), and more than 3,000 people have now told us that they’ve significantly changed their career plans due to our work. 80,000 Hours is also the largest single source of people getting involved in the effective altruism community, according to the most recent EA Survey.

About the 1-on-1 team

The 1-on-1 team at 80,000 Hours provides free, personalised career advice via video calls with our advisors. In 2022 we spoke to well over a thousand people who were looking to make a positive impact with their career, and we think offering tailored job recommendations is a key way we can help. Over the last two years we’ve grown the advising team and maintained a small headhunting service, providing shortlists of great candidates for a few especially exciting roles. We are now looking to build headhunting out into a key part of the value that the 1-on-1 team provides. You can learn more about our work and see some examples of people the 1-on-1 team has helped on our website.

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    Expression of interest: systems hire

    Why 80,000 Hours?

    80,000 Hours’ mission is to get talented people working on the world’s most pressing problems. The effective altruism community, which we are part of, is growing in reach. But how do we make sure people are pursuing the right kinds of work in order to turn all those resources into long-term impact? This is the problem 80,000 Hours is trying to solve.

    We’ve had over eight million visitors to our website (with over 100,000 hours of reading time per year), and more than 3,000 people have now told us that they’ve significantly changed their career plans due to our work. 80,000 Hours is also the largest single source of people getting involved in the effective altruism community, according to the most recent EA Survey.

    The 1on1 team at 80,000 Hours takes people from being “interested in the ideas and wanting to help” to “actually working to solve pressing world problems.” You can learn more about our work and see some examples of people the 1on1 team has helped on our website.

    The role

    Your responsibilities could include:

    • Building systems to enable new ways of delivering value to users
    • Prioritising and implementing changes requested by staff
    • Crafting automations to streamline internal and external processes
    • Analysing data to answer strategically relevant questions
    • Hiring and managing contractors
    • Salesforce administration

    Who we’re looking for

    • Operations mindset –

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      How much do solutions to social problems differ in their effectiveness? A collection of all the studies we could find.

      In a 2013 paper, Dr Toby Ord reviewed data compiled in the second edition of the World Bank’s Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, which compared about 100 health interventions in developing countries in terms of how many years of illness they prevent per dollar. He discovered some striking facts about the data:

      • The best interventions were around 10,000 times more cost effective than the worst, and around 50 times more cost effective than the median.
      • If you picked two interventions at random, on average the better one would be 100 times more cost effective than the other.
      • The distribution was heavy-tailed, and roughly lognormal. In fact, it almost exactly followed the 80/20 rule — that is, implementing the top 20% of interventions would do about 80% as much good as implementing all of them.
      • The differences between the very best interventions were larger than the differences between the typical ones, so it’s more important to go from ‘very good’ to ‘very best’ than from ‘so-so’ to ‘very good.’

      He published these results in The Moral Imperative towards Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health, which became one of the papers that started the effective altruism movement. (Note that Ord is an advisor to 80,000 Hours.)

      This data appears to have radical implications for people interested in doing good in the world; namely, by working on one of the best interventions in global health,

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      #145 – Christopher Brown on why slavery abolition wasn’t inevitable

      Even in the face of abolitionist and emancipationist movements, there’s no record, at least that I’m aware of, of slave traders or slaveholding societies saying that they had had enough and they weren’t going to do this anymore.

      Slaving is as old as human history, and I think we tend to forget that it was a norm rather than an exception, and it took different shapes in different times. This is big picture, but what happens in the 19th century I really think is quite unusual, and I don’t think it’s the natural consequence of either economic forces or cultural forces.

      Christopher Brown

      In many ways, humanity seems to have become more humane and inclusive over time. While there’s still a lot of progress to be made, campaigns to give people of different genders, races, sexualities, ethnicities, beliefs, and abilities equal treatment and rights have had significant success.

      It’s tempting to believe this was inevitable — that the arc of history “bends toward justice,” and that as humans get richer, we’ll make even more moral progress.

      But today’s guest Christopher Brown — a professor of history at Columbia University and specialist in the abolitionist movement and the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries — believes the story of how slavery became unacceptable suggests moral progress is far from inevitable.

      While most of us today feel that the abolition of slavery was sure to happen sooner or later as humans became richer and more educated, Christopher doesn’t believe any of the arguments for that conclusion pass muster. If he’s right, a counterfactual history where slavery remains widespread in 2023 isn’t so far-fetched.

      As Christopher lays out in his two key books, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism and Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age, slavery has been ubiquitous throughout history. Slavery of some form was fundamental in Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, in much of the Islamic civilization, in South Asia, and in parts of early modern East Asia, Korea, China.

