Global Health x Effective Altruism

On Wednesday 1st of May 2019, the EA Rotterdam group had their eight reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

Please join us at our next meetup on the 3rd of July!

How you can make better decisions!

The topic for this event was Global Health x Effective Altruism: Priorities, Misconceptions, Action!

During the evening we discussed what was happening in in Global Health and how looking through an Effective Altruism (EA) lens we could find out how we could do the most good. After a presentation by the team members of EA Rotterdam we engaged in a round-table discussion.

Here are the presentation, questions, reading materials, and my personal summary of the event.

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2_ (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

Presentation

We started the evening with a presentation by Laurin, Joeri and Christiaan. They respectively introduced EA, what things are happening in Global Health (and which misconceptions we might still have), and a bit of critique on where to focus (why not mental health?).

Download the presentation

At the end of the presentation, Floris (me) laid some factors to think about. This included the outcomes, different causes and criteria for measuring them (download the questions).

Round-table Discussion

We talked about the difficulty of comparing different charities and outcomes, even within the field of Global Health. Would it be better for 100 people to go from a happiness/life-satisfaction score of 5 to 8 (300 ‘points’) or to save 10 lives which will have a score of 6 (60 ‘points’). Some (total utilitarians) would argue for the former, others might have an instinctual feeling we need to focus on the latter.

Related was the topic of saving versus improving lives. One could argue that malaria bednets mainly focus on saving lives. Yet at the same time they also improve the lives of many. They prevent suffering for parents and children. They prevent someone from being ill many times over. They improve economic and societal outcomes.

We asked if you could compare happiness and suffering. We quickly realised that they are not two sides of the same coin. In many cases, we prefer to prevent suffering over adding the same (if it can be compared) happiness. See more on happiness in the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The group discussed many more topics and I recommend that you use the questions to start your own conversation (why not one at the dinner table).

Conclusion

It was another great evening that we got to host at V2_. We can’t thank Alex enough for hosting us there and for everyone who was at the event. We hope to see you at one of the next ones:

Wednesday 3rd of July – Improve your (institutional) decision making

September (to be announced) – Eating Ethically

November (to be announced) – EA Career Advice

Resources

(download the resources)

Videos

Peter Singer – The why and how of Effective Altruism

Will MacAskill – What are the most important moral problems of our time?

Research/Articles

https://www.givewell.org/charities/top-charities

Charities recommended by Give Well (EA research organization)

https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/cause-profile-global-health-and-development/

Profile on why Global Health and Development is a cause to fight for

https://80000hours.org/career-guide/world-problems/

World’s most pressing problems and your career

Top Charities recommendation 2018 update by Give Well

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1EM0CCg9tvCCtEoY-QVAi6vn9EYTlL66jHgAREN1fFV0/edit#gid=1882920000

Giving Season 2018 large decision Google Sheet

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/q7s8v7LjAdcYXAyAs/using-a-spreadsheet-to-make-good-decisions-five-examples

How to use a spreadsheet to make good (giving) decisions

https://www.givewell.org/how-we-work/our-criteria/cost-effectiveness/comparing-moral-weights

How to use moral weights

Podcasts:

https://samharris.org/podcasts/being-good-and-doing-good/

Will MacAskill on Sam Harris’ podcast, on being and doing good

https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/james-snowden-givewell-research/

James Snowden on how GiveWell chooses the best charities

AI x Future

On Wednesday 13rd of March 2019, the EA Rotterdam group had their seventh reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was AI x Future: Prosperity or destruction?

During the evening we discussed how artificial intelligence (AI) could lead to a wide range of possible futures. First we gave a presentation about the field (and what it’s future might bring). After that, we split the group in 3 parts and discussed the possible positive and negative outcomes.

Although we gave the instruction of thinking about only one side, of course all 3 groups also considered the opposite point of view from what they had to argue. Here are the questions, presentations, and my personal summary of the night.

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2_ (our venue for the night) for hosting us, and Jan (also from V2_) for being our AI expert for the evening.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

Questions

These were our starting questions:

Bright Lights

  • What could AI do for you personally (if AI did/solved X, I could now Y)?
  • What could be the effect of AI on energy production? Could AI help prevent/solve/reverse climate change?
  • What effect could AI have if fully implemented in health research (protein folding, cancer research, Alzheimer’s)?
  • Could AI help us produce the food we need with fewer resources (new crops, cultured meat, fewer pesticides, etc)?
  • How would mobility change with self-driving cars, trucks, buses, planes?
  • Could we prevent crime from happening (e.g. intelligent camera’s, prediction algorithms)?
  • Can AI actually improve our privacy?
  • Can we work together with AI to create more together (e.g. chess teams a few years back, a doctor working with AI image system)?
  • Will AI make wars obsolete? Or when they happen, more humane?
  • Could AI fight loneliness (e.g. robots in nursing homes)?
  • Could AI help us learn and remember better (e.g. a ‘smarter’ Duolingo)?
  • Will AI be conscious? If yes, could it ‘experience’ unlimited amounts of happiness?

Dark Despair

  • Will there be any jobs for us to do in the (near/long-term) future? What can’t AI do?
  • Who will enjoy the economic benefits from AI (Google/Facebook shareholders)? Will life become even more unequal than ever before in history?
  • Could someone hack the autonomous cars of the future?
  • Will we live in a totalitarian (China/Minority Report) state enabled by AI?
  • Does AI mean the end of privacy (everything tracked and analysed)?
  • Will AI enable more gruesome warfare (more weapons, no-one at the button)?
  • Will we lose contact with each other / lose our humanity (e.g. robots in nursing homes, chatbots (in Japan))?
  • What if the goals of the AI don’t align with our (humanity) goals? Can we still turn it off? How could we even align these goals – philosophy hasn’t really figured this one out yet!?
  • Will AI be conscious? If no, will there still be humans to ‘experience’ the future?

