Can the EA community copy Teach for America? (Looking for Task Y)

Sum­mary (ed­ited in)

Below, I make the case for the im­por­tance of think­ing about “Task Y”, a way in which peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in EA ideas can use­fully help, with­out mov­ing full time into an EA ca­reer. The most use­ful way in which I am now think­ing about “Task Y” is as an an­swer to the ques­tion “What can I do to help?”.

Mo­ti­va­tion & in­tro­duc­tion to Task Y

Epi­sode 10 of the 80000hours pod­cast was re­cently re-aired, and one part of the con­ver­sa­tion re­ally stayed with me as I listened, and prompted me to ask a ques­tion. I’ve bolded the part I’m refer­ring to for em­pha­sis, but in­cluded a much longer quote for con­text.

Robert Wiblin: A ques­tion that of­ten comes up is whether Effec­tive Altru­ism should aim to be a very broad move­ment that ap­peals to po­ten­tially hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple, and it helps them each to make a some­what larger con­tri­bu­tion, or whether it should be more, say, like an aca­demic re­search group or an aca­demic re­search com­mu­nity that has only per­haps thou­sands or tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in­volved, but then tries to get a lot of value out of each one of them, re­ally get them to make in­tel­lec­tual ad­vances that are very valuable for the world. What’s your thought on that, on the two op­tions there?
Nick Beck­stead: I guess, if I have to pick one, maybe I would pick the sec­ond op­tion, but I might frame it a lit­tle bit differ­ently, and I might say, “Let’s leave the first op­tion open in the long run as well.” I guess, the way I see it right now is this com­mu­nity doesn’t have cur­rently a scal­able use of a lot of peo­ple. There’s some groups that have found effi­cient scal­able uses of a lot of peo­ple, and they’re us­ing them in differ­ent ways.
For ex­am­ple, if you look at some­thing like Teach for Amer­ica, they iden­ti­fied an area where, “Man, we could re­ally use tons and tons of tal­ented peo­ple. We’ll train them up in a spe­cific prob­lem, im­prov­ing the US ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Then, we’ll get tons of them to do that. Var­i­ous of them will keep work­ing on that. Some of them will un­der­stand the prob­lems the US ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem faces, and fix some of its policy as­pects.” That’s very much a scal­able use of peo­ple. It’s a very clear in­struc­tion, and a way that there’s an ob­vi­ous role for ev­ery­one.
I think, the Effec­tive Altru­ist Com­mu­nity doesn’t have a scal­able use of a lot of its high­est value … There’s not re­ally a scal­able way to ac­com­plish a lot of these high­est val­ued ob­jec­tives that’s stan­dard­ised like that. The clos­est thing we have to that right now is you can earn to give and you can donate to any of the causes that are most fa­vored by the Effec­tive Altru­ist Com­mu­nity. I would feel like the mass move­ment ver­sion of it would be more com­pel­ling if we’d have in mind a re­ally effi­cient and valuable scal­able use of peo­ple, which I think is some­thing we’ve figured out less.
I guess what I would say is right now, I think we should figure out how to pro­duc­tively use all of the peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in do­ing as much good as they can, and fo­cus on filling a lot of higher value roles that we can think of that aren’t always so stan­dard­ised or some­thing. We don’t need 2000 peo­ple to be work­ing on AI strat­egy, or should be work­ing on tech­ni­cal AI safety ex­actly. I would fo­cus more on figur­ing out how we can best use the peo­ple that we have right now.

Nick’s con­clu­sion, that we should fo­cus on mak­ing best use of the peo­ple who are cur­rently part of the EA com­mu­nity is a sen­si­ble one, but his state­ment, and in par­tic­u­lar the bolded part, I be­lieve hints at an­other, po­ten­tially ex­cit­ing ques­tion:

What if there were a scale­able way to effec­tively use the effort and time of peo­ple who agree with broad EA prin­ci­ples, but who for for some rea­son aren’t able to, for ex­am­ple, land a job from here?

To try to be more con­crete: what if there were some “Task Y” (I’m bor­row­ing from “Cause X”) which had some or all of the fol­low­ing prop­er­ties:

  • Task Y is some­thing that can be performed use­fully by peo­ple who are not cur­rently able to choose their ca­reer path en­tirely based on EA con­cerns*.

  • Task Y is clearly effec­tive, and doesn’t be­come much less effec­tive the more peo­ple who are do­ing it.

  • The pos­i­tive effects of Task Y are ob­vi­ous to the per­son do­ing the task.

(* po­ten­tially this rea­son could be any­thing from not liv­ing in the right part of the world, to not hav­ing the right qual­ifi­ca­tions, to car­ing a lot but not enough to com­pletely switch ca­reer, to sim­ply be­ing a stu­dent who wants to be do­ing some­thing more di­rect right now than go­ing to their weekly/​monthly dis­cus­sion group)

Why do I think this idea would be valuable to think about fur­ther?

