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

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

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

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

We dive into:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us about your background

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

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

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

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

In summary, I’ll argue:

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

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

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Why and how to found a (GiveWell) non-profit

We’ve argued against non-profit jobs as an early career move, because many have little impact and you often don’t get good career progression.

However, there’s a certain type of non-profit opportunity that we think is very exciting: start a non-profit focused on implementing an evidence-backed intervention in international development i.e. try to make the next Against Malaria Foundation.

Why?

  • There’s lots of evidence-backed interventions that don’t have a well-run, transparent organisation implementing them.
  • Scaling up many of these interventions can be expected to have a big impact.
  • There’s a huge pool of funding for non-profits going after these opportunities, most notably from GiveWell, but also foundations like Gates and CIFF, as well as government aid agencies. These groups would like to fund more non-profits, but can’t find enough that meet their criteria.

We’ve talked about this opportunity for years – see our exploratory career profile on it – and it has become even more pressing recently. The money flowing through GiveWell is growing rapidly, but the pipeline of non-profits isn’t.

GiveWell recently made a post about exactly the sorts of non-profits they’d like to fund:

  1. Charities that implement GiveWell’s priority programs: vitamin A supplementation, immunizations, conditional cash transfers, micronutrient fortification, or even bednets and deworming (since our top charities that focus on the latter two have limited room for more funding).

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What do leaders of effective non-profits say about working in non-profits?

Rob Mather – founder and CEO of GiveWell’s top rated charity, Against Malaria Foundation. Photo credit:
Andrew Testa.

I reached out to leaders at GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative (part of Evidence Action), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Development Media International to ask for their views. Here are their responses.

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Can you have more impact working in a foundation than earning to give?

Photo credit: Flickr – Refracted Moments

Key points

  • Working to improve grants at a foundation could well be more effective in terms of the impact of the money moved than earning to give. Which is better will usually come down to how good your personal opportunities are to make money, or get a job at a large foundation working on an important cause.
  • If you know of a cause area or organisation that is many times more effective than what any foundations you could work at would make grants to, then earning to give is likely to be better.
  • There are other issues, like the impact on your long-term career trajectory, that you have to consider as well as the direct impact of the money you move.

As soon as we thought of the idea of earning to give, we started thinking of ways to beat it. One idea that was floated in the very early days of 80,000 Hours was working in a foundation to allocate grants to more effective causes and organisations. Since a foundations grantmaker might allocate tens of millions of funding, far more than they could earn, maybe they could have a greater impact this way?

In this post, we provide a model for comparing the impact of foundations grantmaking and earning to give, which some people may find useful for specific scenarios where they have more info on the inputs. We also provide some very tentative estimates using the model to demonstrate how it works.

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Conversation with Paul Penley of Excellence in Giving

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Participants

  • Paul Penley: Director of Research, Excellence in Giving
  • Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Nick Beckstead: Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute; Board of Trustees, Center for Effective Altruism

Notes

This is a summary of Paul Penley’s points in a conversation on April 3, 2014, written by Katja with substantial help from the other participants.

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Foundation influence interview with Kerry Vaughan

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Introduction

Kerry Vaughan was a member of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) – a major strategic foundation with over $1.5B in assets – for 3 years and served as the manager of the technology and innovation group. Kerry is also a PhD candidate in philosophy with a specialization in ethics. We spoke with Kerry as part of some compensated research he was doing for 80,000 Hours about the impact one can have working at a foundation.

Summary

  1. The typical annual budget per employee at major foundations is $2 million. Each program officer oversees a budget of about $10 million.
  2. The typical program officer is intelligent and well-educated, and many have graduate degrees.
  3. The board of the foundation typically picks the cause areas and must approve each project. It seems difficult for program officers to influence which causes are supported. However, program officers can influence which projects are funded by selecting which non-profits get presented.

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The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours

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Tim Harford recently spoke to us at Oxford. He’s a journalist for the Financial Times and the best-selling author of the Undercover Economist, which we’d recommend as a popular introduction to Economics. He also wrote Adapt, which argues that trial and error is the best strategy for solving important global problems. The arguments he makes fit with some of the arguments we have made for trial and error being a good way to plan your career.

Tim gave a talk on innovation, similar to this. The talk introduced a distinction between two types of innovation, and asks, which one is more important?

  1. Marginal improvements – incremental improvements to existing systems.

  2. Revolutionary improvements – transformations of existing systems to create new ones.

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In which career can you make the most difference?

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Introduction

Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.