      It was justified on all sorts of grounds that sound mad to us today. But according to Christopher, while there’s evidence that slavery was questioned in many of these civilisations, and periodically attacked by slaves themselves, there was no enduring or successful moral advocacy against slavery until the British abolitionist movement of the 1700s.

      That movement first conquered Britain and its empire, then eventually the whole world. But the fact that there’s only a single time in history that a persistent effort to ban slavery got off the ground is a big clue that opposition to slavery was a contingent matter: if abolition had been inevitable, we’d expect to see multiple independent abolitionist movements thoroughly history, providing redundancy should any one of them fail.

      Christopher argues that this rarity is primarily down to the enormous economic and cultural incentives to deny the moral repugnancy of slavery, and crush opposition to it with violence wherever necessary.

      Think of coal or oil today: we know that climate change is likely to cause huge harms, and we know that our coal and oil consumption contributes to climate change. But just believing that something is wrong doesn’t necessarily mean humanity stops doing it. We continue to use coal and oil because our whole economy is oriented around their use and we see it as too hard to stop.

      Just as coal and oil are fundamental to the world economy now, for millennia slavery was deeply baked into the way the rich and powerful stayed rich and powerful, and it required a creative leap to imagine it being toppled.

      More generally, mere awareness is insufficient to guarantee a movement will arise to fix a problem. Humanity continues to allow many severe injustices to persist, despite being aware of them. So why is it so hard to imagine we might have done the same with forced labour?

      In this episode, Christopher describes the unique and peculiar set of political, social and religious circumstances that gave rise to the only successful and lasting anti-slavery movement in human history. These circumstances were sufficiently improbable that Christopher believes there are very nearby worlds where abolitionism might never have taken off.

      Some disagree with Christopher, arguing that abolitionism was a natural consequence of the industrial revolution, which reduced Great Britain’s need for human labour, among other changes — and that abolitionism would therefore have eventually taken off wherever industrialization did. But as we discuss, Christopher doesn’t find that reply convincing.

      If he’s right and the abolition of slavery was in fact contingent, we shouldn’t expect moral values to keep improving just because humanity continues to become richer. We might have to be much more deliberate than that if we want to ensure we keep moving moral progress forward.

      We also discuss:

      • Various instantiations of slavery throughout human history
      • Signs of antislavery sentiment before the 17th century
      • The role of the Quakers in early British abolitionist movement
      • Attitudes to slavery in other religions
      • The spread of antislavery in 18th century Britain
      • The importance of individual “heroes” in the abolitionist movement
      • Arguments against the idea that the abolition of slavery was contingent
      • Whether there have ever been any major moral shifts that were inevitable

      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: Milo McGuire
      Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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      Is the world getting better or worse?

      The question this week: is the world getting better or worse?

      Three ways the world’s getting better
      1. Poverty has decreased.

      Lots of stats about trends in the world – even ones that seem good to some people – are complicated to evaluate overall.

      But here’s a long-term trend, based on solid data, that seems uncontroversially good:

      Living in extreme poverty is exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just the share of the population in extreme poverty that’s fallen. Since 1990, the absolute number has fallen too.

      2. We’re healthier than ever before.

      For a start, child mortality rates have fallen steeply in the last 100 years, as has the absolute number of children dying before reaching the age of five.

      We’re close to eradicating polio and guinea worm disease, and we’re gradually getting a grip on malaria.

      Overall, life expectancy in every continent is at its highest point ever and is increasing.

      3. Renewable energy generation is rising.

      While global temperatures are soaring and carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, we’re also producing more renewable energy than ever before:

      The share of energy produced by renewables has been increasing since around 2005.

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      #144 – Athena Aktipis on why cancer is actually one of the fundamental phenomena in our universe

      The larger and more complex a group is, all else being equal, the easier it will be for cheating to arise and go undetected and potentially undermine the system — unless you have other mechanisms there that can sort of protect, monitor, or respond.

      Athena Aktipis

      What’s the opposite of cancer?

      If you answered “cure,” “antidote,” or “antivenom” — you’ve obviously been reading the antonym section at

      But today’s guest Athena Aktipis says that the opposite of cancer is us: it’s having a functional multicellular body that’s cooperating effectively in order to make that multicellular body function.

      If, like us, you found her answer far more satisfying than the dictionary, maybe you could consider closing your dozens of tabs, and start listening to this podcast instead.

