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Could you be Prof Nick Bostrom's sidekick?

46 Post author: RobertWiblin 05 December 2014 01:09AM

If funding were available, the Centre for Effective Altruism would consider hiring someone to work closely with Prof Nick Bostrom to provide anything and everything he needs to be more productive. Bostrom is obviously the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and author of Superintelligence, the best guide yet to the possible risks posed by artificial intelligence.

Nobody has yet confirmed they will fund this role, but we are nevertheless interested in getting expressions of interest from suitable candidates.

The list of required characteristics is hefty, and the position would be a challenging one:

  • Willing to commit to the role for at least a year, and preferably several
  • Able to live and work in Oxford during this time
  • Conscientious and discreet
  • Trustworthy
  • Able to keep flexible hours (some days a lot of work, others not much)
  • Highly competent at almost everything in life (for example, organising travel, media appearances, choosing good products, and so on)
  • Will not screw up and look bad when dealing with external parties (e.g. media, event organisers, the university)
  • Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom
  • Willing to do some tasks that are not high-status
  • Willing to help Bostrom with both his professional and personal life (to free up his attention)
  • Can speak English well
  • Knowledge of rationality, philosophy and artificial intelligence would also be helpful, and would allow you to also do more work as a research assistant.

The research Bostrom can do is unique; to my knowledge we don't have anyone who has made such significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity as a whole. As a result, helping increase Bostrom's output by say, 20%, would be a major contribution. This person's work would also help the rest of the Future of Humanity Institute run smoothly.

The role would offer significant skill development in operations, some skill development in communications and research, and the chance to build extensive relationships with the people and organisations working on existential risks.

If you would like to know more, or be added to the list of potential candidates, please email me: robert [dot] wiblin [at] centreforeffectivealtruism [dot] org. Feel free to share this post around.

Note that we are also hiring for a bunch of other roles, with applications closing Friday the 12th December.

 

Comments (45)

Comment author: Lachouette 05 December 2014 09:39:49AM 20 points [-]

Better framing: "Want to be Nick Bostrom's sidekick?"

... I'd take it.

Comment author: solipsist 05 December 2014 08:27:39PM 8 points [-]

I disagree. 'Sidekick' attracts people who seek apprenticeships . This is not an opportunity for Nick Bostrom to mentor you, and not an opportunity for you to offer your valuable insight. The job is to silently clear his path of little obstacles and stay out of the way.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 December 2014 07:50:02PM *  5 points [-]

That's not the way I perceive the word "sidekick". Watson was not the apprentice of Holmes, nor was Sam Frodo's apprentice. They helped their masters and learned from them, yes, but it was clear that their masters would always outclass them.

Comment author: Smaug123 09 December 2014 01:08:27AM 2 points [-]

I'd frame it as "Nick Bostrom needs Jeeves. Are you Jeeves?" (After P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster.)

Comment author: gjm 09 December 2014 12:42:21PM 2 points [-]

Jeeves is drastically more competent than Wooster at pretty much everything. That may not be the image you want to call up.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2014 04:36:18AM 33 points [-]

This is a very high value role to fill if someone can do it well. Think of it this way: you can contribute x-risk reduction value equivalent to Bostrom-hours while being much, much less research-capable and experienced than Bostrom. What a steal!

Comment author: shminux 05 December 2014 07:14:06AM *  1 point [-]

I doubt that this is the right forum to use the "you may not be smart, but you can still make a difference" line as an ad.

Comment author: Lachouette 05 December 2014 09:49:09AM 28 points [-]

I would hope that this is exactly the right forum to for this approach. Acknowledging that their own "impact per working hour" is probably less than Bostrom's... is the least I would expect from someone claiming to honestly evaluate their own skills.

I agree that the approach as summarized by you isn't very appealing, but to me the ad doesn't read like this. It's a difficult job to do well, and can be prestigious. Whether it is depends on the framing you apply.

Comment author: Artaxerxes 05 December 2014 08:33:20AM 23 points [-]

There's a big difference between "you may not be smart" and "you may not be as smart as Nick Bostrom". Nick Bostrom is a pretty smart guy, after all.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 05 December 2014 08:06:15AM 7 points [-]

I dunno, it sounds appealing to me, at least.

Comment author: RowanE 05 December 2014 01:56:08PM 19 points [-]

Actually, it probably is the right place - you don't actually want people who aren't smart, they would suck at the job. You want very smart people who are sufficiently aware of people smarter than them to be humble about it, and a forum with an average intelligence as high as it is here seems perfect in that respect.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 05 December 2014 09:15:38AM 4 points [-]

I agree. This job offering doesn't sound very appealing to me. It basically reads: "Would you like to be Nick Bostrom's slave? He is much more important than you! It will be a honour to be his slave!"