I joined the “Teach First” (UK ver­sion of Teach for Amer­ica) as soon as I grad­u­ated from Univer­sity. In my case I had strongly con­sid­ered teach­ing for a long time, but I met lots of peo­ple in the pro­gramme for whom that was not the case. One of the key things that ap­pealed to lots of them was that Teach First did not re­quire a huge com­mit­ment. Lots of the ad­ver­tis­ing and dis­cus­sion from men­tors and peers was around the fact that the com­mit­ment was only for two years, dur­ing which time we would build lots of flex­ible ca­reer cap­i­tal. At the time, we were even told that sev­eral large con­sul­tancy firms let Teach First grad­u­ates skip the first two stages of their re­cruit­ment pro­cesses. The strat­egy of tel­ling peo­ple that “you can do some good now, but don’t worry if you’re not ready to com­mit your whole life to it”, meant that many peo­ple joined who, ac­cord­ing to them, would never oth­er­wise have con­sid­ered teach­ing as a ca­reer.

At the mo­ment, peo­ple who be­come ca­su­ally in­ter­ested in Effec­tive Altrusim can at­tend mee­tups (if they live in an area with them), write fo­rum posts, and donate small amounts of money (in the rel­a­tive sense, if not in the moral sense, given how cheap it is to save a life). Without mak­ing se­ri­ous ca­reer-chang­ing plans, that’s about it, and not many peo­ple change the en­tire path of their life on the ba­sis of one con­ver­sa­tion. The sin­gle biggest way peo­ple be­come in­volved in the EA com­mu­nity is via per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers and, from the ba­sis of the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had, get­ting peo­ple sold on the gen­eral idea of do­ing good and do­ing it well is easy, the difficult part is hav­ing a good an­swer to the ques­tion “So what can I do to help?”. Allow­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als to mean­ingfully con­tribute in a way which has di­rect benefits which are clear to them, es­pe­cially if there is a rel­a­tively small bar­rier to them get­ting started, could be a very pow­er­ful re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion tool, as peo­ple who feel they are mean­ingfully con­tribut­ing are po­ten­tially not only less likely to drift away, but are more likely and able to en­courage oth­ers to fol­low their ex­am­ple.

Po­ten­tial “Task Y”s which already exist

Un­for­tu­nately, I don’t have a clear idea for what “Task Y” should be. I there­fore am post­ing this in the hope that some oth­ers will feel that this ques­tion mer­its some thought. The ex­is­tence of EA­work.club seems like a promis­ing start, but at the mo­ment barely any­thing ac­tu­ally gets posted and cer­tainly noth­ing has seemed scal­able. Glen Weyl’s com­ments about artists, writ­ers and video game de­sign­ers are an­other area where I see some po­ten­tial. His com­ments to­wards the end of the in­ter­view about the value of hav­ing a di­verse range of view­points are also worth con­sid­er­ing, es­pe­cially as they have fairly srong im­pli­ca­tions for the value of the com­mu­nity ex­pand­ing to en­com­pass a large num­ber of “part timers”. The whole thing is worth a listen, but an in­dica­tive quote is :

Robert Wiblin: So, there’s two differ­ent rea­sons that you could like hav­ing this kind of demo­cratic spirit in want­ing to dis­tribute power. One would be on prin­ci­ple. You just think it’s bad to con­cen­trate power or elitism or hi­er­ar­chy is un­ap­peal­ing in prin­ci­ple. The other is that, as an em­piri­cal mat­ter, in­for­ma­tion is very widely dis­tributed. In fact, even peo­ple who don’t have a great ed­u­ca­tion or what­ever are in fact, bring a lot of knowl­edge to the table when they are able to con­tribute.
Glen Weyl: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: I thought that you were go­ing to jus­tify on the first prin­ci­ple. But it sounds like you just think-
Glen Weyl: No, I’m jus­tify­ing it on the sec­ond ground.
Robert Wiblin: Just in prac­tice, like or­di­nary vot­ers ac­tu­ally have a lot of value to con­tribute to the sys­tem.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.