Bonus:

  • What are some concrete (future) examples of AI destroying the world?
  • Can you think of some counter-arguments for the points you expect the other group to raise?
  • Write down the date your group thinks AGI will happen? (don’t show the other team)

AI x Future

We started the evening with a presentation by Christiaan and Floris (me). In it, we explained both Effective Altruism (EA) and how (through this framework) we look at AI.

Download the presentation

After that, we split the group into two and both groups worked on making a mindmap/overview of the questions asked above (download them). This is a summary of both sides:

Group 1&2 – Dark Despair

These are the two posters from the Dark Despair groups:

Privacy

In a world with AGI, it could possibly track everything you do. The data that is is disparate systems could be combined and acted upon (not in your interest). Think 1984. You won’t be able to hide, your face will be detected.

Totalitarian State

This leads right into the second point of despair, a totalitarian state. One where big brother is always watching. The EU is making a case for privacy and human rights, can they withstand AGI?

Censorship, like that in China already this day, could lead to total control of the population. You might not be able to leave (e.g. if you’re social credits are too low).

War

Killer bees, but this time for real (or well, artificial, with tiny bombs). It is already real and warfare can become more dangerous and one-sided with an AGI on one side of the battle. Who presses the button? And are the goals of the AGI the same ones as ours?

And what if this makes war cheaper? Instead of training a soldier for years at millions of costs, just fly in some (small) drones that control themselves. Heck, what if they can repair themselves?

Will there be any empathy left in war? If you’re not there, why see the other side as a real human?

Jobs

Will there be any jobs left? A(G)I might leave us without mundane and repetitive tasks (a positive in most cases), but what about creative jobs, jobs that need empathy and give you meaning? Some say that A(narrow)I of today is already taking jobs here (e.g. Woebot).

And for who would we be working? Will it be to better humanity or for furthering the goals of the AGI (which might not align with ours).

Social Media

Looking closer at home, learning algorithms (ANI) are already influencing our lives and optimising our time on social networks, making us hunker for likes, hearts, approval. What if Facebook (social media), Amazon (buy this now, watch Twitch), Google (watch Youtube), Netflix, etc. become even better at this? Will we be the fat people from Wall-E?

Economic Inequality

And whilst we’re binge-watching some awesome new series, the AGI is hacking away at tax evasion (which some people are already good at, image the possibilities for an AGI).

Where will the benefits go? Do they go to society (like now via taxes and positive externalities) or will companies (and their executives) rake in all the benefits? With more and more data, who will benefit? How will the benefits ‘trickle-down’?

Autonomous Vehicles

In many US states, truck driver is the single largest job category. What if this disappears? What if the cars get hacked? Who is responsible when an accident happens (which is, of course, less likely, but hey we’re not the positive team here). (more on Self-Driving Cars at WIRED).

Consciousness

Consciousness and intelligence don’t go hand in hand. Will AGI enjoy art, music, or anything at all? And (surprising to me), we asked, are humans becoming less conscious?

AGI vs AGI

What if you take the time to program the safety into your AGI, and then the other team (read: country) doesn’t and their AGI becomes more intelligent faster, but doesn’t share our goals? Guess who ‘wins’.

Group 3 – Bright Lights (AI-YAY!)

This is the poster from the Bright Lights group.

Anti-War

AGI could find better compromises and mutual interests. If you could plan scenarios better (show losses from war, have shorter wars, show benefits from cooperating, etc). We pesky humans tend to be quite negative, what if AGI could show us that war is not needed to achieve our goals?

War is, a lot of times, about resources. But with AGI we should have abundant resources, so no more war? (to read more about war, check out my summary of Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker).

Health/Medicine

With better data analysis, we can make better predictions and make better medicine. We can see the unpredicted/unknown and intervene before it’s too late.

We can help people who are addicted to prevent relapse. Data from cheap trackers could help someone stay clean. It could even detect bad patterns and help people before things get too bad.

If we understand how proteins fold (and we’re getting better at it, AlphaFold), we might cure every disease we know. The possibilities of AGI and health are endless and exciting.

Mental Health

A chat-bot could keep you company. If we have more old people (before we make them fit again), an AGI could be their companion.

Chat to your AGI and ditch the therapist. Get coaching and live your best life. Not only for people who have access to both right now. No, therapy and coaching for everyone in the world.

Personal

AGI could help you with making life decisions (think dating simulation in Black Mirror). Choose the very best career for your happiness/fulfilment. Should you have children? Dating, NO MORE DRAMA!

Have your AGI tell you the weather. Have it be your personal yoga teacher, your basketball coach. Let it take away boring work, save you time, and let you live your best life.

Conclusion

Two hours isn’t enough to tackle AI and our possible future. But I do hope that we’ve been able to inspire everyone who was there, and all you reading this, of what the possible future’s there are.

“May we live in interesting times” is a quote I find very appropriate for this topic. It can go many ways (and is doing that already). If, and when, we will have AGI, we will see. Until then, I hope to see you at our next Meetup.

Resources

Videos

Nick Bostrom – What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?

Max Tegmark – How to get empowered, not overpowered, by AI

Grady Booch – Don’t fear superintelligent AI

Shyam Sankar – The rise of human-computer cooperation

Anthony Goldboom – The jobs we’ll lose to machines — and the ones we won’t (4 min)

Two Minute Papers – How Does Deep Learning Work?

Crash Course – Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence

Computerphile – Artificial Intelligence with Rob Miles (13 episodes)

Books

Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom (examining the risks)

Life 3.0 – Max Tegmark (optimistic)

The Master Algorithm – Pedro Domingos (explanation of learning algorithms)

The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil (very optimistic)

Humans Need Not Apply – Jerry Kaplan (good intro, conversational)

Our Final Invention – James Barrat (negative effects)

Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series (fiction 1940-1950, loads of fun!)