Note that I'm not saying that the job isn't worthwile or that the world couldn't be a better place if Bostrom had more free time to do his research, just that the ad could be framed a bit better.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2014 11:20:20AM 25 points [-]

The point of writing an ad like that is to be appealing to people who would fit the job and not be appealing to people who wouldn't.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 05 December 2014 01:02:59PM 7 points [-]

Exactly - if anything I am trying to make the job seem less appealing than it will be, so we attract only the right kind of person.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 05 December 2014 02:07:24PM 7 points [-]

I see people are highly upvoting the post, even correcting for the Bostrom's halo effect, so I'm updating a bit in the direction of you being right. I also see that you've followed Lachouette suggestion, and I like it.

I would be genuinely curious to see if it worked as intended in the end, might change the way in which I conduct job interviews a bit (I obviously realize that this is an irrelevant request that will probably not be met).

Best of luck with the recruiting.

Comment author: MondSemmel 08 December 2014 06:26:44PM *  0 points [-]

The idea here is "high impact secretary", rather than "slave".

Comment author: RowanE 05 December 2014 02:31:28PM 0 points [-]

Do you actually perceive a slave to be similar in status to a sidekick (or personal assistant)? I think there's a big difference there, and they're only close enough to equivocate if Bostrom is actually pretty low-status.

...you are talking about status concerns, right? The post talks about "hiring someone" for the position, so it seems pretty clear to me it's a paid role.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2014 11:17:27AM 5 points [-]

Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom

It would probably make sense to be more specific, so that potential applicants can decide whether they fit the role.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 05 December 2014 02:57:09PM 4 points [-]

I think it'll be faster to get a sense of that from a personal conversation.

Comment author: RowanE 05 December 2014 01:38:57PM 1 point [-]

How would one even go about further specifying that? I don't think interpersonal relationships are understood well enough to e.g. compare two people's Big Five trait scores and accurately predict "these people will work well together".

Comment author: joaolkf 05 December 2014 04:44:27PM 13 points [-]

Haven't seen a deal so sweet since I was Pascal mugged last year!

Comment author: seez 10 December 2014 12:50:30AM 16 points [-]

I think this ad makes LW and EA look cultish, because this ad sounds like hero worship and sexual innuendo. I was especially troubled to see this link on the EA Facebook page, where many potential/new EAs who don't know who Bostrom is, have lower weirdness tolerance, and have still-forming understanding of effective altruism, could see it.

Conscientious and discreet... Able to keep flexible hours (some days a lot of work, others not much)...Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom... Willing to do some tasks that are not high-status... Willing to help Bostrom with both his professional and personal life (to free up his attention)...

I showed this to a few smart young people, the type EAs want to reach out to, and they said it sounded "sketchy" "unprofessional" and "kind of like prostitution." Maybe it's totally fine and even attractive for LW, but I think EA leaders trying to recruit really need to be more thoughtful about their language. I think a different description should have been written up for that forum.

At the very least, it's very unconventional. Ads for personal assistants usually mention specific duties like "answering emails" and "preparing food," not just all-purpose service, so that people know what they are getting into.

tl:dr This ad sounds sketchy to me, and I really wish it wasn't linked on the EA Facebook group, where it can scare off new/potential EAs

Comment author: Lachouette 10 December 2014 09:18:20AM 7 points [-]

Thank you for voicing your worries. It's important we discuss this aspect as well, and I hadn't taken that into account when I posted the comment about "sidekicks".

The "sexual innuendo" part was surprising to me - I (female, 24y) didn't get that impression from reading the post and neither did any of the smart, young people I showed it to. Maybe we were talking with people in different social circles (my friends are already EAs for the most part). You're right that phrasing it as "sidekick" makes it look more cultish. I'm not sure what the tradeoff is between making a joke/attracting people for whom this sounds appealing and not appearing sketchy/culty.

I would assume that it's phrased in a very general way because it's not actually determined yet. It depends on what the candidate is able to do well. Nonetheless, more examples could have been given. Would you have preferred that?

Do you have suggestions to rephrase the quoted parts? I have trouble coming up with something more professional that says the same thing myself.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 10 December 2014 12:16:33PM *  8 points [-]

This is not an opportunity to exercise creativity, find the most boring stodgy company's ad for a secretary, and copy it. People will be able to read between the lines on everything else (or you can use community slang internally to explain, just not externally).

