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

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

Questions like this are the domain of AI policy experts.

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

It complements our article outlining the importance of positively shaping artificial intelligence. If you are considering a career in artificial intelligence safety, both are essential reading.

I interviewed Miles to dig deeper into his advice. We discuss the main career paths; what to study; where to apply; how to get started; what topics are most in need of research; and what progress has been made in the field so far.

The audio, summary and full transcript are below.

To listen on your phone, just subscribe to the ‘80,000 Hours Podcast’ (RSS) wherever you listen to podcasts. That way you can listen to it sped up and get alerts about future episodes.

Full transcript

Robert Wiblin: Hi,

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10 steps to a job in politics

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Sacia B and Hugh T speak to Maria A while campaigning for the Greens in Canada.

I recently interviewed 4 people who work in government, the civil service, and political parties in the UK. Here is a synthesis of the steps they consider most useful for starting a career in politics.

Net-work to get-work. Go to as many political and think tank events as you can. Talk to people. Ask advice. Make friends.

Copy your heroes. Read biographies of people whose careers/impact you’d like to emulate. Copy what they did.

Be there. Physically spend time in the places you’d like to end up. That means visiting Parliament (you can sit and watch the Commons and Lords, and attend select committees). Have a drink at the Red Lion pub, where MPs and researchers hang out. Attend the annual Party Conference of your Party.

Enter the meme-space of the political class. Listen to the Radio 4 Today Programme every morning. (Have a break at weekends). How would you answer the interviewer’s questions? What questions would you ask? Watch Newsnight in the evening.

Apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream. It’s an amazing, underrated and potentially high-impact career. The assessment process in itself is good practice, and you’ll meet some cool people if you get through to the assessment center. If you don’t get in first time, keep trying.

Organise a meeting with your local MP.

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Effective altruists love systemic change

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Effective altruists are out working every day to fix society’s systemic problems. It’s time to definitely rebut the claim that we don’t care about systemic change.

Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.

Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1

Despite being the most widespread critique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.

Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!

So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.

What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:

  • Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
  • Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
  • Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.

It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.

We’re not done though.

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In some careers your parents can give you a huge boost. Should you do what they did?

Angelina-Jon-GettyWould Angelina Jolie have been as successful if her father wasn’t Jon Voight?

In our talks we often note that in the past people typically went into the same career as their parents, but today young people are free to choose from a much wider range of options that might suit them better. That’s true, and it’s a great thing. However, there are still sometimes reasons to follow in your parents’ footsteps.

New research shows that working in the same field as a successful parent can give your odds of success a huge boost. Surely some of what’s going on here is that the child of a star parent is more likely to try to enter the same field in the first place, but part must also be that they are more likely to succeed when they do so.

Some, perhaps even most, of that effect will be due to to unfair and zero-sum nepotistic advantage, and so shouldn’t be actively exploited. But part of it must also be down to nothing immoral: you will start learning about the work incidentally from a young age, you’ll happen to make useful contacts as you grow up, and your parent may even be able to offer you personal coaching.

Unfortunately, the boost seems to be largest in fields where performance is hardest to measure (it’s smaller in sport and science) or where a brand surname matters, as in politics.

Here are the results for some of the most competitive positions in society:

nytimesinheritance

I recommend reading the full article which has many more details.

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What are your chances of getting elected to Congress, if you try?

Congress being sworn in

The short answer to this question is ‘very low’. In total there are 535 seats in Congress and 320 million people living in the USA. At any point then, just 1 in 600,000 people living in the USA are members of Congress.

In a competition this insanely selective, only a small share of the population will have what it takes to seriously pursue a career in national politics. Some people who seem like they could be in with a chance – great undergraduate results, high verbal intelligence, charisma and persuasiveness – come to us looking for advice on their career.

If you were one of these people and actually tried to become a member of Congress, your odds would be much higher than 1 in 600,000 – but how much higher exactly?

It’s not straightforward to find a way to make progress. Nevertheless, we think we have found an approach that can get us in the right ballpark for some kinds of people. The method we will use is called reference class forecasting. In reference class forecasting you find a group that you are a member of and see what share of people in that group succeed.

Who makes it to Congress?

If you want to know how closely you resemble existing members of Congress the paper to start with is ‘Membership of the 114th Congress: A Profile‘, from the Congressional Research Service.

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How to influence policy? An interview with Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development

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Introduction

We recently interviewed Owen Barder to find out about making a difference through careers in policy.

The interview was conducted in person. Below we summarize the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts which have been edited and reorganized for clarity.

