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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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