      As Athena explains in her book The Cheating Cell, what we see with cancer is a breakdown in each of the foundations of cooperation that allowed multicellularity to arise:

      • Cells will proliferate when they shouldn’t.
      • Cells won’t die when they should.
      • Cells won’t engage in the kind of division of labour that they should.
      • Cells won’t do the jobs that they’re supposed to do.
      • Cells will monopolise resources.
      • And cells will trash the environment.

      When we think about animals in the wild, or even bacteria living inside our cells, we understand that they’re facing evolutionary pressures to figure out how they can replicate more; how they can get more resources; and how they can avoid predators — like lions, or antibiotics.

      We don’t normally think of individual cells as acting as if they have their own interests like this. But cancer cells are actually facing similar kinds of evolutionary pressures within our bodies, with one major difference: they replicate much, much faster.

      Incredibly, the opportunity for evolution by natural selection to operate just over the course of cancer progression is easily faster than all of the evolutionary time that we have had as humans since Homo sapiens came about.

      Here’s a quote from Athena:

      So you have to go and kind of put yourself on a different spatial scale and time scale, and just shift your thinking to be like: the body is a world with all these different ecosystems in it, and the cells are existing on a time scale where, if we’re going to map it onto anything like what we experience, a day is at least 10 years for them, right?

      So it’s a very, very different way of thinking. Then once you shift to that, you’re like, “Oh, wow, there’s so much that could be happening in terms of adaptation inside the body, how cells are actually evolving inside the body over the course of our lifetimes.” That shift just opens up all this potential for using evolutionary approaches in adaptationist thinking to generate hypotheses that then you can test.

      You can find compelling examples of cooperation and conflict all over the universe, so Rob and Athena don’t stop with cancer. They also discuss:

      • Cheating within cells themselves
      • Cooperation in human societies as they exist today — and perhaps in the future, between civilisations spread across different planets or stars
      • Whether it’s too out-there to think of humans as engaging in cancerous behaviour.
      • Why our anti-contagious-cancer mechanisms are so successful
      • Why elephants get deadly cancers less often than humans, despite having way more cells
      • When a cell should commit suicide
      • When the human body deliberately produces tumours
      • The strategy of deliberately not treating cancer aggressively
      • Superhuman cooperation
      • And much more

      And at the end of the episode, they cover Athena’s new book Everything is Fine! How to Thrive in the Apocalypse, including:

      • Staying happy while thinking about the apocalypse
      • Practical steps to prepare for the apocalypse
      • And whether a zombie apocalypse is already happening among Tasmanian devils

      And if you’d rather see Rob and Athena’s facial expressions as they laugh and laugh while discussing cancer and the apocalypse — you can watch the video of the full interview.

      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: Milo McGuire
      Video editing: Ryan Kessler
      Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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      Open position: Content associate

      About the 80,000 Hours web team

      80,000 Hours provides free research and support to help people find careers tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

      We’ve had over 10 million visitors to our website (with over 100,000 hours of reading time per year), and more than 3,000 people have told us that they’ve significantly changed their career plans due to our work. We’re also the largest single source of people getting involved in the effective altruism community, according to the most recent EA Community Survey.

      Our articles are read by thousands, and are among the most important ways we help people shift their careers towards higher-impact options.

      The role

      As a content associate, you would:

      • Support the 80,000 Hours web team flexibly across a range of articles and projects.
      • Proofread 80,000 Hours articles before release, suggest style improvements, and check for errors.
      • Upload new articles and make changes to the site.
      • Ensure that our newsletters are sent out error-free and on time to the over 250,000 people on our mailing list.
      • Provide analytical support for the team, improving our ability to use data to measure and increase our impact.
      • Manage the gathering of feedback on our website from both readers and subject matter experts.
      • Generate ideas for new pieces.
      • Generally help grow the impact of the site.

      Some of the types of pieces you could work on include:

      • Career reviews — e.g.

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        My thoughts on parenting and having an impactful career

        When my husband and I decided to have children, we didn’t put much thought into the broader social impact of the decision. We got together at secondary school and had been discussing the fact we were going to have kids since we were 18, long before we found effective altruism.

        We made the actual decision to have a child much later, but how it would affect our careers or abilities to help others still wasn’t a large factor in the decision. As with most people though, the decision has, in fact, had significant effects on our careers.

        Raising my son, Leo — now three years old — is one of the great joys of my life, and I’m so happy that my husband and I decided to have him. But having kids can be challenging for anyone, and there may be unique challenges for people who aim to have a positive impact with their careers.

        I’m currently the director of the one-on-one programme at 80,000 Hours and a fund manager for the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund. So I wanted to share my experience with parenting and working for organisations whose mission I care about deeply. Here are my aims:

        • Give readers an example of a working parent who also thinks a lot about 80,000 Hours’ advice.
        • Discuss some of the ways having kids is likely to affect the impact you have in your career, for people who want to consider that when deciding whether to have kids.

