Talks from EA Global: Reconnect are now online, including:
We hope you enjoy these talks, and the rest of the newsletter!
- Ezra Klein on making an impact through journalism.
- Holden Karnofsky on the work of Open Philanthropy, the biggest grantmaking organization in in the EA movement.
- Julia Wise, interviewing four community members on how they've stayed engaged in effective altruism despite various challenges.
— The EA Newsletter Team
News and updates from the world of effective altruism
A potential vaccine for malaria
One of the year's biggest stories, where human welfare is concerned, could be the patent granted to a research team at the Yale School of Medicine for their work on a new malaria vaccine.
To summarize Kelsey Piper’s excellent story on this research:
While it remains critical to fight malaria with bednets in the present, a vaccine could be an important part of a future in which we’ve eradicated the disease entirely.
- Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, most of them children.
- The disease has been quite difficult to vaccinate against, since it is caused by a parasite that adapts well to our immune responses.
- The new patent covers an RNA vaccine, which has properties that might help it better combat the malaria parasite. (The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines are also RNA vaccines, albeit of a different variety.)
- An important caveat: We only have study results from mice so far, and there’s no guarantee that the vaccine will work for humans. But human clinical trials are the next step in the process!
How to talk about the future
As a species, we tend to do a poor job of preparing for the future — especially as that future grows more distant. You can see this in the way governments and other organizations approached pandemic preparedness before COVID, and the way they approach climate change (and many other issues) right now.
The BBC’s Richard Fisher believes that the way we talk about the future may be part of why we neglect it:
"Time can’t be seen, so the brain turns to spatial metaphors when describing it. In English, time flows, and the future is ahead [...] the more you mentally time-travel out of the present, the further your brain projects in terms of distance too. The future is “far” or “distant”: a foreign place, a land across an ocean.
"But of course, when your great-great-grandchildren are born, they won’t be far at all. Unless you jump ahead thousands of years, they will be on the same planet. Chances are, they’ll live in the same country or city. They might even call the same neighbourhood their home."
In Fisher’s view, thinking about the future as a faraway place increases our “psychological distance” from it. This makes it harder to think clearly about whatever risks and opportunities the future holds.
But he also believes we might be able to fix the problem — perhaps by looking to other languages for useful concepts. For example, Greek speakers describe time using terms for physical volume, rather than distance. This might help us emphasize the most important thing about the future — there’s a lot of it! — rather than conveying the false impression that a faraway future isn't worth thinking about.
Running a high-energy reading group
As the world begins to open up after a long year of lockdown, many people are looking for any excuse to meet up with friends.
Our suggestion: start a reading group! These can be fun and educational, and you can even work in some effective altruism: there are many EA-related books worth digging into.
Tessa Alexanian has organized several such groups, learning best practices along the way. Some advice from her guide to running them:
- Find a good syllabus, or try asking an expert for recommended readings on a topic.
- Choose a clear structure and stick to it; she presents many options you can use, depending on how much time and commitment you expect from each member.
- Take notes! They help you keep up the flow of conversation, and you may find them useful later on.
Brian Christian on the problem of AI alignment
The 80,000 Hours podcast is an unparalleled source for good conversation about major global issues. If you aren’t a regular listener, their recent episode with Brian Christian may be a good starting point.
Christian first became known for competing against a variety of AI programs in an attempt to prove his own humanity (it’s complicated). More recently, he’s been surveying rapid progress in AI capabilities. His new book, The Alignment Problem, covers this progress, the negative outcomes which could result from it, and the researchers who are working to prevent those outcomes (from near-term ethical issues to the risk of human extinction).
A few stories from the episode:
- Pitts & McCulloch: A homeless teenager and his foster father figure invent the idea of the neural net.
- Curious Pong: Two novelty-seeking agents, forced to play Pong against each other, create increasingly extreme rallies.
- AlphaGo Zero: A computer program becomes superhuman at chess and Go in under a day by attempting to imitate itself.
- Robot Gymnasts: Over the course of an hour, humans teach robots to do perfect backflips, just by telling them which of two random actions looks more like a backflip.
In other news
Opportunities to work on some of the world's most pressing problems
The 80,000 Hours Job Board features more than 500 positions. We can’t fit them all in the newsletter, so check out the others on their website!