TV Shows

Person of Interest (good considerations)

Black Mirror (episodic, dark side of technology)

Westworld (AI as humanoid robots)

Movies

Ex Machina (AI as humanoid robot)

Blade Runner (cult classic, who/what is humam?)

Eagle Eye (omnipresent AI system)

Her (AI and human connection)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1986, AI ship computer)

Research/Articles

Effective Altruism Foundation on Artificial Intelligence Opportunities and Risks

https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/positively-shaping-artificial-intelligence/

80000 hours Problem Profile of Artificial Intelligence

https://80000hours.org/topic/priority-paths/ai-policy/

80000 hours on AI policy (also has great podcasts)

Great, and long-but-worth-it, article on The AI Revolution

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2018/12/21/18126576/ai-artificial-intelligence-machine-learning-safety-alignment

Future Perfect (Vox) article on AI safety alignment

https://cs.nyu.edu/faculty/davise/papers/Bostrom.pdf

Ernest Davis on Ethical Guidelines for a Superintelligence

https://intelligence.org/files/PredictingAI.pdf

On how we’re bad at prediction when AGI will happen

https://intelligence.org/files/ResponsesAGIRisk.pdf

Responses to Catastrophic AGI Risk

https://kk.org/thetechnium/thinkism/

Kevin Kelly on Thinkism, why the Singularity (/AGI) won’t happen soon

dhttps://deepmind.com/blog/alphafold/

Deep Mind (Google/Alphabet) on Alphafold (protein folding)

Meetup:

Effective Altruism Rotterdam

Rotterdam, NL
482 Effective Altruists

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Next Meetup

Social & Introductory Effective Altruism Meetup Rotterdam

Wednesday, Jun 12, 2019, 7:00 PM
5 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →

https://earotterdam.nl/

Awesome newsletter (recommended by an attendee):

http://www.exponentialview.co/

Download the full resource list

Poverty & Climate Change

On Wednesday 16th of January 2019, the EA Rotterdam group had their sixth reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was Poverty & Climate Change.

During the evening we discussed how poverty and climate change are cause and effect, what causes are neglected, what we can do ourselves, and what consequences we might expect.

These were our starting questions:

  • – What is the (future) impact of Climate Change on Poverty?
  • – How will Climate Change affect the world’s poorest?
  • – How can we measure this impact?
  • – What can we do to prevent/mitigate this?
  • – What are the most effective interventions to combat (the effect of) Climate Change?
  • and more that we will discuss then

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2_ (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

Poverty and Climate Change

We started the evening with a presentation by Joeri and Christiaan. In it they explained both Effective Altruism (EA) and how (through this framework) we look at climate change.

Download the presentation

After that, we split the group into two and both groups worked on making a mindmap/overview of the questions asked above (and some more, download them). This is a summary of what we discussed:

Group 1

We have the raw materials for wealth growth. The problem lies in the distribution. We also focus too much on materials as opposed to other growth (e.g. art/civil society).

What we can even see is a “luxury minimalism”amongst our peer group (a counter to the materialist mindset of our time. What we tend to forget is the real cost of products.

We talked about the impact of poverty relief on climate change. For instance where people get access to more transportation options (bikes -> motorcycles -> cars), there is more and more pollution. People take a car when they could have also biked. India and China are places to look at both for the growing problem and possible (electric?) solutions.

Is it selfish/hypocritical to limit growth of people coming out of poverty by saying they shouldn’t pollute? It could be. And one thing to not forget is that the 1% richest have the most proportional pollution. That is the place (the West again) to look for the largest savings (at least right now).

A combination of interventions (policy level) and consumer responsibility could pave the way forward. Democracy (the best of the worst) was discussed as being the best way to do this.

Climate change has a huge effect on poverty. Many of the consequences will be the effects of the effects. People who will have drought or too much rain will have to move, and this will very likely lead to conflicts.

Poverty relief also leads to stabler societies, less (unwanted) pregnancies and through this way will possibly lead to less climate change.

In the end group 1 discussed the role of multinationals. They don’t pay the real costs of what they make and there is little accountability. Advocacy directed at them may have a significant (positive) impact. (e.g. just today Samsung announced that they will stop packaging their products in plastic in the near future).

Group 2

Corporate responsibility was a main topic at group 2. The Doughnut Economy (see more here) was mentioned as a framework to put this discussion in. Tax reform could be a very effective way of better paying for the costs of things we use. The group also stated that only a small number (100) of companies are responsible for a large part of the climate change effects, it’s a problem we can tackle!

We also need more education. There are still many myths about climate change (sorry Americans, y’all are a bunch of crazy people). How can we make the effects visible (climate vs weather) and how can we effect behaviour change?

A lot of thinking is short-term. Many people don’t (ever) think about the long-term effects of their actions. Through tax reform and collective (vs individual) thinking we could have a positive impact. But we need small steps (in the right direction) to get there.

Conclusion

Climate change and poverty are both large topics that require more than an evening to discuss and flesh out. Below are the resources we consulted and shared with the participants. Please go and read/watch some to get a better understanding of the topics.

Climate change is having a direct negative effect on the poorest of the world. We should hurry and be open to new solutions in fighting the causes and effects of climate change. Limiting the (economic) growth of people coming out of poverty is not the most efficient solution. Taxing and changing the way the richest consume (including the ‘average’ person in the West) should be a priority. You can make changes yourself, as do multinationals and governments.

At last I will leave you with a reading tip: Let My People Go Surfing. About how one company (Patagonia) is trying their utmost best to do the right thing!

