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Several free CFAR summer programs on rationality and AI safety

18 AnnaSalamon 14 April 2016 02:35AM
CFAR will be running several free summer programs this summer which are currently taking applications.  Please apply if you’re interested, and forward the programs also to anyone else who may be a good fit!
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Lesswrong 2016 Survey

29 Elo 30 March 2016 06:17PM

It’s time for a new survey!

Take the survey now

The details of the last survey can be found here.  And the results can be found here.


I posted a few weeks back asking for suggestions for questions to include on the survey.  As much as we’d like to include more of them, we all know what happens when we have too many questions. The following graph is from the last survey.



(Source: JD’s analysis of 2014 survey data)

Two factors seem to predict if a question will get an answer:

  1. The position

  2. Whether people want to answer it. (Obviously)

People answer fewer questions as we approach the end. They also skip tricky questions. The least answered question on the last survey was - “what is your favourite lw post, provide a link”.  Which I assume was mostly skipped for the amount of effort required either in generating a favourite or in finding a link to it.  The second most skipped questions were the digit-ratio questions which require more work, (get out a ruler and measure) compared to the others. This is unsurprising.

This year’s survey is almost the same size as the last one (though just a wee bit smaller).  Preliminary estimates suggest you should put aside 25 minutes to take the survey, however you can pause at any time and come back to the survey when you have more time.  If you’re interested in helping process the survey data please speak up either in a comment or a PM.

We’re focusing this year particularly on getting a glimpse of the size and shape of the LessWrong diaspora.  With that in mind; if possible - please make sure that your friends (who might be less connected but still hang around in associated circles) get a chance to see that the survey exists; and if you’re up to it - encourage them to fill out a copy of the survey.

The survey is hosted and managed by the team at FortForecast, you’ll be hearing more from them soon. The survey can be accessed through http://lesswrong.com/2016survey.

Survey responses are anonymous in that you’re not asked for your name. At the end we plan to do an opt-in public dump of the data. Before publication the row order will be scrambled, datestamps, IP addresses and any other non-survey question information will be stripped, and certain questions which are marked private such as the (optional) sign up for our mailing list will not be included. It helps the most if you say yes but we can understand if you don’t.  

Thanks to Namespace (JD) and the FortForecast team, the Slack, the #lesswrong IRC on freenode, and everyone else who offered help in putting the survey together, special thanks to Scott Alexander whose 2014 survey was the foundation for this one.

When answering the survey, I ask you be helpful with the format of your answers if you want them to be useful. For example if a question asks for an number, please reply with “4” not “four”.  Going by the last survey we may very well get thousands of responses and cleaning them all by hand will cost a fortune on mechanical turk. (And that’s for the ones we can put on mechanical turk!) Thanks for your consideration.


The survey will be open until the 1st of may 2016


Addendum from JD at FortForecast: During user testing we’ve encountered reports of an error some users get when they try to take the survey which erroneously reports that our database is down. We think we’ve finally stamped it out but this particular bug has proven resilient. If you get this error and still want to take the survey here are the steps to mitigate it:


  1. Refresh the survey, it will still be broken. You should see a screen with question titles but no questions.

  2. Press the “Exit and clear survey” button, this will reset your survey responses and allow you to try again fresh.

  3. Rinse and repeat until you manage to successfully answer the first two questions and move on. It usually doesn’t take more than one or two tries. We haven’t received reports of the bug occurring past this stage.

If you encounter this please mail jd@fortforecast.com with details. Screenshots would be appreciated but if you don’t have the time just copy and paste the error message you get into the email.


Take the survey now

Meta - this took 2 hours to write and was reviewed by the slack.

My Table of contents can be found here.

Why CFAR's Mission?

38 AnnaSalamon 02 January 2016 11:23PM

Related to:

Briefly put, CFAR's mission is to improve the sanity/thinking skill of those who are most likely to actually usefully impact the world.

I'd like to explain what this mission means to me, and why I think a high-quality effort of this sort is essential, possible, and urgent.

I used a Q&A format (with imaginary Q's) to keep things readable; I would also be very glad to Skype 1-on-1 if you'd like something about CFAR to make sense, as would Pete Michaud.  You can schedule a conversation automatically with me or Pete.


Q:  Why not focus exclusively on spreading altruism?  Or else on "raising awareness" for some particular known cause?

Briefly put: because historical roads to hell have been powered in part by good intentions; because the contemporary world seems bottlenecked by its ability to figure out what to do and how to do it (i.e. by ideas/creativity/capacity) more than by folks' willingness to sacrifice; and because rationality skill and epistemic hygiene seem like skills that may distinguish actually useful ideas from ineffective or harmful ones in a way that "good intentions" cannot.

Q:  Even given the above -- why focus extra on sanity, or true beliefs?  Why not focus instead on, say, competence/usefulness as the key determinant of how much do-gooding impact a motivated person can have?  (Also, have you ever met a Less Wronger?  I hear they are annoying and have lots of problems with “akrasia”, even while priding themselves on their high “epistemic” skills; and I know lots of people who seem “less rational” than Less Wrongers on some axes who would nevertheless be more useful in many jobs; is this “epistemic rationality” thingy actually the thing we need for this world-impact thingy?...)

This is an interesting one, IMO.

Basically, it seems to me that epistemic rationality, and skills for forming accurate explicit world-models, become more useful the more ambitious and confusing a problem one is tackling.

