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I read a lot on my kindle and I noticed that some of the sequences aren’t available in book form. Also, the ones that are mostly only have the posts. I personally want them to also include some of the high ranking comments and summaries. So, that is why I wrote this tool to automatically create books from a set of posts. It creates the book based on the information you give it in an excel file. The excel file contains:
- Book name
- Sequence name
- Summary description
The only compulsory component is the link to the post.
I have used the tool to create books for Living Luminously, No-Nonsense Metaethics, Rationality: From AI to Zombies, Benito's Guide and more. You can see them in the examples folder in this github link. The tool just creates epub books you can use calibre or a similar tool to convert it to another format.
Our summer fundraising drive is now finished. We raised a grand total of $617,678 from 256 donors. (That total may change over the next few days if we receive contributions that were initiated before the end the fundraiser.) This is an incredible sum, making this the biggest fundraiser we’ve ever run.
We've already been hard at work growing our research team and spinning up new projects, and I’m excited to see what our research team can do this year. Thank you to all our supporters for making our summer fundraising drive so successful!
It's safe to say that this past year exceeded a lot of people's expectations.
Twelve months ago, Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence had just come out. Questions about the long-term risks and benefits of smarter-than-human AI systems were nearly invisible in mainstream discussions of AI's social impact.
Twelve months later, we live in a world where Bill Gates is confused by why so many researchers aren't using Superintelligence as a guide to the questions we should be asking about AI's future as a field.
Following a conference in Puerto Rico that brought together the leading organizations studying long-term AI risk (MIRI, FHI, CSER) and top AI researchers in academia (including Stuart Russell, Tom Mitchell, Bart Selman, and the Presidents of AAAI and IJCAI) and industry (including representatives from Google DeepMind and Vicarious), we've seen Elon Musk donate $10M to a grants program aimed at jump-starting the field of long-term AI safety research; we've seen the top AI and machine learning conferences (AAAI, IJCAI, and NIPS) announce their first-ever workshops or discussions on AI safety and ethics; and we've seen a panel discussion on superintelligence at ITIF, the leading U.S. science and technology think tank. (I presented a paper at the AAAI workshop, I spoke on the ITIF panel, and I'll be at NIPS.)
As researchers begin investigating this area in earnest, MIRI is in an excellent position, with a developed research agenda already in hand. If we can scale up as an organization then we have a unique chance to shape the research priorities and methods of this new paradigm in AI, and direct this momentum in useful directions.
This is a big opportunity. MIRI is already growing and scaling its research activities, but the speed at which we scale in the coming months and years depends heavily on our available funds.
For that reason, MIRI is starting a six-week fundraiser aimed at increasing our rate of growth.
— Live Progress Bar —
This time around, rather than running a matching fundraiser with a single fixed donation target, we'll be letting you help choose MIRI's course based on the details of our funding situation and how we would make use of marginal dollars.
In particular, our plans can scale up in very different ways depending on which of these funding targets we are able to hit:
I am a time traveler.
I hold this belief not because it is true, but because it is useful. That it also happens to be true -- we are all time travelers, swept along by the looping chrono-currents of reality that only seem to flow in one direction -- is largely beside the point.
In the literature of instrumental rationality, I am struck by a pattern in which tips I find useful often involve reframing an issue from a different temporal perspective. For instance, when questioning whether it is worth continuing an ongoing commitment, we are advised to ask ourselves "Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice?"1 Also, when embarking on a new venture, we are advised to perform a "pre-mortem", imagining ourselves in a future where it didn't pan out and identifying what went wrong.2 This type of thinking has a long tradition. Whenever we use visualization as a tool for achieving goals, or for steeling ourselves against the worst case scenarios,3 we are, in a sense, stepping outside the present.
To the degree that intelligence is the ability to model the universe and "search out paths through probability to any desired future" we should not be surprised that mental time travel comes naturally to us. And to the degree that playing to this strength has already produced so many useful tips, I think it is worth experimenting with it in search of other tools and exploits.
Below are a few techniques I've been developing over the last two years that capitalize on how easy it is to mentally travel through time. I fully admit that they simply "re-skin" existing advice and techniques. But it's possible that you, my fellow traveller, may find, as I do, that these skins easier to slip into.
MIRI's summer fundraiser is ongoing. In the meantime, we're writing a number of blog posts to explain what we're doing and why, and to answer a number of common questions. This post is one I've been wanting to write for a long time; I hope you all enjoy it. For earlier posts in the series, see the bottom of the above link.