(I agree with the grandparent, part of "growing up" is adopting boring stodgy professional norms for instrumental rationality reasons).

Comment author: Lachouette 10 December 2014 01:02:33PM 3 points [-]

I don't think it's obvious that would be the best approach.

This forum is as internal as it gets without asking potential candidates via email or in person.

Both approaches are valid, but they optimize to attract different people. The gist that I get from this job ad is that they are looking for someone who is a good assistant while being passionate about effective altruism, willing to help indirectly rather than promote their own ego and eager to find creative ways to improve themselves and Bostrom's workflow. My guess is that they would prefer someone less experienced to a person for whom this is just another assistant job, provided that the less experienced person views the role as a challenge to grow into. If the thing that they are optimizing for is work experience/existing skills, I agree that it would be better to match the writing style to standardized assistant job ads. In that case, they might as well post it on the matching sites. Best would be obviously to have someone who fills all the criteria perfectly, but it's going to be hard to come by a person with extensive experience who does not already have a better project to work on or is willing to accept what I'm sure will be a very low salary.

The description as is was much more interesting to me than a standard job ad would have been. I don't think I would have applied if it had read like the standard job ad. That said, I am not trying to argue the description is perfect, just that I prefer the type of description.

tl;dr: If you want excited people to apply, don't post a boring job ad.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 10 December 2014 01:06:24PM *  6 points [-]

Facebook is not internal. Also LW is world-readable.

I think it's perfectly fine not to care about the cultishness impression, by the way, just as long as you realize that is what you are doing.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 December 2014 04:11:19PM 1 point [-]

part of "growing up" is adopting boring stodgy professional norms for instrumental rationality reasons

Only provided they are valid instrumental reasons. There are enough boring stodgy professional norms which are there for no good reason at all.

Comment author: buckwheats 29 January 2015 03:51:12AM 0 points [-]

if the ideas of innuendo could come from anywhere its where it says "conscientious and discreet" since guys are always saying they're discreet or making that a condition in their ads when they are seeking other guys to hook up with.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 13 December 2014 12:24:58PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback.

Note it was also the most popular post on the Facebook group (as measured by likes) in almost two weeks, so clearly some other members thought this was a sensible proposal.

I can see how it could come across as 'hero worship', except that Bostrom is indeed a widely-recognised world-leading academic at the highest ranked philosophy department in the world. There are sound reasons to be respectful of his work.

"sexual innuendo"

I can assure you the intended level of sexual innuendo in this ad is less than zero.

Comment author: seez 15 December 2014 11:54:38PM 2 points [-]

In case I wasn't clear, I see nothing wrong with seeking a personal assistant for Bostrom amongst EAs and LessWrongers. Obviously, many people in those groups might be very interested in the job. I'm sure it will be an interesting opportunity for whoever gets it. My objection was to the tone. I'm glad if people didn't find it as alarming as I did, but I was aware of some additional controversy, expressed both publicly in the comments and privately. And of course, there is no downvote on Facebook.

I can see how it could come across as 'hero worship', except that Bostrom is indeed a widely-recognised world-leading academic at the highest ranked philosophy department in the world. There are sound reasons to be respectful of his work.

Yes, by all means, be respectful of Bostrom's work! Luckily, there's a lot of room between "worshipful" and "respectful" to aim at. Lots of hero worship, perhaps even most of it, is directed at people who are legitimately awesome (as I personally believe Bostrom is)! And since LW has already been accused of excessive hero worship, with varying degrees of thoughtfulness, to an extent that has turned people off the site, I think it's worth considering extolling the virtues of those we admire in a more conventional manner, especially in large public forums.

I completely believe that no innuendo was intended. That's why I thought it would be helpful to let you know that at least to some people, it came off that way.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 December 2014 02:43:02AM 7 points [-]

If you're considering taking a job for altruistic reasons, remember to do alternatives analysis:

If you don't take this job, will someone else be hired? What will their effectiveness be relative to yours? What alternative are you (and your hypothetical replacement) likely foregoing?

See here for a more detailed outline of this type of analysis.

My impression is that this particular job is standard secretarial work, with some personal assistant tasks (groceries? cleaning?) on the side.

Comment author: Vaniver 06 December 2014 05:06:14PM 4 points [-]

If you don't take this job, will someone else be hired? What will their effectiveness be relative to yours? What alternative are you (and your hypothetical replacement) likely foregoing?