For example:

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Safety engineering, target selection, and alignment theory

17 So8res 31 December 2015 03:43PM

This post is the latest in a series introducing the basic ideas behind MIRI's research program. To contribute, or learn more about what we've been up to recently, see the MIRI fundraiser page. Our 2015 winter funding drive concludes tonight (31 Dec 15) at midnight.


Artificial intelligence capabilities research is aimed at making computer systems more intelligent — able to solve a wider range of problems more effectively and efficiently. We can distinguish this from research specifically aimed at making AI systems at various capability levels safer, or more "robust and beneficial." In this post, I distinguish three kinds of direct research that might be thought of as "AI safety" work: safety engineering, target selection, and alignment theory.

Imagine a world where humans somehow developed heavier-than-air flight before developing a firm understanding of calculus or celestial mechanics. In a world like that, what work would be needed in order to safely transport humans to the Moon?

In this case, we can say that the main task at hand is one of engineering a rocket and refining fuel such that the rocket, when launched, accelerates upwards and does not explode. The boundary of space can be compared to the boundary between narrowly intelligent and generally intelligent AI. Both boundaries are fuzzy, but have engineering importance: spacecraft and aircraft have different uses and face different constraints.

Paired with this task of developing rocket capabilities is a safety engineering task. Safety engineering is the art of ensuring that an engineered system provides acceptable levels of safety. When it comes to achieving a soft landing on the Moon, there are many different roles for safety engineering to play. One team of engineers might ensure that the materials used in constructing the rocket are capable of withstanding the stress of a rocket launch with significant margin for error. Another might design escape systems that ensure the humans in the rocket can survive even in the event of failure. Another might design life support systems capable of supporting the crew in dangerous environments.

A separate important task is target selection, i.e., picking where on the Moon to land. In the case of a Moon mission, targeting research might entail things like designing and constructing telescopes (if they didn't exist already) and identifying a landing zone on the Moon. Of course, only so much targeting can be done in advance, and the lunar landing vehicle may need to be designed so that it can alter the landing target at the last minute as new data comes in; this again would require feats of engineering.

Beyond the task of (safely) reaching escape velocity and figuring out where you want to go, there is one more crucial prerequisite for landing on the Moon. This is rocket alignment research, the technical work required to reach the correct final destination. We'll use this as an analogy to illustrate MIRI's research focus, the problem of artificial intelligence alignment.

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Why CFAR? The view from 2015

46 PeteMichaud 23 December 2015 10:46PM

Follow-up to: 2013 and 2014.

In this post, we:

We are in the middle of our matching fundraiser; so if you’ve been considering donating to CFAR this year, now is an unusually good time.

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FHI is hiring researchers!

13 Stuart_Armstrong 23 December 2015 10:46PM

The Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford invites applications for four research positions. We seek outstanding applicants with backgrounds that could include computer science, mathematics, economics, technology policy, and/or philosophy.

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MIRI's 2015 Winter Fundraiser!

28 So8res 09 December 2015 07:00PM

MIRI's Winter Fundraising Drive has begun! Our current progress, updated live:


Donate Now


Like our last fundraiser, this will be a non-matching fundraiser with multiple funding targets our donors can choose between to help shape MIRI’s trajectory. The drive will run until December 31st, and will help support MIRI's research efforts aimed at ensuring that smarter-than-human AI systems have a positive impact.

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Why startup founders have mood swings (and why they may have uses)

48 AnnaSalamon 09 December 2015 06:59PM

(This post was collaboratively written together with Duncan Sabien.)


Startup founders stereotypically experience some pretty serious mood swings.  One day, their product seems destined to be bigger than Google, and the next, it’s a mess of incoherent, unrealistic nonsense that no one in their right mind would ever pay a dime for.  Many of them spend half of their time full of drive and enthusiasm, and the other half crippled by self-doubt, despair, and guilt.  Often this rollercoaster ride goes on for years before the company either finds its feet or goes under.






Well, sure, you might say.  Running a startup is stressful.  Stress comes with mood swings.  


But that’s not really an explanation—it’s like saying stuff falls when you let it go.  There’s something about the “launching a startup” situation that induces these kinds of mood swings in many people, including plenty who would otherwise be entirely stable.


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LessWrong 2.0

89 Vaniver 09 December 2015 06:59PM

Alternate titles: What Comes Next?, LessWrong is Dead, Long Live LessWrong!

You've seen the articles and comments about the decline of LessWrong. Why pay attention to this one? Because this time, I've talked to Nate at MIRI and Matt at Trike Apps about development for LW, and they're willing to make changes and fund them. (I've even found a developer willing to work on the LW codebase.) I've also talked to many of the prominent posters who've left about the decline of LW, and pointed out that the coordination problem could be deliberately solved if everyone decided to come back at once. Everyone that responded expressed displeasure that LW had faded and interest in a coordinated return, and often had some material that they thought they could prepare and have ready.

But before we leap into action, let's review the problem.

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Take the EA survey, help the EA movement grow and potentially win $250 to your favorite charity

18 peter_hurford 01 December 2015 01:56AM

This year's EA Survey is now ready to be shared! This is a survey of all EAs to learn about the movement and how it can improve. The data collected in the survey is used to help EA groups improve and grow EA. Data is also used to populate the map of EAs, create new EA meetup groups, and create EA Profiles and the EA Donation Registry.

If you are an EA or otherwise familiar with the community, we hope you will take it using this link. All results will be anonymised and made publicly available to members of the EA community. As an added bonus, one random survey taker will be selected to win a $250 donation to their favorite charity.

Take the EA Survey

Please share the survey with others who might be interested using this link rather than the one above: http://bit.ly/1OqsVWo

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