Effective Altruism Making Waves

Over the last few years, I’ve no­ticed how bits and pieces of effec­tive al­tru­ism have be­come main­stream. A cou­ple weeks ago when I watched a YouTube video on my smart­phone, there was an ad for the Beyond Burger available at A&W’s across Canada. A&W’s is one of the biggest fast food fran­chises in North Amer­ica, and the Beyond Burger is a product from Beyond Meat, which has re­ceived sup­port from the Good Food In­sti­tute, which in turn has re­ceived fund­ing from the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject. This means effec­tive al­tru­ism played a cru­cial role in the de­vel­op­ment of a con­sumer product that mil­lions of peo­ple will be ex­posed to.

Ar­tifi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) de­vel­op­ments make the head­lines on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing a com­ing age of au­toma­tion loom­ing in the near fu­ture. While con­cerns about ex­is­ten­tial risks from trans­for­ma­tive AI are dis­tinct from what is­sues re­gard­ing AI are most com­mon in the pub­lic con­scious­ness, when­ever AI comes up in con­ver­sa­tion I ask if peo­ple have heard about the AI safety con­cerns raised by pub­lic figures like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawk­ing. Most peo­ple I talk to when I bring this up have heard about it, and have a pos­i­tive as op­posed to nega­tive at­ti­tude to­ward the idea the de­vel­op­ment of AI should be man­aged to min­i­mize the chances it poses threats to hu­man­ity’s safety or se­cu­rity. This is all anec­do­tal, but in my ev­ery­day life in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple out­side EA, I’m sur­prised by how many peo­ple have some level of aware­ness of AI safety. It’s been at least a cou­ple dozen peo­ple.

I imag­ine be­cause char­i­ties fo­cused on helping the poor in the de­vel­op­ing the world are so com­mon, among the gen­eral pub­lic aware­ness of global poverty alle­vi­a­tion efforts ad­vo­cated by EA rel­a­tive to other char­i­ta­ble work in the de­vel­op­ing world is prob­a­bly pretty low. But among my cir­cles of friends also par­ti­ci­pat­ing in so­cial move­ments or in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­ni­ties, such as the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity, or a va­ri­ety of poli­ti­cal or ac­tivist move­ments, most ac­quain­tances I meet and friends I meet lo­cally have already heard of effec­tive al­tru­ism, and gen­er­ally have a pos­i­tive im­pres­sion of EA top­ics like effec­tive giv­ing, and or­ga­ni­za­tions like Givewell.

While the phrase ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism’ isn’t on ev­ery­one’s lips, it seems like a sig­nifi­cant pro­por­tion of the whole pop­u­la­tion of Canada and the United States is aware of things done to im­prove the world that effec­tive al­tru­ism played an early hand in mak­ing hap­pen. Over­all, in the last cou­ple years, how much more I no­tice con­nec­tions to EA in my ev­ery­day life, un­re­lated to EA, is much more com­mon. I don’t know if this pre­dicts or not a spike in growth and aware­ness of EA among the gen­eral pub­lic in the near fu­ture. But I’ve found it very sur­pris­ing just how no­tice­able the early suc­cesses of the EA move­ment so far by how far and wide things EA as a move­ment has had a hand in have im­pacted the world. Does any­one else have a similar ex­pe­rience?