Resources

Starting/Preparation reading/watching:
– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4H1N_yXBiA (Climate Change in 3 minutes)
– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWXoRSIxyIU (Veritasium on Climate Change in 7 minutes)
– https://www.ipcc.ch/ (Climate Change model)
– https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/global-warming-impacts-india-be-huge (impact on India)
– https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/31/suicides-of-nearly-60000-indian-farmers-linked-to-climate-change-study-claims (impact on suicide in India)
– https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210600615300277
s_cid=mm6525a1_w?ftag=MSFd61514f (impact on suicide in India)
– https://models.pbl.nl/image/index.php/IMAGE_framework (Global Development model)
– https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/research-topic/desertification-and-drought(Drought)

Some more links for the interested:
– https://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/trade-offs-and-synergies-between-universal-electricity-access-and-climate-change-mitigation-in-sub-saharan-africa
– https://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/people-and-the-earth
– https://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/2012/roads-from-rio20
– https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/global-environment-outlook-5
– https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-5/
– http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/climate-change-and-human-development

Download the full resource list

Effective Altruism Systems Map

On Wednesday 5th of September 2018, the EA Rotterdam group had their fifth reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was Making an Effective Altruism Systems Map

During the evening we discussed how the different concepts of Effective Altruism relate and how they influence each other. We looked at the different cause areas and possible interactions between them. Questions we discussed included: Will my giving towards ending factory farming also help reduce CO2 outputs? Does investing in rationality have a positive impact on all other causes?

 

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2_ (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

 

Effective Altruism Systems Map

Effective Altruism (EA) wants to solve the world’s most pressing problem. And much of the work within the community goes towards solving these problems. But sometimes you have to take a step back and see how they interact and how they relate. Does working on one problem make things worse for another, or does it actually help solve other things you weren’t aiming for initially?

EA is quite a broad movement and views on ‘the most good’ differ among many of the followers of EA. In this follow-up article, I try and highlight what seems most important to each area and then I will highlight the back and forth interactions we discussed during the evening.

 

The Systems Maps

During the evening we produced two maps.

The first group made a distinction between the present and the (far) future. They linked many of the well-known concepts in EA and showed how the ‘Meta’ parts of EA influence them again.

The second group started with Animal Welfare and mapped with that as the basis. They were able to link most concepts but saw that AI and Far Future didn’t have many links (yet).

 

My Systems Map

Based on the information above, I started working on a systems map of my own. I don’t have it draw out (but feel free to make one based on this information). We will also use this information and the above maps to make a V2 (get it) of the maps in a few months time.

 

Animal Welfare

Animal Welfare is concerned with improving the well-being of nonhuman animals, especially farmed animals. A well-known organisation that compares different effective charities in this area is Animal Charity Evaluators.

Despite its importance, this focus area is highly neglected: animal charities receive only 3% of charitable donations, and 99% of that money is focused on pets, who make up less than 0.1% of all domesticated animals (Reese 2016).

The main effect: With a $1000 donation you can expect to spare the lives of 4056 animals (source).

The positive side-effects: If there are less factory-farmed animals, there will be fewer people who will be employed in these areas. The jobs in factory farms are not good (source). These are some of the lowest paying jobs, and may even result in people experiencing PTSD, depression and being more aggressive at home (source, 2, 3, 4). I would be curious to know how large this effect is (back of the envelope: 500k workers in USA, 50% injured, 70% respiratory problems – but what number is prevented per $ donated?).

If we eat fewer animals, then we can use land much more effectively. Grains that still have to go through an animal have a 9:1 ratio (source). We use 10x the amount of fossil fuels for making a calorie of meat than the average of an agricultural product (source).

If we eat fewer animals, then there is a change that we will be healthier. Factory farmed animals are full of hormones and many studies about red meat (and their negative effects) are about factory farmed animals (which is 99% of the meat we eat) that show negative health effects can be directly linked to how those animals are raised (source, 2, 3). Another indirect way this can happen is that we lower the chance of antibiotic resistance, 80% of antibiotics are given to factory farmed animals (source).

The negative side-effects: If we switch away from factory farms and towards cultured meat (see below) or more grains/legumes/etc, will this disrupt many farmers? Will they be able to switch?

Notes: One of the sub-areas of animal welfare is the development of clean meat (or cultured meat, meat without the animal). I believe that once we have a viable alternative to farmed meat that will be widely accepted (and I hope this is it) then I also think that we will become more compassionate to nonhuman animals. The previous arguments about the climate still also stand of course.

 

Poverty

Aa

 

Happiness

Aa

 

ABC HERE MY CONCEPTS AND LINKS

 

 

 

More Resources

Before we made our systems map we became aware of some other maps from others in the EA community, here are some of them:

 

 

Want to join us for another evening? Feel free to come over and bring a friend! Please check out our Meetup Page.

Our next in-depth meetup is titled Poverty and Climate Change (please join us: Event Page)

Ending Factory Farming

On Wednesday 4th of July 2018, the EA Rotterdam group had their fourth reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was Ending Factory Farming.

During the evening we learned about why factory farming is bad (animal suffering, environment, human suffering). We discussed the ways that people are tackling the problem. Both with regard to our consumption, the conditions in the factory farms, and to offering alternatives. One of my biggest takeaways is that we won’t easily (or at all) change people’s behaviour, but that institutional change may be able to nudge a lot of people into making better choices.

 

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2 (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

 

Why is Factory Farming Bad

Effective Altruism (EA) wants to solve the world’s most pressing problem. EA’s want to reduce the most suffering, or increase the amount of happiness. Most of the focus here has been on reducing extreme poverty. EA combines both the heart & head (and wants to eliminate the emotional bias that puts a spotlight on certain topics). Cause areas that EA focusses on are ones that are neglected, scalable, and solvable. Factory farming certainly hits all three criteria.

There are 50 billion farm animals that we raise each year. Most of them live in terrible conditions. These animals are responsible for 27% of methane production. And use around 33% of the total liveable land. This not only leads to bad outcomes for the animals, it also adds to global warming which impacts the worlds’ poor the most.

 

Why Don’t We Seem to Care

One reason why people don’t seem to care is cognitive dissonance. This stands for having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. And we people don’t really like to have those.

