Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Post 92: Effective Altruism and Grad School

Bit a hiatus from the blog since my trip home—I was ridiculously busy when I was there—but now I'm back, and determined to finish this thesis. However, before I speak more directly to thesis things, I wanted to revisit my trip to Berkeley for the Effective Altruism Global Conference I attended at the beginning of August. I've been thinking quite a bit about the people and ideas I encountered there, since. (I've just noticed that a significant number of the talks are posted, so go check them out!)

What's effective altruism? I won't rehash's introductory essay about EA because you can read the whole thing here, but the general idea is to use evidence and reason to find the best way to make the biggest difference you can over your lifetime. If you're interested, I also recently co-wrote an introductory article to EA with Wray McOuat that you can check out here.

Gorgeous bougainvillea on a street in Berkeley.
So how is EA relevant for grad students? Well, we're pursuing training in a particular kind of skillset (research, teaching, critical thinking) that we will likely work to make a difference in whatever field we go into, so I actually think there's a lot of compatibility with pursuing careers (and an educative experience that emphasizes learning critical thinking, applying reason, and assessing different kinds of evidence for different causes).

A few words about the conference: as with attending conferences, it was an easy way to very quickly learn a whole lot, meet fascinating people, and test out my ideas—I also really love that the conference explicitly encouraged participants to seek out people with (on the face of it) opposing ideas, and to chat them out. Because of the conference I have radically changed my opinion about the effectiveness of giving money; previously I’d always held the idea that it’s better to donate time or creativity or energy in some way, but of course money is a representation of all of those things, applied in a particular way. At some point when your career is taking off, your ability to generate a decent income in a developed country can significantly outweigh the time and energy you may volunteer to a cause. And, if you're working full-time, you might not have the energy or time left over to donate. So, donating money can be a really good way to contribute to a cause that you support. 

Grand University of California, Berkley, campus architecture!
Having only once, for a brief period of time, made enough of an income to be classified above the poverty line, I have never thought of myself as being in a position where I could donate much, and so I don't think I had seriously considered it as an option, and my donating happened sporadically, to causes that I have come to believe are important (and still are), but I wasn't thinking about evaluating their effectiveness as much. The little bit that I gave, I did so because "it felt good." And I generally preferred to go volunteer my time or skills instead. Meeting a few people who were well into their careers and who didn’t have the extra time to volunteer, and who were proponents of such a method of doing good caused me to examine my beliefs about that matter. And then of course, the key is donating so to causes that are maximally effective. BUT -- I am still thinking about what this means for me, and I will revisit this in a future post. 

Dr. Max Tegmark delivering his talk via Blue Jeans, about 10 AI Safety Myths.
Further, what I think was particularly unique about this conference compared to others that I have attended, is that I found both very like-minded people, who described themselves as being altruistic and now working on the “effective” part, and also people who were very dissimilar to me: artificial intelligence researchers, philosophers, tech start-up founders, people who worked for various governments, or for charities and development organizations. People from the UK, from Australia, from the US, and all over. Such a diverse set of people!

And, Berkeley was beautiful as well. Overall, it was a phenomenal conference and I am very glad that I attended. Getting to talk to Toby Ord, an ethicist at the Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford) and really brilliant person, was spectacular. I had several discussions with Andy Fallshaw, CEO of Belroy, and am convinced he's one of the most generous people I have ever met: bright, charismatic, caring, and more than happy to make reading recommendations. On his advice, I'm currently looking at Douglas W. Hubbard's "How to Measure Anything," which I hope to discuss with my sister, soon. I definitely wish him well. 
Hike up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, which was really the coolest! 
I met several other tech start-up folks (EA is hoppin' in San Fran and has considerable overlap with the ambitious folks and business culture in the Bay Area), and the sense of ambition, vision, and possibility there was intoxicating for a little while. I didn’t get to speak with Will MacAskill in person, but hearing him talk was great, and there were free copies of his recent book Doing Good Better available. I devoured it on my return trip, and also learned a lot more about EA. If you're interested, I definitely recommend it as an introduction to effective altruism. There were a few awkward conversations, of course, because I found it difficult to maintain social grace at all times as an introvert, especially when I frequently found my energy bucket running on empty, but it was a good time overall.
From the Lawrence Hall of Science: A display of early cyclotrons: the things that smash atoms together. :D
Overall, I feel that the methodology and approach of EA is really a good one—and one to be applied more broadly than simply to EA. Using evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good in the world appeals to me and speaks to my values. While I think there are still ideas to be worked out with how to measure and compare the effectiveness of different charitable interventions, the complexity behind undertaking such measurements is not without difficulty, and I am content that it is being worked on. Something to keep an eye on in the future. 

Happy September! Happy fall!

In my next post, I'll discuss the value of small successes along the way, to help build momentum and motivation during grad school.