While I’m acutely aware that Task Y might not ex­ist, it seems to have a large enough up­side that it is worth at least some effort to try to find. It’s pos­si­ble that there is no sin­gle task which fits the de­scrip­tion, but a com­bi­na­tion of sveral differ­ent things, with ap­pro­pri­ate co-or­di­na­tion, do. I’m re­ally ex­cited to be able to po­ten­tially up­date/​strengthen parts of this post with con­tri­bu­tions from the com­ments. The most im­por­tant ques­tions that I don’t feel I have strong an­swers to are:

What prop­er­ties should “Task Y” have? My ini­tial at­tempt to an­swer this is above, but I think there’s lots of room for im­prove­ment. edit: As @aarongertler pointed out in the com­ments, there’s no need that “Task Y” would have to be a sin­gle thing. If it were the case that it were one of sev­eral use­ful pro­jects, how­ever, a cen­tral­ised “task list”, from which peo­ple could eas­ily choose soemthing to work on, seems like an ex­cel­lent idea.

Why isn’t “Earn­ing to give”, or even just “donate effec­tively” suffi­cient to have the large pos­i­tive effects “Task Y” could have? I’m very un­cer­tain about this, part of me thinks that “set up a small stand­ing or­der to an effec­tive char­ity, and pe­ri­od­i­cally re­view whether you can af­ford to in­crease it”, could po­ten­tially work if pitched cor­rectly—it’s what I de­cided to do when I first heard about Effec­tive Altru­ism, and re­sulted in me grad­u­ally be­com­ing more and more ac­tively in­volved. I think, how­ever, for many peo­ple seet­ing up a re­cur­ring dona­tion is a “fire and for­get” ac­tion; once it’s hap­pened there’s not much to keep that per­son ac­tively in­volved. There may also be some­thing to the idea that “giv­ing money to an effec­tive char­ity” doesn’t feel suffi­ciently differ­ent to “giv­ing money to a char­ity” to ei­ther make peo­ple feel like a part of a com­mu­nity, or for the mes­sage to be able to be heard above the many other voices tel­ling peo­ple where to donate.

If there were a large ex­pan­sion in the “Soft EA/​Task Y” com­mu­nity, how could we most effec­tively lev­er­age the col­lec­tive ac­tions of this large com­mu­nity, with­out tak­ing time away from the other work they were do­ing? It strikes me that suffi­ciently good an­swers to this ques­tion could po­ten­tially be worth ex­plor­ing and im­ple­ment­ing even with­out a large growth in the EA com­mu­nity. If, for ex­am­ple, there were some effec­tive way of us­ing dis­tributed com­put­ing in EA-al­igned re­search, it seems pos­si­ble that the curent EA com­mu­nity is already big enough (and rich enough on av­er­age to have ac­cess to an at least mod­er­ately pow­er­ful com­puter), to have po­ten­tialy large effects. Were the EA move­ment to grow rapidly enough to in­clude very large num­bers of peo­ple who were at least in some sense “EA-al­igned”, there is po­ten­tial for the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of many more causes which could po­ten­tially de­rive large benefits from the com­bi­na­tion of large num­bers of peo­ple tak­ing small in­di­vi­d­ual ac­tions, even if none of these ac­tions are sig­nifi­cant enough to be po­ten­tial “Task Y” can­di­dates them­selves. Vot­ing re­form and an­i­mal rights ac­tivism are two things which seem po­ten­tially able to benefit from things like let­ter/​email cam­paigns in the style of Amnesty. Lev­er­ag­ing the com­bined low effort ac­tions of a large group of EAs has already been very suc­cess­fully done here.

Is there a sig­nifi­cant down­side to lots of peo­ple be­ing in­volved in a “soft” ver­sion of EA? While my per­sonal ex­pe­rience is that be­ing in­volved to a small ex­tent in Effec­tive al­tru­ism led to in­creas­ingly strong in­volve­ment, the sam­ple I have is ex­tremely small (al­though not limited to just my­self), and is clearly bi­ased by the fact that most of the peo­ple I talk to about effec­tive al­tru­ism are EAs. It is at least pos­si­ble that peo­ple be­com­ing in­volved in some small way might be less likely to con­sider other, more im­pact­ful op­tions, in the same way that set­ting too small de­fault dona­tions can some­tims cause peo­ple to give less money over­all. In some ways this is the most im­por­tant ques­tion of all. I be­lieve that the abil­ity to do some­thing mean­ingful would be a step­ping stone for peo­ple to get more in­volved with effec­tive al­tru­ism. If it turned out to be a “stop­ping stone”, pre­vent­ing peo­ple who would oth­er­wise have got fully in­volved from mov­ing past the “I’ll spend some chunk of my time do­ing task Y” stage, it would clearly be bad.

Edit, from @John_Maxwell_IV: sup­pos­ing Task Y does ex­ist, would you rather peo­ple work­ing on Task Y think of them­selves as “Soft EAs”, or as peo­ple who are part of the “Task Y com­mu­nity”? Rather that copy John’s (ex­cel­lent) ar­gu­ments on both sides in here, I think re­sponses to this ques­tion should prob­a­bly hap­pen in replies to his com­ment.