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        The quick, medium, and long versions of career planning

        I think it’s a good idea to consider how you’re feeling about your career each year. At least, intellectually I think it’s good. In practice, I find it really hard. Compared to others I know, I’m not as naturally drawn to personal reflection and goal-setting. I intended to reflect on my own career over the festive period… and ended up bailing because I found it too stressful.

        But it is important! Without making time to check in on the big career questions, you might stay too long at a job, miss opportunities for doing more good, or fail to push yourself to grow — I’ve certainly been there before.

        So I suggest doing a career review this January — but committing to a realistic volume of work. You can start small. You can also try getting help — ask a friend to act as an “accountability buddy” or apply to talk one-on-one with someone from 80,000 Hours.

        I’m committing to do it too this month — that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this newsletter!

        Here are some of our tools and resources that you could use at whatever level of detail works for you:

        The quick version (30–60 minutes)

        Try our annual career review tool

        These guided questions help you reflect on the last year, consider whether to change your job, and make a plan for this year.

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        2022 in review

        As 2023 gets underway, we’re taking a look back at the content we produced in 2022 and highlighting some particular standouts.

        We published a lot of new articles and podcasts to help our readers have impactful careers — below are some of our favourite pieces from the year.

        Standout posts and articles

        My experience with imposter syndrome — and how to (partly) overcome it
        80,000 Hours team member Luisa Rodriguez wrote this powerful and insightful piece on a challenge many people face when trying to have an impactful career. In it, she describes clearly what it’s like to have imposter syndrome from her own first-hand experience and provides a lot of helpful advice and guidance on how to manage it. I think a lot of people will benefit from reading it.

        Know what you’re optimising for
        Alex Lawsen, one of 80,000 Hours’ advisors, has noticed that people often fall into the trap of trying to optimise the wrong things — like students who spend so much time worrying that their homework is neatly written, rather than actually understanding and learning from the material. The piece offers practical advice for overcoming this issue.

        Anonymous advice: If you want to reduce AI risk, should you take roles that advance AI capabilities?
        This is a really challenging question that we are still struggling with, and this post was one way we have grappled with it. We asked 22 people we trust as thoughtful and informed experts in the field of AI safety for their thoughts,

        Continue reading →

          #143 – Jeffrey Lewis on the most common misconceptions about nuclear weapons

          John F. Kennedy had ordered a stand down to all U-2 flights during the Cuban Missile Crisis, because he knew this was exactly the kind of thing that could get out of control. And he did not have total control, but a U-2 flight still went off and somebody got shot down.

          And Kennedy’s response, which is like peak Kennedy, was, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the message.” And I think that’s a really good way of looking at dynamic complex systems.

          Jeffrey Lewis

          America aims to avoid nuclear war by relying on the principle of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ right? Wrong. Or at least… not officially.

          As today’s guest — Jeffrey Lewis, founder of Arms Control Wonk and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies — explains, in its official ‘OPLANs’ (military operation plans), the US is committed to ‘dominating’ in a nuclear war with Russia. How would they do that? “That is redacted.”

          We invited Jeffrey to come on the show to lay out what we and our listeners are most likely to be misunderstanding about nuclear weapons, the nuclear posture of major powers, and his field as a whole, and he did not disappoint.

          As Jeffrey tells it, ‘mutually assured destruction’ was a slur used to criticise those who wanted to limit the 1960s arms buildup, and was never accepted as a matter of policy in any US administration. But isn’t it still the de facto reality? Yes and no.

          Jeffrey is a specialist on the nuts and bolts of bureaucratic and military decision-making in real-life situations. He suspects that at the start of their term presidents get a briefing about the US’ plan to prevail in a nuclear war and conclude that “it’s freaking madness.” They say to themselves that whatever these silly plans may say, they know a nuclear war cannot be won, so they just won’t use the weapons.

          But Jeffrey thinks that’s a big mistake. Yes, in a calm moment presidents can resist pressure from advisors and generals. But that idea of ‘winning’ a nuclear war is in all the plans. Staff have been hired because they believe in those plans. It’s what the generals and admirals have all prepared for.

          What matters is the ‘not calm moment’: the 3AM phone call to tell the president that ICBMs might hit the US in eight minutes — the same week Russia invades a neighbour or China invades Taiwan. Is it a false alarm? Should they retaliate before their land-based missile silos are hit? There’s only minutes to decide.