In summary, Owen told us:

  • How influence over policies works in the UK political system. In his experience the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs and civil servants is one in which they all have an important role to play and they all depend on each other to achieve success. In addition, there is a complex ecosystem of outsiders that influence policies, which requires a combination of proper research, smart political ideas, effective communication and political leadership to influence policy change.

  • That the most important types of international policies can be divided into three groups: zero-sum policies in which there is a short-run trade-off between the interests of rich countries and poor countries (eg aid transfers); win-win policies which would benefit rich countries and poor countries (eg trade liberalisation); and fostering global public goods (eg R&D and global institutions).

  • Students interested in any career field dealing with the developing world should strongly consider traveling to and living in the developing world for some period of time. For those particularly interested in getting involved in politics, becoming a special advisor is one clear pathway, but transitions to the civil service or politics later in life are possible.

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An estimate of the expected influence of becoming a politician

Politics

Introduction

How much influence could you have by becoming a politician? Common sense says that politicians have a lot of influence, and it’s a serious contender as a high impact path for someone who’s altruistically motivated. But aren’t the chances of success incredibly low? Our guess was that even though the chances are low, the potential impact is still very high. So, when we were asked about UK politics in a recent case study, we decided to make a more detailed estimate of the expected influence to feed into an overall analysis of politics as a career path.

We found that chances of success are low, but for some students they’re not low enough to offset the very large potential influence. The UK government budget is £720 billion, and even a small chance at influencing a budget that large could be highly significant (and the impact of politicians extends well beyond budgets).

We’ve extended our analysis of the chances of an Oxford PPE graduate succeeding as a politician, to make a rough estimate that such a student can expect to be able to direct £7.5 – 75 million to the causes they support from their chances of making it into elected office. For a student similar to an Oxford PPE graduate, this suggests the path is competitive with the most high potential earning to give careers – such as those in finance – in terms of financial influence, which when combined with politicians’ law-making powers and advocacy opportunities could put politics clearly ahead.

Aren’t politicians highly constrained by existing policy, what other politicians want, the desires of the electorate and other factors? Yes, but these factors have already been included in the estimate. Read on to see the full process.

Summary of the estimate

Our preliminary estimate is that an Oxford PPE graduate who aims to become a politician in the UK, could expect to influence £150 million of government spending, arising from their chances of making it into office. A number of factors decrease the impact of that money; giving a quality-adjusted estimate of £7.5 – 75 million, falling towards the lower end if you’re primarily interested in very specific interventions (e.g. supporting a certain organisation) rather than broader ones (e.g. promoting evidence-based policy). This is the amount of government spending the graduate might be able to direct towards the causes they support.

For students without the typical attributes of Oxford PPE students, chances are significantly reduced. For instance, repeating the calculation but considering students from Oxford and Cambridge as a whole suggests expected influence on the order of £1 – 10 million. More generally, the expected influence is highly sensitive to the individual’s degree of fit with politics i.e. it could be substantially higher for someone with strong success in student politics at Oxford, and near zero for many others.

Our proposed estimate is extremely coarse. We rely on a crude economic model of influence within government, assume that this influence in aggregate accounts for all public spending, and try to estimate the share of influence possessed by a number of relevant groups. We believe this model is much stronger than it appears casually, and do provide some justification for some of the simplifying assumptions at the end of the document. We also explain some important caveats, such as our uncertainty over the prominence of MPs and ministers, and focussing mainly on Oxford PPE. Nevertheless, it is certainly an extremely crude model. The error on this estimate is at least an order of magnitude or so, and if there are significant issues with the methodology they may actually be even larger.

To compensate for this we have made conservative estimates throughout, and still arrived at a remarkably high number. Since the conclusion of this calculation is also supported by the common sense position that going into politics is high potential for students with the right characteristics, we conclude that the expected influence of entering this path is indeed very large.

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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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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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How hard is it to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?

How much good should one expect to do in a political career aimed at Parliament or Prime Ministership in the United Kingdom? A number of members of 80,000 hours suspect that they have above-average suitability for politics, but want to compare the field against research or entrepreneurship. To do that we need to think about the power of elected officials to sway policy in office, the value of different policies, and the probability that a political career will reach various levels of success. This post will take a stab at the last question, using data from Parliament and the educational system.

With a strong academic background, interest in politics, and social skill those chances may be surprisingly good, as much as 1 in 3 for becoming an MP, and 1 in 300 for PM. Let’s take a first pass at our Fermi calculation and see how.

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