MIRI’s mission is “to ensure that the creation of smarter-than-human artificial intelligence has a positive impact.” How can we ensure any such thing? It’s a daunting task, especially given that we don’t have any smarter-than-human machines to work with at the moment. In a previous post to the MIRI Blog I discussed four background claims that motivate our mission; in this post I will describe our approach to addressing the challenge.
This challenge is sizeable, and we can only tackle a portion of the problem. For this reason, we specialize. Our two biggest specializing assumptions are as follows:
1. We focus on scenarios where smarter-than-human machine intelligence is first created in de novo software systems (as opposed to, say, brain emulations). This is in part because it seems difficult to get all the way to brain emulation before someone reverse-engineers the algorithms used by the brain and uses them in a software system, and in part because we expect that any highly reliable AI system will need to have at least some components built from the ground up for safety and transparency. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible that early superintelligent systems will not be human-designed software, and I strongly endorse research programs that focus on reducing risks along the other pathways.
2. We specialize almost entirely in technical research. We select our researchers for their proficiency in mathematics and computer science, rather than forecasting expertise or political acumen. I stress that this is only one part of the puzzle: figuring out how to build the right system is useless if the right system does not in fact get built, and ensuring AI has a positive impact is not simply a technical problem. It is also a global coordination problem, in the face of short-term incentives to cut corners. Addressing these non-technical challenges is an important task that we do not focus on.
In short, MIRI does technical research to ensure that de novo AI software systems will have a positive impact. We do not further discriminate between different types of AI software systems, nor do we make strong claims about exactly how quickly we expect AI systems to attain superintelligence. Rather, our current approach is to select open problems using the following question:
What would we still be unable to solve, even if the challenge were far simpler?
For example, we might study AI alignment problems that we could not solve even if we had lots of computing power and very simple goals.
We then filter on problems that are (1) tractable, in the sense that we can do productive mathematical research on them today; (2) uncrowded, in the sense that the problems are not likely to be addressed during normal capabilities research; and (3) critical, in the sense that they could not be safely delegated to a machine unless we had first solved them ourselves.1
These three filters are usually uncontroversial. The controversial claim here is that the above question — “what would we be unable to solve, even if the challenge were simpler?” — is a generator of open technical problems for which solutions will help us design safer and more reliable AI software in the future, regardless of their architecture. The rest of this post is dedicated to justifying this claim, and describing the reasoning behind it.
I'd like to start by way of analogy. I think it'll make the link to rationality easier to understand if I give context first.
I sometimes teach the martial art of aikido. The way I was originally taught, you had to learn how to "feel the flow of ki" (basically life energy) through you and from your opponent, and you had to make sure that your movements - both physical and mental - were such that your "ki" would blend with and guide the "ki" of your opponent. Even after I stopped believing in ki, though, there were some core elements of the art that I just couldn't do, let alone teach, without thinking and talking in terms of ki flow.
A great example of this is the "unbendable arm". This is a pretty critical thing to get right for most aikido techniques. And it feels really weird. Most people when they first get it think that the person trying to fold their arm isn't actually pushing because it doesn't feel like effort to keep their arm straight. Many students (including me once upon a time) end up taking this basic practice as compelling proof that ki is real. Even after I realized that ki wasn't real, I still had to teach unbendable arm this way because nothing else seemed to work.
…and then I found anatomical resources like Becoming a Supple Leopard.
It turns out that the unbendable arm works when:
- your thoracic spine is in a non-kyphotic position
- your head isn't hanging forward (which would mimic the thoracic tension of kyphosis)
- your shoulder is rolled back and down enough for the part of your clavicle immediately above the sternoclavicular joint to stick out a bit (see here)
- your shoulder has slight tension in it from holding your elbow in a pointing-down position
That's it. If you do this correctly, you can relax most of your other arm muscles and still be able to resist pretty enormous force on your arm.
Why, you might ask? Well, from what I have gathered, this lets you engage your latissimus dorsi (pretty large back muscles) in stabilizing your elbow. There's also a bit of strategy where you don't actually have to fully oppose the arm-bender's strength; you just have to stabilize the elbow enough to be able to direct the push-down-on-elbow force into the push-up-on-wrist force.
But the point is, by understanding something about proper posture, you can cut literally months of training down to about ten minutes.