          Jeffrey points out that in emergencies, presidents have repeatedly found themselves railroaded into actions they didn’t want to take because of how information and options were processed and presented to them. In the heat of the moment, it’s natural to reach for the plan you’ve prepared — however mad it might sound.

          In this spicy conversation, Jeffrey fields the most burning questions from Rob and the audience, in the process explaining:

          • Why inter-service rivalry is one of the biggest constraints on US nuclear policy
          • Two times the US sabotaged nuclear nonproliferation among great powers
          • How his field uses jargon to exclude outsiders
          • How the US could prevent the revival of mass nuclear testing by the great powers
          • Why nuclear deterrence relies on the possibility that something might go wrong
          • Whether ‘salami tactics’ render nuclear weapons ineffective
          • The time the Navy and Air Force switched views on how to wage a nuclear war, just when it would allow them to have the most missiles
          • The problems that arise when you won’t talk to people you think are evil
          • Why missile defences are politically popular despite being strategically foolish
          • How open source intelligence can prevent arms races
          • 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: Katy Moore

          Continue reading →

          How we’re thinking about where to donate to charity this year

          Charitable giving can be hugely impactful — if you’re careful about where you donate.

          One of the simplest ways to have an impact with your career is to donate a portion of your income.

          But if you’re going to do that, where you donate can make a huge difference. Within a cause area, the best charities could be 10 times better than typical charities, and hundreds of times better than poorly performing charities.

          650 million people — 8% of the world’s population — live in extreme poverty. That’s surviving on less than $2.15 a day (in 2017 prices).

          Meanwhile, if you earn over $25,000 a year in the US, you’re probably in the richest ~10% of the world’s population.

          You can send money directly to the world’s poorest people with minimal overhead via GiveDirectly.

          And that’s just a start. GiveWell estimates that through donating to its top charities (focused on extremely cost-effective, evidence-backed public health interventions), your donation will go 5–10 times further than a direct cash transfer.

          And we’d guess that if you target donations towards effective organisations tackling the world’s most pressing problems, you can do even more good.

          So, this giving season, we’ve updated our guide to picking where to donate: How to choose where to donate.

          Continue reading →

          How to choose where to donate

          If you want to make a difference, and are happy to give toward wherever you think you can do the most good (regardless of cause area), how do you choose where to donate? This is a brief summary of the most useful tips we have.

          How to choose an effective charity
          First, plan your research

          One big decision to make is whether to do your own research or delegate your decision to someone else. Below are some considerations.

          If you trust someone else’s recommendations, you can defer to them.

          If you know someone who shares your values and has already put a lot of thought into where to give, then consider simply going with their recommendations.

          But it can be better to do your own research if any of these apply to you:

          • You think you might find something higher impact according to your values than even your best advisor would find (because you have unique values, good research skills, or access to special information — e.g. knowing about a small project a large donor might not have looked into).
          • You think you might be able to productively contribute to the broader debate about which charities should be funded (producing research is a public good for other donors).
          • You want to improve your knowledge of effective altruism and charity evaluation.

          Consider entering a donor lottery.

          A donor lottery allows you to donate into a fund with other small donors,

          Continue reading →

          #142 – John McWhorter on key lessons from linguistics, the virtue of creoles, and language extinction

          You speak a very small, and probably therefore fascinating and very complicated language. You marry somebody who speaks another one from several villages over. The two of you move to the city, [where] there’s some big giant lingua franca.

          What are you going to speak to your kids? You’re going to speak that big fat language.

          That kills languages, because after a while, there are very few people left in the village. The big language is the language of songs, the big language is what you text in. That’s a very hard thing to resist.

          John McWhorter

          John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University specialising in research on creole languages.

          He’s also a content-producing machine, never afraid to give his frank opinion on anything and everything. On top of his academic work John has also written 22 books, produced five online university courses, hosts one and a half podcasts, and now writes a regular New York Times op-ed column.

          Our show is mostly about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. But what’s the point of hosting a podcast if you can’t occasionally just talk about something fascinating with someone whose work you appreciate?

          So today, just before the holidays, we’re sharing this interview with John about language and linguistics — including what we think are some of the most important things everyone ought to know about those topics. We ask him:

          • Can you communicate faster in some languages than others, or is there some constraint that prevents that?
          • Does learning a second or third language make you smarter, or not?
          • Can a language decay and get worse at communicating what people want to get across?
          • If children aren’t taught any language at all, how many generations does it take them to invent a fully fledged one of their own?
          • Did Shakespeare write in a foreign language, and if so, should we translate his plays?
          • How much does the language we speak really shape the way we think?
          • Are creoles the best languages in the world — languages that ideally we would all speak?
          • What would be the optimal number of languages globally?
          • Does trying to save dying languages do their speakers a favour, or is it more of an imposition?
          • Should we bother to teach foreign languages in UK and US schools?
          • Is it possible to save the important cultural aspects embedded in a dying language without saving the language itself?
          • Will AI models speak a language of their own in the future, one that humans can’t understand, but which better serves the tradeoffs AI models need to make?