It seems to me like this is something that most people won't have good information on until after they've applied, made it through the interview process, and been offered the job, so this is not a reason to not apply.

My impression is that this particular job is standard secretarial work, with some personal assistant tasks (groceries? cleaning?) on the side.

Right, but it's worth pointing out that the historical impression is that a good secretary is a force multiplier.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 06 December 2014 05:23:10PM 2 points [-]

Approximate salary and/or hourly wage?

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 06 December 2014 05:27:44PM *  4 points [-]

(Also - general question: why do people not always put this information on Worker Wanted ads, in a visible fashion? Not putting up this info seems to be the standard thing for non-hourly job postings, and I'm not sure why. It seems like one of the most important things.)

Comment author: gjm 06 December 2014 09:25:49PM 9 points [-]

Suppose they say they're prepared to pay up to $X. Then:

  • If someone turns up whose last salary was $X/2 and who would be willing to do the job for $3X/4, they're less likely to persuade them to accept that because they've said they're prepared to pay up to $X.
  • If someone really outstanding is out there who'd do the job so well they'd actually be prepared to pay $3X/2, they may never find out because maybe Ms. Outstanding already has a decent job that pays more than $X and isn't interested in moving unless she gets paid more.

Posting information about likely pay is very useful for the potential employees but has scarcely any advantage for the employer. And, for better or worse, employers will generally act in their own interests more than those of their prospective employees.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 07 December 2014 07:36:49AM *  6 points [-]

I see... cleverly, it also takes advantage of how many people are afraid to ask for high salaries out of modesty or something.

I kind of view this as defecting and it seems like I have to defect in turn, to counter it (conveniently, I get to move second)... I guess this means I must start quoting highball figures and generally concealing my previous salary if it is lower than I expect the opponent to estimate, and displaying it loudly when it is higher than the opponent would estimate. Is that an effective thing to do?

(When I say it's defecting, I'm not attaching moral value to it or anything. I do want organizations which I want to see succeed do whatever is most rational, even if it is defecting, if that's what all the other agents are doing. Still, I feel like mutual cooperation would be generally more pleasant. I wonder if there is a mechanism to determine a person's true-market-value (as in, taking into account the opportunity costs on both sides) so as to avoid this sort of thing.)

Comment author: Decius 09 December 2014 01:51:37AM 0 points [-]

If they posted a salary range, and it was higher than you would have expected them to offer, would you "cooperate"?

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 16 December 2014 11:26:32PM *  0 points [-]

I've actually tried this before, under the notion that I'd get a higher chance of landing the job relative to other applicants. I wouldn't do it again - I'm pretty sure the real outcome is that I lowered my perceived value. Signalling!

Now that I phrase it in light of game theory though - if it had worked, it would be a neat demonstration of how two super-rational players win out over game-theoretically rational players. What I describe is also how the free market is supposed to work - my benefit in "cooperating" derives from cutting the competition out of the trade by offering a better deal.

Comment author: Decius 25 December 2014 06:25:43AM 0 points [-]

It looks like there's no incentive for them to post an honest salary range, and there's no incentive for you, having been told the salary range, to be honest about what you think you are worth.

It's not defecting, just making a choice that is strictly nonbeneficial for the other party.

Comment author: gjm 07 December 2014 10:24:22AM 0 points [-]

Is that an effective thing to do?

It's certainly something I have heard recommended many a time. Though usually without the "higher than the opponent would estimate" bit -- perhaps because most people who are moving jobs are moving to jobs they expect to pay more than they're getting now, so the situation doesn't often arise.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 08 December 2014 03:31:59PM 0 points [-]

As we have not secured funding yet it would be premature to do either of these things. We can negotiate a salary later on in the process depending on the person's qualifications.

Comment author: Eitan_Zohar 12 December 2014 06:07:33AM *  1 point [-]

Based on several of the criteria I think eHarmony would probably be more useful than Lesswrong.

Comment author: trinity 23 February 2015 03:14:32PM 1 point [-]

Has there been any news on whether this position has come to fruition?

Comment author: NineInchNade 09 December 2014 01:33:11AM *  1 point [-]

I would like to apply for this. Just to see if I have "a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom". I am also seriously interested in this, as I could see myself as a personal assistant for a much smarter person.

Comment author: benjacks 03 February 2015 10:15:59AM 0 points [-]

I would be really interested in this role. Nick has had a huge impact on my thinking. Anything I could do to to improve his effectiveness would, I think, be worthwhile - not just for me but for the potential trillions of future minds his work may help exist. Sign me up!