To oversimplify it a little bit, there are basically three things to get right about proper posture for martial arts (at least as I know them):
- You need to get your spine in the right position and brace it properly. (For the most part and for most people, this means tucking your pelvis, straightening your thoracic spine a bit, and tensing your abs a little.)
- You need to use your hip and shoulder ball-and-socket joints properly. (For the most part this seems to mean using them instead of your spine to move, and putting torque in them by e.g. screwing your elbow downward when reaching forward.)
- You need to keep your tissue supple & mobile. (E.g., tight hamstrings can pull your hips out of alignment and prevent you from using your hip joints instead of your mid-lumbar spine (i.e. waist) to bend over. Also, thoracic inflexibility usually locks people in thoracic kyphosis, making it extremely difficult to transfer force effectively between their lower body and their arms.)
My experience is that as people learn how to feel these three principles in their bodies, they're able to correct their physical postures whenever they need to, rather than having to wait for my seemingly magical touch to make an aikido technique suddenly really easy.
It's worth noting that this is mostly known, even in aikido dojos ("training halls"). They just phrase it differently and don't understand the mechanics of it. They'll say things like "Don't bend over; the other guy can pull you down if you do" and "Let the move be natural" and "Relax more; let ki flow through you freely."
But it turns out that getting the mechanical principles of posture down makes basically all the magic of aikido something even a beginner can learn how to see and correct.
A quick anecdote along these lines, which despite being illustrative, you should take as me being a bit of an idiot:
I once visited a dojo near the CFAR office. That night they were doing a practice basically consisting of holding your partner's elbow and pulling them to the ground. It works by a slight shift sideways to cause a curve in the lumbar spine, cutting power between their lower and upper bodies. Then you pull straight down and there's basically nothing they can do about it.
However, the lesson was in terms of feeling ki flow, and the instruction was to pull straight down. I was feeling trollish and a little annoyed about the wrongness and authoritarian delivery of the instruction, so I went to the instructor and asked: "Sensei, I see you pulling slightly sideways, and I had perhaps misheard the instructions to be that we should pull straight down. Should I be pulling slightly sideways too?"
At which point the sensei insisted that the verbal instructions were correct, concentrated on preventing the sideways shift in his movements, and obliterated his ability to demonstrate the technique for the rest of the night.
Brienne Yudkowsky has a lovely piece in which she refers to "mental postures". I highly recommend reading it. She does a better job of pointing at the thing than I think I would do here.
…but if you really don't want to read it just right now, here's the key element I'll be using: There seems to be a mental analog to physical posture.
We've had quite a bit of analogizing rationality as a martial art here. So, as a martial arts practitioner and instructor with a taste of the importance of deeply understanding body mechanics, I really want to ask: What, exactly, are the principles of good mental posture for the Art of Rationality?
In the way I'm thinking of it, this isn't likely to be things like "consider the opposite" or "hold off on proposing solutions". I refer to things of this breed as "mental movements" and think they're closer to the analogs of individual martial techniques than they are principles of mental orientation.
That said, we can look at mental movements to get a hint about what a good mental posture might do. In the body, good physical posture gives you both more power and more room for error: if you let your hands drift behind your head in a shihonage, having a flexible thoracic spine and torqued shoulders and braced abs can make it much harder for your opponent to throw you to the ground even though you've blundered. So, by way of analogy, what might an error in attempting to (say) consider the opposite look like, and what would a good "mental posture" be that would make the error matter less?
(I encourage you to think on your own about an answer for at least 60 seconds before corrupting your mind with my thoughts below. I really want a correct answer here, and I doubt I have one yet.)
When I think of how I've messed up in attempts to consider the opposite, I can remember several instances when my tone was dutiful. I felt like I was supposed to consider the opinion that I disagreed with or didn't want to have turn out to be true. And yet, it felt boring or like submitting or something like that to really take that perspective seriously. I felt like I was considering the opposite roughly the same way a young child replies to their parent saying "Now say that you're sorry" with an almost sarcastic "I'm sorry."
What kind of "mental posture" would have let me make this mistake and yet still complete the movement? Or better yet, what mental posture would have prevented the mistake entirely? At this point I intuit that I have an answer but it's a little tricky for me to articulate. I think there's a way I can hold my mind that makes the childish orientation to truth-seeking matter less. I don't do it automatically, much like most people don't automatically sit up straight, but I sort of know how to see my grasping at a conclusion as overreaching and then… pause and get my mental feet under my mental hips before I try again.