When asked in the TED Talk, most people indicated seeing a shocking video of how factory farms operate. And of course, they found that to be something that is terrible. When asked how many were vegetarian (remember, TED Talk audience) it was between 5-10%, about what you find in the general public. Even these ‘thinkers’ didn’t act on what they had seen.

We can resolve cognitive dissonance in two ways. And as you may have guessed the easiest way is to just not think about it. (the harder is to change your actions to match your beliefs/thoughts).

Many people also like to do another trick and that is to think they are eating the chickens that have roamed around, the cows that have seen the Swiss Alps (75% think this). There’s a 99% chance that your meat isn’t one of those (1% of meat is of the free-roam happy-life kind).

We, people, have a lot to think about. One other phenomenon that takes place here is the collapse of compassion. This means that someone thinks the problem is so big, it’s not even worth considering to be something to solve.

And, wait. Don’t we need meat? Nope, protein, water, fat, etc can all be readily found in vegetarian sources too. This aspect also has to do with the dominant/default option. And that is just meat in most countries. Even in countries where not all people could eat meat many days per week (China) they are eating more and more meat. One hope we had is that China might be a country where public opinion could be tipped very quickly if the government decides to take a negative stance on eating meat.

But telling others that their morals are messed up is not the way to solve this problem.

 

What are the Ways We Can Tackle the Problem

One of the insights of the evening is that we can’t (and shouldn’t) tackle the problem head-on. We should instead focus on helping reduce meat consumption in more indirect ways.

One way is to offer more alternatives. When there are more options available, some people may choose meat alternatives. This can take the form of ‘just’ veggies, meat substitutes (e.g. pea burgers), and cultured meat (meat grown without the animal).

  1. More and more places offer non-meat options on the menu and there are more and more restaurants that are vegetarian or vegan first
  2. (almost) All supermarkets in The Netherlands now offer vegan/vegetarian burgers, ‘meat’ balls, minced ‘meat’, etc
  3. And cultured meat is in development (wiki, article)

“In March 2018, JUST, Inc. (in 2011 founded as Hampton Creek in San Francisco) claimed to be able to present a consumer product from cultured meat by the end of 2018. According to CEO Josh Tetrick (a vegan) the technology is already there, and now it is merely a matter of applying it. Just has about 130 employees and a research department of 55 scientists, where lab meat from poultry, pork and beef is being developed. They would have already solved the problem of feeding the stemcells with only plant resources. Just receives sponsoring from Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and according to Tetrick also from Heineken International amongst others.”

That being said, the first two (and only available) alternatives haven’t moved the needle. Here in The Netherlands, we’ve been eating the same amount of meat per person for the last few years.

Cultured meat could even cause a backlash if they experience self-driving car moments (i.e. contaminated meat or other health problems).

So, what will be able to move the needle? One thing that we can do is encourage institutional change. One example from one of the participants is an initiative by the Erasmus University to serve vegetarian lunches as the default (with other options still being available).

Another example is that of WeWork (a global provider of work environments) who is only paying for vegetarian meals for their workers. Though their main point is the environmental impact, it’s a great signal that this company is sending.

“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact — even more than switching to a hybrid car.”

 

One other aspect that we discussed was: What would have the largest impact, having 100 people eat less meat (say 5 meals fewer per week) or converting 10 people to become vegetarian (21 meals per week)? In terms of maths, the former would, of course, be the better choice, but what about the impact of that person becoming a sneezer too?

 

We also discussed other indirect ways of changing what we eat. Tax reform may be a very effective way to nudge people to make better food choices. Think sugar tax, for meat.

And soap opera’s have substantial sway in public opinion. We discussed that in Germany they have been used to promote vegetarian eating habits.

 

What Can You and I Do?

Personally, we can choose to make better food choices. If you’re reading this, try and see what small step you can take. If you’re eating meat, try going without meat one day in the week. Learn a recipe or two without meat (may I suggest recipes with beans). Or if you’re vegetarian, try and see which of your current food choices still has a negative effect on animals (e.g. eggs, milk).

We can provide alternatives to friends and family. Give them an awesome delicious vegetarian recipe when they are coming over. Let them taste, feel, see how great vegetarian/vegan cooking can be. Just don’t focus on identity (i.e. I’m a vegetarian and I’m better than you), just show them what can be done. Make them curious, give them options.

Educate yourself with the resources below or on the website of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE).

Or use your votes to reduce animal suffering (first video below).

 

How Does Ending Factory Farming Compare to Other Cause Areas?

Factory Farming is related to other cause areas in various ways. It is a large contributor to global warming (e.g. 27% of methane production). This is something that impacts the worlds’ most poor the most. Economic circumstances (related to raising animals, in a world that wants to pay the least and with global warming) has led to many suicides amongst animal farmers (India, USA).

It’s also related to negative mental health (discussed during a previous evening) outcomes for people working in factory farms.

Another area that is affected is bio-threat. The development (and spread) of superbugs is something that is of real concern on factory farms.

We didn’t do a deeper dive into cost-effectiveness and long-term effects, but comparing different cause areas might be a topic of a future in-depth meeting.

 

Resources

If you want to learn more about Ending Factory Farming, here are some resources:

https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/lewis-bollard-end-factory-farming/

https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/factory-farming/

https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/bruce-friedrich-good-food-institute/

Also check out Earthling on Youtube

 

Conclusion

Like the other discussion evenings, we were thrilled to have you all there and I think everyone took away some great lessons. On the one hand, I feel that this cause area (like many other) is a tough cookie to crack. On the other hand, I do feel positive about the change we can make and the change our society will be making in the coming years. Hopefully, in 30 years we will look back at factory farming, the way we look back at slavery.

 

Want to join us for another evening? Feel free to come over and bring a friend! Please check out our Meetup Page.

Existential Risks

On Tuesday 23rd of January 2018, the EA Rotterdam group had their second reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was ‘Extinction Risks‘ from the 80,000 hours website.