Summary

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

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5 ways to make a big difference in any career

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At 80,000 Hours, we’re focused on finding the very best opportunities for you to do good with your career. We’re worried that sometimes this continuous focus can be demoralising. After all, it’s hard to find the best opportunities. Moreover, we’re worried that sometimes our members lose sight of the fact that you can make a big difference in any career.

We don’t mean spending your birthday volunteering at a soup kitchen, giving seniors the ‘gift’ of your art, or buying a charity wristband. We mean you can transform the lives of hundreds of other people, in any career.

So, we decided to write this note explaining how…

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Reasoning about influence in politics

Understanding a politician’s influence at first appears to be hopelessly tangled. A politicians’ influence is very tenuously related to the vote they can cast in parliament, and is mediated by a complicated process involving respect for precedent, social consensus, explicit and implicit negotiation, explicit and implicit appeals to popular opinion, and so on. Fortunately, on closer inspection many of these challenges can be ameliorated.

In the following research notes, we introduce an argument that the naive answer is about right: if there are 100 politicians with one vote each, then each politician has about 1% of the total impact of the politicians.

The result is highly useful in making estimates of the influence you might expect to have by becoming a politician, or indeed in any situation when a group of people negotiate over an outcome e.g a company board setting strategy, or a committee of grant makers allocating funding.

Note that the following are only preliminary research notes that were made while doing a case study, and not the results of in-depth analysis, so we’re cautious about the conclusion. Nevertheless, we’re keen to share the ideas and seek feedback.

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More Evidence on the Competitiveness of Charity Jobs

Introduction

Here’s a short report, “Charities: Passion and skills in aid of a good cause,” on changes in the nonprofit sector’s employment landscape. The report provides evidence of increased competition over jobs, which is attributed to strong interest among recent graduates, greater professionalization across the sector, higher salaries, and an increase in the number of business people switching into nonprofit positions.

The report was published in 2008 by the Financial Times, but our sense is that the trends described have likely continued. The report features excerpts from an interview with a recruiter specialising in non-profit careers.

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An attempt to create a new AMF

There are several health interventions that have been found in academic papers to have a cost-effectiveness that’s similar or better than distributing insecticide treated bed-nets, but which lack a high quality charity to implement them. For someone with the right entrepreneurial skills, it could be extremely effective to create such a charity.

One example of a promising intervention is using mass media to promote positive health behaviours. Development Media International is attempting to become a highly effective, transparent, scalable charity that implements this intervention.

Clara Marquardt, a member of Giving What We Can, recently interviewed Will Snell, a member of 80,000 Hours and the Director of Public Engagement & Development at DMI.

Before scaling up, DMI decided to gather more evidence about the effectiveness of using mass media to promote health, since the existing evidence is patchy. In the interview, Will explains how DMI overcame numerous challenges to design, fund and carry out a $12mn randomised control trial into the effectiveness of their program. He also explains the story and mission of DMI, giving an insight into the advantages and challenges of running an impact-focused charity.

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What should you do with a very large amount of money?

A philanthropist who will remain anonymous recently asked Nick Beckstead, a trustee of 80,000 Hours, what he would do with a very large amount of money.

Nick, with support from Carl Shulman (a research advisor to 80,000 Hours), wrote a detailed answer: A long-run perspective on strategic cause selection and philanthropy.

If you’re looking to spend or influence large budgets with the aim of improving the world (or happen to be extremely wealthy!) we recommend taking a look. It also contains brief arguments in favor of five causes.

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Interview with the World Health Organisation

Jeremy Lauer is a researcher at WHO-CHOICE, a project of the World Health Organization to encourage cost-effectiveness via both research and communication with policy-makers Rob Wiblin and I sat down to interview Jeremy and learn about WHO-CHOICE, a potentially promising career path for 80,000 Hours members interested in promoting cost-effectiveness research – one of our high priority causes to investigate.

Summary

Jeremy’s main points were:

  • WHO-CHOICE is about giving countries the tools needed to establish priorities in the health sector and make good, high-impact-for-money policy.

  • The landscape of global public health is starting to shift to a time where, more and more, “best buys” and “magic-bullet solutions” such as vaccines are fully funded. This is exciting because it means people are getting important treatments, but it is also daunting because the next generation of interventions will involve more complex technical work and clearer communication with the public.

  • If you have a strong economics background, are quantitatively minded, and also have interests in epidemiology, biostatistics, or computer programming, a career at WHO-CHOICE or a similar organization could be rewarding and impactful.

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