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?

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 1.31.35 AM

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.

Continue reading →

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).

Continue reading →

The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours

Tim2

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

Interview with the founder of Giving Games

Like both Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, Jon Behar left a lucrative job at a hedge fund to create a startup called “A Path That’s Clear”. Here, he runs “Giving Games” which engage people around the world in discussions about effective giving.

Rob Wiblin and I sat down to interview Jon Behar and learn more about his career choices and what it’s like to leave your job to pursue dreams of running effective altruist projects. Jon’s main points were:

  • It can be worthwhile to take some time off to think about things if you no longer are enjoying your job.

  • Working on something that you think is important can make you more motivated and more productive.

  • When starting an effective altruist project, it could be important to consider how you could partner with an existing organization rather than proliferate the large amount of EA orgs that exist.

  • The best way to get into a career in any field is to find people who are already in that field and ask them for advice, even if you don’t know them. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who agree to speak with you.

Continue reading →

Case Study: Designing a new organisation that might be more effective than GiveWell’s top recommendation

Fundraising_for_effective_altruists

Several months ago, we wrote about an easy way to create a charity that’s more effective than GiveWell’s top recommendations. It’s a simple idea: create an organisation that does nothing except fundraise for GiveWell’s top recommendations. It seems relatively easy to raise more than $1 for every $1 invested in fundraising, so it seems relatively easy to act as a multiplier on donations to other charities, and thus create an organisation with a cost-effectiveness ratio that’s higher than the charities themselves.

We were thrilled, therefore, to find that two 80k members, Joey and Xio, are planning to start an organisation that does exactly this. It’s called Effective Fundraising. Their plan is to start by writing grants for Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and The Humane League for six months. If it goes well, they could hire more people. Longer term, they could expand into others kinds of fundraising. They chose grant writing because (i) surveys of average fundraising ratios found that grant writing earns an average return of around $8 for every $1 invested, which is higher than most other forms of fundraising (ii) the money can be raised within 6-18 months, unlike ‘chugging’ (asking for donations on the street) or door-to-door which takes several years to pay off.

We think:

  1. Working on Effective Fundraising looks like a very strong option for building career capital.
  2. They could consider running more experiments before committing to grant-writing for 6 months.
  3. They may be having less impact than they could because they may not be supporting the most high priority causes.
  4. They should strongly consider hiring someone else to work for Effective Fundraising as a grant writer.

Continue reading →

Making a difference through social entrepreneurship: an interview with Tom Rippin

I spoke with Tom Rippin, founder and CEO of On Purpose, a leadership programme aimed at “attracting and developing talent to address the greatest issues faced by society and the environment.” We talked about:

  • Tom’s own career path and what led him to founding On Purpose

  • Why he thinks that social enterprise has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the world

  • What constraints the social enterprise movement faces at the moment

  • How On Purpose is working to address these issues, and how they plan to assess their own impact

176720914_640

Continue reading →

How to create the world’s most effective charity

GiveWell’s charity recommendations – currently Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative– are generally regarded as the most reliable in their field. I imagine many readers here donate to these charities. This makes it all the more surprising that it should be pretty easy to start a charity more effective than any of them.

All you would need to do is found an organisation that fundraises for whoever GiveWell recommends, and raises more than a dollar with each dollar it receives. Is this hard?

Fundraising_for_effective_altruists

Continue reading →