          We then put some of these questions to the large language model ChatGPT, asking it to play the role of a linguistics professor at Colombia University.

          We’ve also added John’s talk “Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language” to the end of this episode. So stick around after the credits!

          And if you’d rather see Rob and John’s facial expressions or beautiful high cheekbones while listening to this conversation, you can watch the video of the full interview.

          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
          Video editing: Ryan Kessler
          Transcriptions: Katy Moore

          Continue reading →

          #141 – Richard Ngo on large language models, OpenAI, and striving to make the future go well

          It does seem like we’re on track towards having many instances of the largest models rolled out. Maybe every person gets a personal assistant. And as those systems get more and more intelligent, the effects that they have on the world increase and increase. And the interactions that they have with the people who are nominally using them become much more complicated.

          Maybe it starts to become less clear whether they’re being deceptive and so on… But we don’t really have concrete solutions right now.

          Richard Ngo

          Large language models like GPT-3, and now ChatGPT, are neural networks trained on a large fraction of all text available on the internet to do one thing: predict the next word in a passage. This simple technique has led to something extraordinary — black boxes able to write TV scripts, explain jokes, produce satirical poetry, answer common factual questions, argue sensibly for political positions, and more. Every month their capabilities grow.

          But do they really ‘understand’ what they’re saying, or do they just give the illusion of understanding?

          Today’s guest, Richard Ngo, thinks that in the most important sense they understand many things. Richard is a researcher at OpenAI — the company that created ChatGPT — who works to foresee where AI advances are going and develop strategies that will keep these models from ‘acting out’ as they become more powerful, are deployed and ultimately given power in society.

          One way to think about ‘understanding’ is as a subjective experience. Whether it feels like something to be a large language model is an important question, but one we currently have no way to answer.

          However, as Richard explains, another way to think about ‘understanding’ is as a functional matter. If you really understand an idea, you’re able to use it to reason and draw inferences in new situations. And that kind of understanding is observable and testable.

          One experiment conducted by AI researchers suggests that language models have some of this kind of understanding.

          If you ask any of these models what city the Eiffel Tower is in and what else you might do on a holiday to visit the Eiffel Tower, they will say Paris and suggest visiting the Palace of Versailles and eating a croissant.

          One would be forgiven for wondering whether this might all be accomplished merely by memorising word associations in the text the model has been trained on. To investigate this, the researchers found the part of the model that stored the connection between ‘Eiffel Tower’ and ‘Paris,’ and flipped that connection from ‘Paris’ to ‘Rome.’

          If the model just associated some words with one another, you might think that this would lead it to now be mistaken about the location of the Eiffel Tower, but answer other questions correctly. However, this one flip was enough to switch its answers to many other questions as well. Now if you asked it what else you might visit on a trip to the Eiffel Tower, it will suggest visiting the Colosseum and eating pizza, among other changes.

          Another piece of evidence comes from the way models are prompted to give responses to questions. Researchers have found that telling models to talk through problems step by step often significantly improves their performance, which suggests that models are doing something useful with that extra “thinking time”.

          Richard argues, based on this and other experiments, that language models are developing sophisticated representations of the world which can be manipulated to draw sensible conclusions — maybe not so different from what happens in the human mind. And experiments have found that, as models get more parameters and are trained on more data, these types of capabilities consistently improve.

          We might feel reluctant to say a computer understands something the way that we do. But if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, we should consider that maybe we have a duck — or at least something sufficiently close to a duck it doesn’t matter.

          In today’s conversation, host Rob Wiblin and Richard discuss the above, as well as:

          • Could speeding up AI development be a bad thing?
          • The balance between excitement and fear when it comes to AI advances
          • Why OpenAI focuses its efforts where it does
          • Common misconceptions about machine learning
          • How many computer chips it might require to be able to do most of the things humans do
          • How Richard understands the ‘alignment problem’ differently than other people
          • Why ‘situational awareness’ may be a key concept for understanding the behaviour of AI models
          • What work to positively shape the development of AI Richard is and isn’t excited about
          • The AGI Safety Fundamentals course that Richard developed to help people learn more about this field

          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: Milo McGuire and Ben Cordell
          Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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          Marcus Davis on founding and leading Rethink Priorities

          You might say there’s nothing you can do now [to help wild animals]… Something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt.