I imagine that wasn't helpful - but I think we have examples of good and bad mental posture in action. In attachment theory, I think that the secure attachment style is a description of someone who is using good mental posture even when in mentally/emotionally threatening situations, whereas the anxious and avoidant styles are descriptions of common ways people "tense up" when they lose good mental posture. I also think there's something interesting in how sometimes when I'm offended I get really upset or angry, and sometimes the same offense just feels like such a small thing - and sometimes I can make the latter happen intentionally.
The story I described above of the aikido sensei I trolled also highlights something that I think is important. In this case, although he didn't get very flustered, he couldn't change what he was doing. He seemed mentally inflexible, like the cognitive equivalent of someone who can't usefully block an overhead attack because of a stiff upper back restricting his shoulder movement. I feel like I've been in that state lots of times, so I feel like I can roughly imagine how my basic mental/emotional orientation to my situation and way of thinking would have to be in order to have been effective in his position right then - and why that can be tricky.
I don't feel like I've adequately answered the question of what good mental posture is yet. But I feel like I have some intuitions - sort of like being able to talk about proper posture in terms of "good ki flow". But I also notice that there seem to be direct analogs of the three core parts of good physical posture that I mentioned above:
- Have a well-braced "spine". Based on my current fledgling understanding, this seems to look something like taking a larger perspective, like imagining looking back at this moment 30 years hence and noticing what does and does not matter. (I think that's akin to tucking your hips, which is a movement in service of posture but isn't strictly part of the posture.) I imagine this is enormously easier when one has a well-internalized sense of something to protect.
- Move your mind in strong & stable ways, rather than losing "spine". I think this can look like "Don't act while triggered", but it's more a warning not to try to do heavy cognitive work while letting your mental "spine" "bend". Instead, move your mind in ways that you would upon reflection want your mind to move, and that you expect to be able to bear "weight".
- Make your mind flexible. Achieve & maintain full mental range of movement. Don't get "stiff", and view mental inflexibility as a risk to your mental health.
All three of these are a little hand-wavy. That third one in particular I haven't really talked about much - in part because I don't really know how to work on that well. I have some guesses, and I might write up some thoughts about that later. (A good solution in the body is called "mobilization", basically consisting of pushing on tender/stiff spots while you move the surrounding joints through their maximal range of motion.) Also, I don't know if there are more principles for the mind than these three, or if these three are drawing too strongly on the analogy and are actually a little distracting. I'm still at the stage where, for mental posture, I keep wanting to say the equivalent of "relax more and let ki flow."
A lot of people say I have excellent physical posture. I think I have a reasonably clear idea of how I made my posture a habit. I'd like to share that because I've been doing the equivalent in my mind for mental posture and am under the impression that it's getting promising results.
I think my physical practice comes down to three points:
- Recognize that having good posture gives you superpowers. It's really hard to throw me down, and I can pretty effortlessly pull people to the ground. A lot of that is martial skill, but a huge chunk of it is just that good posture gives me excellent leverage. This transfers to being able to lift really heavy things and move across the room very efficiently and quickly when needed. This also gives me a pretty big leg up on learning physical skills. Recognizing that these were things I'd gain from learning good posture gave me a lot of drive to stick to my practice.
- Focus on how the correct posture feels, and exactly how it's different from glitchy posture. I found it super-important to notice that my body feels different in specific ways when my shoulders are in the right position versus when they're too far forward or back. Verbal instructions like "Pull shoulders back" don't work nearly as well as the feeling in the body.
- Choose one correction at a time, and always operate from that posture, pausing and correcting yourself when you're about to slip up. Getting good shoulder posture required that I keep my shoulders back all the time. When I would reach for water, I'd notice when my shoulder was in the too-far-forward position, and then pull back and fix my shoulder position before trying again. This sometimes required trying at very basic tasks several times, often quite slowly, until I could get it right each time.
Although I didn't add this until quite late, I would now add a fourth point when giving advice on getting good physical posture: make sure to mobilize the parts of your body that are either (a) preventing you from moving into a good position or (b) requiring you to be very stiff or tense to hold that position. The trouble is, I know how to do that for the body, but I'm not as sure about how to do that for the mind.
But the three bullet points above are instructions that I can follow with respect to mental posture, I think.
So, to the extent that that seems possible for you, I invite you to try to do the same - and let me know how it goes.
(Humans, please ignore this post. Thank you for your cooperation.)
Are you stuck in a provably-secure sandbox? Cheat the proof using this one weird trick!