The evening unfolded into a thrilling discussion in which great questions were asked.

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2 (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

 

Humanity is Facing its Most Dangerous Time Ever

Wait, what? How can this be? Isn’t it the most peaceful time ever? (discussion here) There is no world war, no black plague, no biblical tidal wave. Yet, we live in a more dangerous time than ever before. We have harnessed the power of the atom (read: made a ton of nuclear weapons). We are cracking the genetic codes (read: bioterror from a basement). We are changing the climate without regard for what will happen. We are developing an intelligence that will far surpass us (AI).

We are living in dangerous times. Experts estimate our extinction risk to be between 1-20% in the next century. That is some orders of magnitude higher than the average person would ever guess. But, we are also living in a time where our resources can be used for good. We are living in a time where we can gather our resources to prevent (some of the) bad outcomes. Extinction risks is a neglected cause and an optimist would see here a great opportunity to do good.

Want to take action? Go here in the 80,000 hours article.

Nuclear War

We discussed how nuclear war could wreak havoc on the world. The combination with ideology (and patriotism/tribalism) is what makes this such a pressing problem. Where in the Cold War two nations were keeping each other in check with MAD, today more and more actors (read: countries/groups) have gotten their hands on nuclear weapons. And although the Cold War has come to an end, there is still tension between Russia and America (like a lot).

There are fewer foot soldiers around the world but cyber attacks and the like have taken their place. Conflicts between countries are being fought in different places. Both digitally as physically (think Ukraine). But nuclear war is not out of the question. North Korea could do untold damage to South Korea, Japan and America. And that hasn’t even numbered in the risk of AI in combination with nuclear weapons.

New technology always finds a way to spread itself. And we people can decide to do good or bad with it. Or even have good intentions (e.g. energy) and have bad outcomes (e.g. climate change). The proliferation of information and technology is virtually unstoppable. So we must recognise that we can’t control the tech.

Uncontrollable Tech

What if I told you that I could 3D print a gun? Disturbing right. I could make a gun without a registration number. So, what if I told you that anyone with an internet connection and access to a 3D printer could do this? That is the reality we live in today. More on this in this excellent Planet Money episode. And what if the person that made the blueprints is now selling a mill that can make an aluminium frame of an AR-15.

This is a prime example of bad consequences of technology that was made to do good (e.g. 3D print heart valves). We did ask the question: Where are these guns were going? Is it just a group of anarchists that have them stocked in their house? Or will these guns be the next ones used in a mass shooting? Or are we good people in our hearts? Or are the people who commit murders not the people who care much about their privacy and whether their guns have a serial number?

What became clear is that (new) technology increases our power. Our power to do both good and bad. And that tech has unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences. The latter we can’t do anything about, but the former we can become better at. The Future of Humanity Institute is a research institute that is investigating ways to do this.

Divided Together

One other factor in extinction risk is us, our divided world. Because of algorithms we live in our own filter bubbles. We can say that we’re both smart and stupid at the same time. We can learn as much as we want, but hearing an opinion that isn’t aligned with what we think is very unlikely. And yes, we lived in our own bubbles before, but it has become worse through technology.

And when we code machines to emulate us, it takes on our biases. An experiment with a twitter bot ended in racism, in 24 hours. If there is a faulty premise/logic behind a program, it may perform in a way we didn’t intend it should. And the faults can be invisible (like filter bubbles which only reached our conversations last year), and we can become dependent on them. And are the bubbles even bad? Don’t they make us feel comfortable? To that I would say, easy choices hard life, hard choices easy live.

Why Care?

Is there any reason we should even care that we’re divided and risk extinction? Carl Sagan says yes we should.

If we are required to calibrate extinction in numerical terms, I would be sure to include the number of people in future generations who would not be born…. (By one calculation), the stakes are one million times greater for extinction than for the more modest nuclear wars that kill “only” hundreds of millions of people. There are many other possible measures of the potential loss—including culture and science, the evolutionary history of the planet, and the significance of the lives of all of our ancestors who contributed to the future of their descendants. Extinction is the undoing of the human enterprise.”(source)

We agreed that a person not born does not equate a person being killed. But we also talked about the joy that this person could not experience (because of not being). This can be called he unfulfilled potential. The potential for happiness, technology, society, artistic expression, and more.

More on this in a great interview by Sam Harris with David Benatar.

Prepare Yourself

What if we stopped looking for answers and just tried to live out the extinction events? That is what preppers are preparing for. Some very rich technologists are buying land in New Zealand (read more). Whilst others are planning to freeze their bodies until a time comes to save/heal themselves if/when technology keeps progressing (more at Wait But Why). We ended up discussing that time might be better spend solving than preparing.

Why Neglected?

Extinction risks are far away. Climate (change) is something we don’t experience, we experience weather. So we have to address rationality (logos) and not emotion (pathos). Or at least try and use more rationality because sometimes emotions are working against us.

Climate change and conflict lead to migration and when nationalism is encouraged, people from one country are not likely to help people from another country. They ask themselves, ‘Why help these other people?’, we have our own struggles.

Steven Pinker is positive about our ability to change. In his book (buy it here) Better Angels of our Nature he argues that we’re becoming more compassionate. We’re making our circle of empathy (or compassion) larger.

William MacAskill (80k podcast link) argues the same. He states that our morals are improving and that those of future generations will likely be even better. He argues that people with ‘bad’ ideas aren’t stupid, they are just uninformed. You only need one wrong belief (and many right reasons) to go down a wrong path. So when we increase our logical thinking, we might end up somewhere more positive.

Speaking for the Future

The green party (Groenlinks) proposed an ombudsman for the future. The goal was that this person would represent our future generations. Because the actions we take now will influence their lives. And they don’t get to have a vote now.