          So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

          Marcus Davis

          In this episode of 80k After Hours, Rob Wiblin interviews Marcus Davis about Rethink Priorities.

          Marcus is co-CEO there, in charge of their animal welfare and global health and development research.

          They cover:

          • Interventions to help wild animals
          • Aquatic noise
          • Rethink Priorities strategy
          • Mistakes that RP has made since it was founded
          • Careers in global priorities research
          • And the most surprising thing Marcus has learned at RP

          Who this episode is for:

          • People who want to learn about Rethink Priorities
          • People interested in a career in global priorities research
          • People open to novel ways to help wild animals

          Who this episode isn’t for:

          • People who think global priorities research sounds boring
          • People who want to host very loud concerts under the sea

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

          Producer: Keiran Harris
          Audio mastering: Milo McGuire and Ben Cordell
          Transcriptions: Katy Moore

          Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue, original 1924 version” by Jason Weinberger is licensed under creative commons

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          Four values at the heart of effective altruism

          What actually is effective altruism?

          Effective altruism isn’t about any particular way of doing good, like AI alignment or distributing malaria nets. Rather, it’s a way of thinking.

          Last summer, I wrote a new introduction to effective altruism for In it, I tried to sum up the effective altruism way of thinking in terms of four values. (I wrote this newsletter before FTX collapsed, but maybe that makes it even more important to reiterate the core values of EA.)

          1. Prioritisation. Resources are limited, so we have to make hard choices between potential interventions. While helping 10 people might feel as satisfying as helping 100, those extra 90 people really matter. And it turns out that some ways of helping achieve dramatically more than others, so it’s vital to really try to roughly compare ways we might help in terms of scale and effectiveness.
          2. Impartial altruism. It’s reasonable and good to have special concern for one’s own family, friends, life, etc. But when trying to do good in general, we should give everyone’s interests equal weight — no matter where or even when they live. People matter equally. And we should also give due weight to the interests of nonhumans.
          3. Open truth-seeking. Rather than starting with a commitment to a certain cause, consider many different ways to help and try to find the best ones you can. Put serious time into deliberation and reflection,

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          Why being open to changing our minds is especially important right now

          If something surprises you, your view of the world should change in some way.

          We’ve argued that you should approach your career like a scientist doing experiments: be willing to test out many different paths and gather evidence about where you can have the most impact.

          More generally, this approach of open truth-seeking — being constantly, curiously on the lookout for new evidence and arguments, and always being ready to change our minds — is a virtue we think is absolutely crucial to doing good.

          One of our first-ever podcast episodes was an interview with Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset (before she wrote the book!).

          Julia argues — in our view, correctly — that it’s easy to end up viewing the world like a soldier, when really you should be more like a scout.

          Soldiers have set views and beliefs, and defend those beliefs. When we are acting like soldiers, we display motivated reasoning: for example, confirmation bias, where we seek out information that supports our existing beliefs and misinterpret information that is evidence against our position so that it seems like it’s not.

          Scouts, on the other hand, need to form correct beliefs. So they have to change their minds as they view more of the landscape.

          Acting like a scout isn’t always easy:

          • There’s lots of psychological evidence suggesting that we all have cognitive biases that cloud our thinking.

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          Regarding the collapse of FTX

          The collapse of FTX is likely to cause a tremendous amount of harm – to customers, employees, and many others who have relied on FTX. We are deeply concerned about those affected and, along with our community, are grappling with how to respond.

          Though we do not know for sure whether anything illegal happened, we unequivocally condemn any immoral or illegal actions that may have taken place.

          Prior to this, we had celebrated Sam Bankman-Fried’s apparent success, had held him up as a positive example of someone pursuing a high-impact career, and had written about how we encouraged him to use a strategy of earning to give (for example here). We feel shaken by recent events, and are not sure exactly what to say or think.

          In the meantime, we will start by removing instances on our site where Sam was highlighted as a positive example of someone pursuing a high-impact career, since, to say the least, we no longer endorse that. We are leaving up discussions of Sam in places that seem important for transparency, for example this blog post on the growth of effective altruism in 2021.

          In the coming weeks and months we will be thinking hard about what we should do going forward and ways in which we should have acted differently.

          If you are out there trying the best you can to use your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems with honesty and integrity,

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            #140 – Bear Braumoeller on the case that war isn’t in decline

            Imagine I have a deck of 96 cards. The most common card has 1,000 battle deaths, but one of the cards is World War I, and one of the cards is World War II. How worried should you be about drawing a card from that deck?