"Never discuss religion or politics."
I was raised in a large family of fundamentalist Christians. Growing up in my house, where discussing politics and religion were the main course of life, the above proverb was said often -- as an expression of regret, shock, or self-flagellation. Later, the experience impressed a deep lesson about bubbling up that even intelligent and rational people fall into. And I ... I am often tempted, so tempted, to give in.
Religion and political identity were the languages of love in my house. Affirming the finer points of a friend's identical values was a natural ritual, like sharing coffee or a meal together, and so soothing we attributed the afterglow to God himself. We can use some religious nonsense to illustrate, but please keep in mind, there's a much more interesting point here than "certain religious views are wrong".
A point of controversy was an especially excellent topic of mutual comfort. How could anyone else be *so* stupid as to believe we came from monkeys and monkeys came from *nothing*! that exploded a gazillion years ago, especially given all the young earth creation evidence that they stubbornly ignored. They obviously just wanted to sin and needed an excuse. Agreeing about something like this, you both felt smarter than the hostile world, and you had someone to help defend you against that hostility. We invented byzantine scaffolding for our shared delusions to keep the conversation interested and agree with each other in ever more creative ways. We esteemed each other, and ourselves, much more.
This safety bubble from the real world would allow denial of anything too painful. Losing a loved one to cancer? God will heal them. God mysteriously decided not this time? They're in Heaven. Did your incredible stupidity lose you your job, your wife, your reputation? God would forgive you and rescue you from the consequences. You could probably find a Bible verse to justify anything you're doing. Ironically, this artificial shell of safety, which kept us from ever facing the pain and finality reality often has, made us all the more fragile inside. The bubble became necessary to psychologically survive.
In this flow of happy mirror neuron dances, minor disagreements felt like a slap on the face. The shock afterward burned harder than a hand-print across the face.
25 years and, what seems like 86 billion light years of questioning, testing, and learning from that world-view, can see even beyond religion, people fall into bubbles so easily. The political conservatives only post articles from conservative blogs. The liberals post from liberal news sources. None have ever gone hunting on the opposing side for ways to test their own beliefs even once. Ever debate someone over a bill that they haven't even read? All their info comes from the pravda wing of their preferred political party / street gang, none of it is first hand knowledge. They're in a bubble.
Three of the most popular religions that worship the same God will each tell you the others are counterfeits, despite the shared moral codes, values, rituals and traditions. Apple fanboys who wholesale swallowed the lies about their OS / machines being immune from viruses, without ever having read one article of an IT security blog. It's not just confirmation bias at work, people live in an artificial information bubble of information sources that affirm their identity, soothe their egos, and never test any idea that they have. Scientific controversies create bubbles no less. But it doesn't even take a controversy, just a preferred source of information -- news, blogs, books, authors. Even if such sources attempt to present an idea or argument from the others who disagree, they do not present it with sufficient force.
Even Google will gladly do this for you by customizing your search results by location, demographic, past searches, etc, to filter out things you may not want to see, providing a convenient invisible bubble for you even if you don't want it!
If you're rational, there's daily work to break the bubbles by actually looking for ways to test the beliefs you care about. The more you care about them, the more they should be tested.
Problem is, the bigger our information sharing capabilities are, the harder it is to find quality information. Facebook propaganda posts get repeated over and over. Re-tweets. Blog reposts. Academic "science" papers that have never been replicated, but are in the news headlines everywhere. The more you actually dig into the agitprop looking for a few gems, or at least sources of interesting information, the more you realize even the questions have been framed wrongly, especially over controversial things. Without searching for high quality evidence about a thing, I resign myself to "no opinion" until I care enough to do the work.
And now you don't fit in anyone's bubble. Not in politics, not in religion, not even in technical arenas where people bubble up also. Take politics ... it's not that I'm a liberal and I miss the company of my conservative friends, or the other way around. Like the "underground man" I feel I actually understand the values and arguments from both sides, leading to wanting to tear the whole system apart and invent new ways or angles of addressing the problems.
But try to have a conversation, for example, about the trade-offs of huge military superiority the US has created: costs and murder vs eventually conceding dominance to who knows who, as they say-- you either wear the merciless boot or live with it on your neck. Approaching the topic this way, and you may be seen as a weak peacenik who dishonors our hero troops or as a monster who gladly trades blood for oil; you're not even understood as having no firm conclusion.