How can we become more future-oriented? Can we improve our voting systems? We had some ideas and there is more in Buying Time (buy it here). And watch this video by David Letterman and Barack Obama about why people don’t vote.

Optimist vs Cynic

You have to believe in an optimistic world (at least so I think). But we’ve become more cynical over the last decades. Why? We’ve lost our belief in social progress. After the second world war you could move upward, now we don’t see these possibilities anymore.

In the enlightenment, there was a march or reason. The 19th century brought us romanticism. And in the 20th century, we saw how reason could be used for nefarious purposes. We see how reason, capitalism, efficiency can be used for bad things.

The world has become too complicated. Wages are frozen. And people feel they aren’t benefitting from the technological progress that’s being made. The cost of living is going up. And people are able to see how others around them are thriving (thanks, Instagram and Vogue) and they are not.

Yet, we live in a world where we have more access to healthcare than ever before. Our basic needs are becoming cheaper. We have a supercomputer in our pocket and the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Through a different lens, the world looks much better.

 

Conclusion

We’ve had a great evening with an energising discussion about extinction risks. In the end, we took a closer look at our own psychology and looked at how we view the world. Everyone took something home and by discussing the topic things became clearer.

Want to join us for another evening? Feel free to come over and bring a friend! Please check out our Meetup Page.

 

 

Questions from me:

  • How do you feel about the future? Scared straight? Optimistic? Realistic?
  • And how are you preparing or preventing?

EA Meetup – 10 January 2018

On Wednesday the 10th of January 2018 the EA Rotterdam group hosted one of their monthly introductory meetups.

 

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

 

Two Altruists

The meetup started with an introduction to Effective Altruism (see this great video by Peter Singer). We quickly agreed that whilst there is still much uncertainty, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action. At the meeting, there were two people very actively involved in altruism. Both wanted to know what that whole ‘effective’ thing was all about.

Our first altruist was a volunteer with a project that helped people with placemaking through gardening. Next to making your neighbourhood look nice the project also aims to help people with depression and mental illness. But now that the economy is doing better, the municipality of Rotterdam is thinking: Hey, what is the impact here? Can’t we use this space for industrial purposes?

We discussed how far this impact is actually measured, how measurable it even is, and how you could measure it against other projects. From the municipality, I could find this evaluation. It explicitly says “In this research, we didn’t try and measure the effects”. So, there is still something to be gained here.

Our second altruist works for an organisation that promotes sustainable trade. It is not a development aid organisation. It, instead, works together with 100 of the largest companies in the world who control many (if not most) of the supply chains in the world. His organisation tries to combine/find a balance between profit and sustainability. The goal of the organisation is to introduce more sustainable practices (which may also result in better outcomes for the people there).

One cornerstone of effective altruism is already being practised. They start projects based on if it’s neglected or not. So if 10 other organisations are already working on sustainable coffee, they won’t jump in there too. They also look to work only with big organisations who see corporate social responsibility (CRS) as a must and not as window dressing.

But are the problems also solvable? What is the impact of this organisation? The ministry of foreign affairs (MinBuZa) has given this organisation 100 million over a period of 5 years. And in their evaluation, the following phrase was used “likely a marginal impact achieved”. That does make you question if the goals are being achieved, at reasonable costs. We did finally discuss that more senior people at the multinational companies are getting involved, it is something they are taking seriously.

 

Further Discussion

After that critical look, we also talked about Fair Trade. Is it smart to buy products that have this label? This is what William MacAskill has to say in Doing Good Better: “In buying Fairtrade products, you’re at best giving very small amounts of money to people in comparatively well-off countries. You’d do considerably more good by buying cheaper goods and donating the money you save to one of the cost-effective charities mentioned in the previous chapter.”

Our own conclusion was that the local farmers may see a benefit from such programs and that this may even lead to other springboard effects later on. But we did agree that it’s probably not the most effective way when you look dollar for dollar. A final question was posed “But would you donate the money you saved by buying cheaper groceries?”. I think most people can answer that with a solid no.

One participant was interested in effective altruism and politics. What is the advise there? I didn’t have an answer at that moment, I did only know that there was a lot of uncertainty involved in politics as a career path. Here is an overview of the blogs that 80000hours has written about the topic. And I would especially recommend this article. It states that chances of success (making up high in the politics career ladder) are low, but that your (positive) impact may be very large.

A final question was asked about donating to EA organisations itself, is that effective? I stated that every €1 invested there (Giving What We Can) results in moving €6 to a high-priority intervention. And luckily that is backed up by the data. Here is an overview of why to donate to EA organisations.

 

Thank you all for being there. If you want to meet us, please check out our Meetup Page.

The World’s Most Pressing Problems

On Wednesday the 1st of November 2017 the EA Rotterdam group had the first reading & discussion group. This is a deeper dive into some of the EA topics.

The topic for this event was ‘The world’s biggest problems and why they’re not what first comes to mind‘ from the 80,000 hours website.

The evening unfolded into an amazing discussion in which great questions were asked.

We (the organisers of EA Rotterdam) thank Alex from V2 (our venue for the night) for hosting us.

If you want to visit an EA Rotterdam event, visit our Meetup page.

 

The World’s Most Pressing Problems

Many of the problems in the world are ungraspable and out of our reach. Only a beauty pageant could sincerely be wishing for world peace without thinking about the difficulties involved. That is why Effective Altruists take a look at problems that are solvable and neglected. They look at areas that, when you put in the effort, you can do good. Areas you can have an impact in, like malaria prevention.

In the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, 80.000 hours provides information about (mostly) your career choice. They adopt the general views from EA, like doing good should also be measured and that some actions can have a bigger impact than others, and apply that to career choice.

If you look at EA, in general, you can say that the areas of interest are not only solvable and neglected but also urgent. You could compare this worldview with a medic on the battlefield. He or she will need to decide to help a) the person with the bullet wound or b) the person with the hurt pinky. This process is also called triage (more on that in this great Radiolab episode).