If you’re interested in policy or global development, you may also want to check Tom Wein’s list of social purpose job boards.
If you want to find out about new positions as they arise (or post a position yourself), check out the EA Job Postings group on Facebook.
Applications due soon
Charity Founder, Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program (Remote) (apply by 15 April)
Chief of Staff // Executive Assistant, Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research (Oxford, UK // Remote) (apply by 5 April)
Full-Stack Engineer, Centre for Effective Altruism (Oxford, UK // Remote) (apply by 4 April)
Research Intern, Rethink Priorities (Remote) (apply by 4 April)
Climate Change Research Consultant, IDinsight (Remote)
Engineering Lead // Frontend Engineer // Frontend Engineering Intern // Full-Stack Software Engineer // Machine Learning Engineer (NLP) // Software Engineering Intern, Ought (San Francisco)
General Application // Grants Associate, Open Philanthropy (San Francisco // Remote)
International Director of Technology, Animal Equality (Los Angeles // Remote)
PhD Position, Economic Analysis of the Consequences of Nuclear Actions, French Government, Nuclear Risk Economics Lab (Paris)
Philanthropy Advisor // Senior Research Associate // Senior Researcher, GiveWell (Oakland // Remote)
Research and Administrative Assistant, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution (Washington, DC)
Research Associate, Global Disease Epidemiology and Control, Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health (Baltimore, MD)
Research Fellow, Oxford University, Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research (Oxford, UK // Remote)
Researcher (Expression of Interest), Cambridge University, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge, UK)
Research Scientist, Safety, Alphabet, DeepMind (London)
Senior Back-end Software Engineer, Momentum (San Francisco Bay Area // Remote)
Software Engineer, Workflow, Institute for Disease Modeling, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Seattle, WA)
Books, events, community projects, and more!
Connecting with online EA events
Every so often, we like to remind readers about Catherine Low’s guide to finding online events. There’s a lot going on now — talks, meetups, virtual coworking, Clubhouse chats, and more. Despite the pandemic, it’s never been easier to get involved in the EA community.
The New Food Conference
Readers interested in animal welfare might also be interested in the New Food Conference, a virtual event that will take place from 28-29 April. From the conference website:
“Join us from anywhere in the world on a digital state-of-the art platform as we unite leading food-industry experts and discuss current challenges and opportunities in the alternative-protein realm.”
A forecasting platform for technology and security policy
The Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) delivers nonpartisan analysis to US policymakers. They recently launched Foretell, a project meant to create useful forecasts about global security, great-power conflict, technological advances, and other issues.
Early results have been promising, and CSET is looking for additional participants (sign up here) to help them further improve their insights. Participants might be invited to make paid forecasts if they perform well, and there’s a chance they’ll end up improving the quality of information available to government officials in relevant areas.
Future of Life Award: $3000 prize for best nominee
We mentioned this last month, but nominations for the 2021 Future of Life Award are still open! This prize is awarded to an individual who, without having received much recognition at the time, has helped make today dramatically better than it otherwise would have been.
Previous winners include Bill Foege and Viktor Zhdanov, who made critical contributions towards the eradication of smallpox, and Matthew Meselson, the driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. There is a $3,000 prize for the person who nominates the eventual winner.
Ideas that have shaped the way we think about doing good
Rather than a single essay, we’re sharing a resource with many hours’ worth of content: The YouTube channel of Rob Miles, who has a knack for explaining twisty technical subjects in twenty minutes or less (and has been doing so since 2017).
Rob’s videos summarize many of the core problems in AI alignment with elegance and humor. Despite the unusual medium, they are among the best introductory resources on this topic, and could provide a useful onramp to content in the Alignment Newsletter or the CHAI reading list.
(Also, if you're a video editor, Rob is looking for help with the channel — apply by 2 April.)
You can see updates from a wide range of EA-aligned organizations on the EA Forum. (Organizations submit updates, which we edit for clarity.)
We hope you found this edition useful!
If you’ve taken action because of the Newsletter and haven’t taken our impact survey, please do — it helps us improve future editions.
(Actions we'd love to hear about include donating to charity, applying to a job, or joining a community group.)
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– The Effective Altruism Newsletter Team