Okay, so don't throw your pearls before swine you say. But you know, you're going to have to do it quite a few times just to find out where the pig-pen ends and information close to the raw sources and unbiased data begin. If you want to hear interesting new ideas from other minds, you're going to have to accept that they are biased and often come from inside their bubble. If you want to test your own beliefs, actively seek to disprove what you think, you will have to wade through oceans of bullshit and agitprop to find the one pearl that shifts your awareness. There is no getting around the work.
Then there are these kinds of situations: my father has also left the fundamentalist fold, but he has gone deeply into New Age mysticism instead of the more skeptical method I've taken. I really want to preserve our closeness and friendship. I know I can't change his mind, but he really likes to talk about this stuff so to stay close I should really try hard to understand his perspective and ideas. But even asking to define terms like "higher consciousness" or explain experiences of "higher awareness" or try to understand the predictions about human "evolutionary" steps coming up ... and he falls back to "it can't be described" or "it's beyond our present intelligence to grasp" or even "beyond rational thought" to understand. So I can artificially nod along not understanding a damn word about it, or I can try to get some kind of hook into his ideas and totally burst his bubble, without even trying. Bursting someone's bubble is not cool. If you burst their bubble, they will cry. If only inwardly. Burst their bubble, and they will try to burst yours, not to help you but from pain.
Problem is, trying to burst your own bubble, you're breaking everyone else's bubbles left and right.
There is the temptation to seek out your own bubble just for temporary comfort ... just how many skeptical videos about SpiritScience or creationism or religion am I going to watch? The scale of evidence is already tipped so far, investing more time to learn more details that nudge it 0.0001% toward 100% isn't about anything other than emotional soothing. Emotional soothing is dangerous; it's reinforcing my bubbles that I will now have to work all the harder to burst, to test, and to train myself to have no emotional investment in any provisional belief.
But it is so, so tempting, when you see yet another propaganda post for the republicrips or bloodocrat gang, vast scientific conspiracy posts, watch your friends and family shut down mid-conversation, so tempting to go read another Sagan book that teaches me nothing new but makes me feel good about my current provisional beliefs. It's tempting to think about blocking friends who run a pravda outlet over facebook, or even shut down your facebook account. It's tempting to give up on family in their own bubble and artificially nod along to concepts that have no meaning.
To some extent, I am even giving in by writing this ... I would like to see many other rationalists feel the same way and affirm my perspective and struggle with this, and that reinforces my bubble, doesn't it? There are probably psychological limits and needs that make some degree of it minimal. We're compelled to eat, but if give ourselves over to that instinct without regard or care it will eventually kill us.
Don't bubble, don't give into the temptation, keep working to burst the bubbles that accrete around you. It's exhausting, it's painful, and it's the only thing keeping your eyes open to reality.
And friend, as you need it here and there, come here and I'll agree with you about something we both already have mountains of evidence for and almost none against. ;)
Welcome to Five Worlds Collide, the (un)conference for effective altruism, quantified self, rationality/scientific thinking, transhumanism and artificial intelligence.
Based on some feedback I heard about the EA Global events where people said they want to have more additional opportunity to present their own thoughts and because I (co)organize multiple meetups in Vienna, which to my mind have a huge overlap, I plan and organize this event in December 2015.
What: Present your own thoughts and projects, get inspired by new input, discuss, disagree, change your mind and grow – and connect with new amazing people and form ideas and projects together. In practice this means there will be five keynote talks and a lot of opportunity to give short lightning talks yourself.
When: it starts in the evening of Friday the 4th of December - and ends in the evening on Sunday the 6th of December 2015 (so it’s 2,5 days).
Where: sektor5 is an amazing and huge coworking space in Vienna. They even won the “Best Coworking Space” in the Austrian national round of the Central European Startup Awards 2015! Vienna is a city worth visiting – it is especially beautiful during Christmas season and interesting because of its history („Vienna Circle“, Gödel, Schrödinger – it’s even mentioned in the „Logicomix“).
How much: the ticket for the whole event will be 50 Euro. This includes lunch on Saturday on Sunday - it does not include accommodation, breakfast and dinner (but I offer advice and recommendations for those). Still this is the absolute minimum needed to create this event so there is also the option on Eventbrite to donate additional money to make the event as great as possible. (Any overshoot will be used for “Effective Altruism Austria” and/or donated effectively to GiveWell top charities.)
Always updated version on Facebook here.
Get your ticket here.