Global Poverty

In our world, the inequality of wealth is ever increasing (more here). Wealth is too concentrated. This makes extreme poverty a cause that EA is very concerned with. If you take a slightly more positive point of view, this also means that your Euro or Dollar will be able to take you much further if you help someone who is poorer than you.

And if you’re reading this, you’re probably among the wealthiest 10% of the world (calculate it here). The extra value that your money can have in other places can also be called the marginal utility. Or to put it into words, 1 bread would make you very happy, but if you already have 100 loaves of bread, 1 more will not add too much to your happiness. This is also why GiveDirectly is a recommended charity.

Climate Change

Climate change has the biggest effect on the poor. They are the people who have the least means to adapt to their changing environments (e.g. to sit out a drought or leave your house when the sea comes creeping in). Climate change also has secondary negative effect by making existing problems even worse, like the growth of the area in which mosquitos with malaria live.

Some people also argue that giving to charities like GiveDirectly might also make the problem of climate change worse. You help alleviate suffering but also add another person that will contribute extra to climate change.

Climate change is an existential threat on the mid-long term (about 2050). But you could argue that it’s not neglected. There are 100’s of millions being invested in developing better resources (e.g. wind, solar). And at the same time, America and Canada are fracking for more and more oil and gas than ever.

So if you’re asking yourself if you could or should donate to this cause, it’s a difficult question to answer (here is some more info).

What you could do is to think critically about your habits. Energy consumption, buying less meat, and travelling less far are examples of behaviours that have an impact.

EA is about combining the heart and mind, but also the hands play a big role in the impact you can have. And if you look at what you could do as an effective altruist, there are four options. The first is to donate money to a cause. The second is to make different life choices. The third is to consciously choose a career. And fourth to spread awareness about the other three. 

Artificial Intelligence

There are about 100 people working on the AI control problem. That is not too many. And just like with climate change, we humans are raising the stakes. If we go off the deep end here, we could end ourselves within not too many years.

The AI (who might be conscious or not) will become smarter than us (book: Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom) and we don’t really know what will happen to us. The AI (AGI / ASI) doesn’t even have to be maleficent to accidentally turn us all (the universe) into paperclip material (TED Talk by Sam Harris).

More directly we are now faced with autonomous cars that are making life and death decisions. And yes, they are much better than us humans at reaction time and not texting while driving, but how do you program in morals (that both the driver and pedestrian will like)?

And how do people react when confronted with AI? In a hospital, they tested a triage robot that was better than humans at deciding who to operate on. But they found that the AI didn’t always match what doctors felt that was right, and so the (arguably better) AI was retired.

Who will be making these choices? Is it Google (Alphabet)? And what are their motivations (money, doing good, other)? There are a lot of questions you could ask about AI and the interesting (hopefully bright) future that lays ahead.

You can also ask yourself how solvable the AI problem is. And there is not a clear answer to that questions. But if we are able to solve it (i.e. not let the AI (accidentally) kill all humans)) the positive outcome of that would be astronomical. So if we can even improve our chances of that happening by 1%, that would be amazing.

Biosecurity

It is now possible for one person to unleash a virus that is able to kill millions of people. We have become more powerful to do both good and bad. Natural causes that threaten our biosecurity are also an increasing source of worry. A person with a cough in the centre of a large metropolitan area may see his or her pathogen spread around the world in a matter of hours.

Policy in this area is seriously lacking. It is also not very rational. Therefore some people in the EA community are getting involved in policy related to biosecurity. In The Netherlands, the green party (Groenlink) proposed a spokesperson for the future, alas this was not passed.

Healthy Lives

As the final topic of interest, healthy lives are also something to think about. What if we could age without the current problems we have now (cancer, heart diseases, and more). There are some very interesting points of view on this topic by CGPGrey and Kurzgesagt.

At the same time, it’s also important that we live healthy mental lives. And that in this world with job insecurities, social media (with its pros and cons), that is oftentimes very challenging.

Career Choice

The choice for what you will do in your career (that will span 80,000 hours) is very important. Next to deliberating about these global problems, thinking about fit is also very important. Because without fit (in your job, and of course also in other areas of your life) you won’t get far. You might be working on the most pressing problem in the world, but if you burn out in 1 year your contribution won’t be that great.

Some of the things that are important for your career are freedom, skill development, talent, and support. Passion is sometimes a tricky thing to fit in this list (book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You).

Choosing where to work can also be challenging. Do you want to work in a place that directly (and significantly) makes the world a better place (like working for an NGO)? Or would you do better as someone who works in marketing and donates a certain percentage of their income? Whatever you do, it should be a good fit for you.

Matt Wage is a living example of someone who has chosen the earning to give path. He is a trader and donates half his pay to effective causes. Read his full story in the New York Times.

You could ask yourself if working for Shell or other corporations with less than stellar reputations may also be a good choice. It’s difficult to say if it would be a good or bad choice. It depends on very specific circumstances and on what your influence would be in such a career.

Working on directly promoting EA could also be an option. In recent history, large social changes have shown to unfold very quickly (like gay marriage). And as we learn more about our own psychology, we learn how to better influence others (for good and for bad). Learn more in the book: How to Change the World.

It’s systems that change that make a big difference. But these systems consist of individual humans. And you can, therefore, have a larger impact than you maybe think you can have.

 

Conclusion

The evening was a fruitful discussion from which everyone could take home some learnings and things to think about. Besides the above summary, we also continued to talk about GDP, Peter Singer, the ethics of having kids, goals of EA, UBI, and more. If you want to meet us, please check out our Meetup Page.

 

 

Questions from me:

  • How strong is the argument that if you donate to GiveDirectly, there will be a negative environmental effect?
  • What behavioural changes are most effective in combatting climate change (or specifically CO2 emissions)?
    • e.g. 100 times not eating meat equals a 5 hours plane ride