            You could say, “Well, most of them are 1,000 battle deaths, so I shouldn’t be too worried.” But at the same time, World War I and World War II are in there, and if the deck hasn’t changed, we really need to be thoughtful about when it is we’re going to draw another card.

            Bear Braumoeller

            Is war in long-term decline? Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature brought this previously obscure academic question to the centre of public debate, and pointed to rates of death in war to argue energetically that war is on the way out.

            But that idea divides war scholars and statisticians, and so Better Angels has prompted a spirited debate, with datasets and statistical analyses exchanged back and forth year after year. The lack of consensus has left a somewhat bewildered public (including host Rob Wiblin) unsure quite what to believe.

            Today’s guest, professor in political science Bear Braumoeller, is one of the scholars who believes we lack convincing evidence that warlikeness is in long-term decline. He collected the analysis that led him to that conclusion in his 2019 book, Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age.

            The question is of great practical importance. The US and PRC are entering a period of renewed great power competition, with Taiwan as a potential trigger for war, and Russia is once more invading and attempting to annex the territory of its neighbours.

            If war has been going out of fashion since the start of the Enlightenment, we might console ourselves that however nerve-wracking these present circumstances may feel, modern culture will throw up powerful barriers to another world war. But if we’re as war-prone as we ever have been, one need only inspect the record of the 20th century to recoil in horror at what might await us in the 21st.

            Bear argues that the second reaction is the appropriate one. The world has gone up in flames many times through history, with roughly 0.5% of the population dying in the Napoleonic Wars, 1% in World War I, 3% in World War II, and perhaps 10% during the Mongol conquests. And with no reason to think similar catastrophes are any less likely today, complacency could lead us to sleepwalk into disaster.

            He gets to this conclusion primarily by analysing the datasets of the decades-old Correlates of War project, which aspires to track all interstate conflicts and battlefield deaths since 1815. In Only the Dead, he chops up and inspects this data dozens of different ways, to test if there are any shifts over time which seem larger than what could be explained by chance variation alone.

            Among other metrics, Bear looks at:

            • Battlefield deaths alone, as a percentage of combatants’ populations, and as a percentage of world population.
            • The total number of wars starting in a given year.
            • Rates of war initiation as a fraction of all country pairs capable of fighting wars.
            • How likely it was during different periods that a given war would double in size.
            Image source.

            In a nutshell, and taking in the full picture painted by these different measures, Bear simply finds no general trend in either direction from 1815 through today. It seems like, as philosopher George Santayana lamented in 1922, “only the dead have seen the end of war”.

            That’s not to say things are the same in all periods. Depending on which indication of warlikeness you give the greatest weight, you can point to some periods that seem violent or pacific beyond what might be explained by random variation.

            For instance, Bear points out that war initiation really did go down a lot at the end of the Cold War, with peace probably fostered by a period of unipolar US dominance, and the end of great power funding for proxy wars.

            But that drop came after a period of somewhat above-average warlikeness during the Cold War. And surprisingly, the most peaceful period in Europe turns out not to be 1990–2015, but rather 1815–1855, during which the monarchical ‘Concert of Europe,’ scarred by the Napoleonic Wars, worked together to prevent revolution and interstate aggression.

            Why haven’t modern ideas about the immorality of violence led to the decline of war, when it’s such a natural thing to expect? Bear is no Enlightenment scholar, but his book notes (among other reasons) that while modernity threw up new reasons to embrace pacifism, it also gave us new reasons to embrace violence: as a means to overthrow monarchy, distribute the means of production more equally, or protect people a continent away from ethnic cleansing — all motives that would have been foreign in the 15th century.

            In today’s conversation, Bear and Rob discuss all of the above in more detail than even a usual 80,000 Hours podcast episode, as well as:

            • What would Bear’s critics say in response to all this?
            • What do the optimists get right?
            • What are the biggest problems with the Correlates of War dataset?
            • How does one do proper statistical tests for events that are clumped together, like war deaths?
            • Why are deaths in war so concentrated in a handful of the most extreme events?
            • Did the ideas of the Enlightenment promote nonviolence, on balance?
            • Were early states more or less violent than groups of hunter-gatherers?
            • If Bear is right, what can be done?
            • How did the ‘Concert of Europe’ or ‘Bismarckian system’ maintain peace in the 19th century?
            • Which wars are remarkable but largely unknown?
            • What’s the connection between individual attitudes and group behaviour?
            • Is it a problem that this dataset looks at just the ‘state system’ and ‘battlefield deaths’?

            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: Katy Moore

            Continue reading →