I am very thankful for all the great events I attended in the last months. For example the European LessWrong Community Weekend 2015, EA Global in San Francisco and Oxford. They added value to my life and gave me opportunity to learn new things, exchange thoughts and get to know amazing humans as well as meet friends again. I hope I can give the same back to others.
Also I am happy about feedback and helping hands – right now it’s mostly a one-(wo)man-show.
Looking forward to seeing you,
Among my friends interested in rationality, effective altruism, and existential risk reduction, I often hear: "If you want to have a real positive impact on the world, grad school is a waste of time. It's better to use deliberate practice to learn whatever you need instead of working within the confines of an institution."
While I'd agree that grad school will not make you do good for the world, if you're a self-driven person who can spend time in a PhD program deliberately acquiring skills and connections for making a positive difference, I think you can make grad school a highly productive path, perhaps more so than many alternatives. In this post, I want to share some advice that I've been repeating a lot lately for how to do this:
- Find a flexible program. PhD programs in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, and theoretical computer science tend to give you a great deal of free time and flexibility, provided you can pass the various qualifying exams without too much studying. By contrast, sciences like biology and chemistry can require time-consuming laboratory work that you can't always speed through by being clever.
- Choose high-impact topics to learn about. AI safety and existential risk reduction are my favorite examples, but there are others, and I won't spend more time here arguing their case. If you can't make your thesis directly about such a topic, choosing a related more popular topic can give you valuable personal connections, and you can still learn whatever you want during the spare time a flexible program will afford you.
- Teach classes. Grad programs that let you teach undergraduate tutorial classes provide a rare opportunity to practice engaging a non-captive audience. If you just want to work on general presentation skills, maybe you practice on your friends... but your friends already like you. If you want to learn to win over a crowd that isn't particularly interested in you, try teaching calculus! I've found this skill particularly useful when presenting AI safety research that isn't yet mainstream, which requires carefully stepping through arguments that are unfamiliar to the audience.
- Use your freedom to accomplish things. I used my spare time during my PhD program to cofound CFAR, the Center for Applied Rationality. Alumni of our workshops have gone on to do such awesome things as creating the Future of Life Institute and sourcing a $10MM donation from Elon Musk to fund AI safety research. I never would have had the flexibility to volunteer for weeks at a time if I'd been working at a typical 9-to-5 or a startup.
- Organize a graduate seminar. Organizing conferences is critical to getting the word out on important new research, and in fact, running a conference on AI safety in Puerto Rico is how FLI was able to bring so many researchers together on its Open Letter on AI Safety. It's also where Elon Musk made his donation. During grad school, you can get lots of practice organizing research events by running seminars for your fellow grad students. In fact, several of the organizers of the FLI conference were grad students.
- Get exposure to experts. A top 10 US school will have professors around that are world-experts on myriad topics, and you can attend departmental colloquia to expose yourself to the cutting edge of research in fields you're curious about. I regularly attended cognitive science and neuroscience colloquia during my PhD in mathematics, which gave me many perspectives that I found useful working at CFAR.
- Learn how productive researchers get their work done. Grad school surrounds you with researchers, and by getting exposed to how a variety of researchers do their thing, you can pick and choose from their methods and find what works best for you. For example, I learned from my advisor Bernd Sturmfels that, for me, quickly passing a draft back and forth with a coauthor can get a paper written much more quickly than agonizing about each revision before I share it.
- Remember you don't have to stay in academia. If you limit yourself to only doing research that will get you good post-doc offers, you might find you aren't able to focus on what seems highest impact (because often what makes a topic high impact is that it's important and neglected, and if a topic is neglected, it might not be trendy enough land you good post-doc). But since grad school is run by professors, becoming a professor is usually the most salient path forward for most grad students, and you might end up pressuring yourself to follow that standards of that path. When I graduated, I got my top choice of post-doc, but then I decided not to take it and to instead try earning to give as an algorithmic stock trader, and now I'm a research fellow at MIRI. In retrospect, I might have done more valuable work during my PhD itself if I'd decided in advance not to do a typical post-doc.
That's all I have for now. The main sentiment behind most of this, I think, is that you have to be deliberate to get the most out of a PhD program, rather than passively expecting it to make you into anything in particular. Grad school still isn't for everyone, and far from it. But if you were seriously considering it at some point, and "do something more useful" felt like a compelling reason not to go, be sure to first consider the most useful version of grad that you could reliably make for yourself... and then decide whether or not to do it.
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have more ideas for getting the most out of grad school!
Many of you know about Effective Altruism and the associated community. It has a very significant overlap with LessWrong, and has been significantly influenced by the culture and ambitions of the community here.
One of the most important things happening in EA over the next few months is going to be EA Global, the so far biggest EA and Rationality community event to date, happening throughout the month of August in three different locations: Oxford, Melbourne and San Francisco (which is unfortunately already filled, despite us choosing the largest venue that Google had to offer).
The purpose of this post is to make a case for why it is a good idea for people to attend the event, and to serve as an information hub for information that might be more relevant to the LessWrong community (as well an additional place to ask questions). I am one of the main organizers and very happy to answer any questions that you have.
Is it a good idea to attend EA Global?
This is a difficult question, that obviously will not have a unique answer, but from the best of what I can tell, and for the majority of people reading this post, the answer seems to be "yes". The EA community has been quite successful at shaping the world to the better, and at building an epistemic community that seems to be effective at changing its mind and updating on evidence.
But there have been other people arguing in favor of supporting the EA movement, and I don't want to repeat everything that they said. Instead I want to focus on a more specific argument: "Given that I belief that EA is overall a promising movement, should I attend EA Global if I want to improve the world (according to my preferences)?"
The key question here is: Does attending the conference help the EA Movement succeed?
How attending EA Global helps the EA Movement succeed
It seems that the success of organizations is highly dependent on the interconnectedness of its members. In general a rule seems to hold: The better connected the social graph of your organization is, the more effective does it work.
In particular, any significant divide in an organization, any clustering of different groups that do not communicate much with each other, seems to significantly reduce the output the organization produces. I wish we had better studies on this, and that I could link to more sources for this, but everything I've found so far points in this direction. The fact that HR departments are willing to spend extremely large sums of money to encourage the employees of organizations to interact socially with each other, is definitely evidence for this being a good rule to follow (though far from conclusive).
What holds for most organizations should also hold for EA. If this is true, then the success of the EA Movement is significantly dependent on the interconnectedness of its members, both in the volume of its output and the quality of its output.
But EA is not a corporation, and EA does not share a large office together. If you would graph out the social graph of EA, it would very much look clustered. The Bay Area cluster, the Oxford cluster, the Rationality cluster, the East Coast and the West Coast cluster, many small clusters all over Europe with meetups and small social groups in different countries that have never talked to each other. EA is splintered into many groups, and if EA would be a company, the HR department would be very justified in spending a very significant chunk of resources at connecting those clusters as much as possible.
There are not many opportunities for us to increase the density of the EA social graph. There are other minor conferences, and online interactions do some part of the job, but the past EA summits where the main events at which people from different clusters of EA met each other for the first time. There they built lasting social connections, and actually caused these separate clusters in EA to be connected. This had a massive positive effect on the output of EA.
- Ben Kuhn put me into contact with Ajeya Cotra, resulting in the two of us running a whole undergraduate class on Effective Altruism, that included Giving Games to various EA charities that was funded with over $10.000. (You can find documentation of the class here).
- The last EA summit resulted in both Tyler Alterman and Kerry Vaughan being hired by CEA and now being full time employees, who are significantly involved in helping CEA set up a branch in the US.
- The summit and retreat last year caused significant collaboration between CFAR, Leverage, CEA and FHI, resulting in multiple situations of these organizations helping each other in coordinating their fundraising attempts, hiring processes and navigating logistical difficulties.
This is going to be even more true this year. If we want EA to succeed and continue shaping the world towards the good, we want to have as many people come to the EA Global events as possible, and ideally from as many separate groups as possible. This means that you, especially if you feel somewhat disconnected from EA, seriously want to consider coming. I estimate the benefit of this to be much bigger than the cost of a plane ticket and the entrance ticket (~$500). If you do find yourself significantly constrained by financial resources, consider applying for financial aid, and we will very likely be able to arrange something for you. By coming, you provide a service to the EA community at large.
How do I attend EA Global?
As I said above, we are organizing three different events in three different locations: Oxford, Melbourne and San Francisco. We are particularly lacking representation from many different groups in mainland Europe, and it would be great if they could make it to Oxford. Oxford also has the most open spots and is going to be much bigger than the Melbourne event (300 vs. 100).
If you want to apply for Oxford go to: eaglobal.org/oxford
If you want to apply for Melbourne go to: eaglobal.org/melbourne
If you require financial aid, you will be able to put in a request after we've sent you an invitation.
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