I began my PhD with a focus on Bayesian deep learning with exactly the same reasoning as you. I also share your doubts about the relevance of BDL to long-term safety. I have two clusters of thoughts: some reasons why BDL might be worth pursuing regardless, and alternative approaches.Considerations about BDL and important safety research:
Don’t overfit to recent trends. LLMs are very remarkable. Before them, DRL was very remarkable. I don’t know what will be remarkable next. My hunch is that we won’t get AGI by just doing more of what we are doing now. (People I respect disagree with that, and I am uncertain. Also, note I don’t say we could’t get AGI that way.)
Bayesian inference is powerful and general. The original motivation is still real. It is tempered by your (in my view, correct) observation that existing methods for approximate inference have big flaws. My view is that probability still describes the correct way to update given evidence and so it contains deep truths about reliable information processing. That means that understanding approximate Bayesian inference is still a useful guide for anyone trying to automatically process information correctly (and being aware of the necessary assumptions). And an awful lot of failure modes for AGI involve dangerous mistaken generalization. Also note that statements like “simple non-Bayesian techniques such as ensembles” are controversial, and there’s considerable debate about whether ensembles are working because they perform approximate integration. Andrew Gordon Wilson has written a lot about this, and I tentatively agree with much of it.
Your PhD is not your career. As Mark points out, a PhD is just the first step. You’ll learn how to do research. You really won’t start getting that good at it until a few years in, by which point you’ll write up the thesis and start working on something different. You’re not even supposed to just keep doing your thesis as you continue your research. The main thing is to have a great research role model, and I think Phillip is quite good (by reputation, I don’t know him personally).
BDL teaches valuable skills. Honestly, I just think statistics is super important for understanding modern deep learning, and it gives you a valuable lens to reason about why things are working. There are other specialisms that can develop valuable skills. But I’d be nervous about trading the opportunity to develop deep familiarity with the stats for practical experience on current SoTA systems (because stats will stay true and important, but SoTA won’t stay SoTA). (People I respect disagree with that, and I am uncertain.)
Big picture, I think intellectual diversity among AGI safety researchers is good, Bayesian inference is important and fundamental, and lots of people glom on to whatever the latest hot thing is (currently LLMs), leading to rapid saturation.
So what is interesting to work on? I’m currently thinking about two main things:
I don’t think that exact alignment is possible, in ways that are similar to how exact Bayesian inference is generally possible. So I’m working on trying to learn from the ways in which approximate inference is well/poorly defined to get insights for how alignment can be well/poorly defined and approximated. (Here I agree 100% with Mark that most of what is hard in AGI safety remains framing the problem correctly.)
I think a huge problem for AGI-esque systems is about to be hunting for dangerous failures. There’s a lot of BDL work on ‘actively’ finding informative data, but mostly for small-data in low-dimensions. I’m much more interested in huge data, high-dimensions, which creates whole new problems (e.g., you can’t just compute a score function for each possible datapoint). (Note that this is almost exactly the opposite to Mark’s point below! But I don’t exactly disagree with him, it’s just that lots of things are worth trying.)
There are other things that are important, and I agree that OOD detection is also important (and I’m working on a conceptual paper on this, rather than a detection method specifically). If you’d like to speak about any of this stuff I’m happy to talk. You can reach me at email@example.com
This is a really good point, and I’m not sure that something exists which was written with that in mind. Daniel Dewey wrote something which was maybe a first step on a short form of this in 2015. A ‘concrete-problems’ in strategy might be a really useful output from SAIRC.
All the data can be found here.
Often (in EA in particular) the largest cost to a failed started project isn’t to you, but is a hard-to-see counterfactual impact.
Imagine I believe that building a synth bio safety field is incredibly important. Without a real background in synth bio, I go about building the field but because I lack context and subtle field knowledge, I screw it up having reached out to almost all the key players. They would now are be conditioned to think that synth bio safety is something that is pursued by naive outsiders who don’t understand synth bio. This makes it harder for future efforts to proceed. It makes it harder for them to raise funds. It makes it harder for them to build a team.
The worst case is that you start a project, fail, but don’t quit. This can block the space, and stop better projects from entering it.
These can be worked around, but it seems that many of your assumptions are conditional on not having these sorts of large negative counterfactual impacts. While that may work out, it seems overconfident to assume a 0% chance of this, especially if the career capital building steps are actually relevant domain knowledge building.
Prediction markets benefit a lot from liquidity. Making it EA specific doesn’t seem to gain all that much. But EAs should definitely practice forecasting formally and getting rewarded for reliable predictions.
I’m not very confident on this estimate, but I’d hazard that between 5-50 causally connected groups will have made a recommendation related to the balance of research vs direct work in global health as part of the DfID budget (in either direction).
That’s maybe a 75% confidence interval.
Yes this is absolutely not a thing that just GPP did—which is why I tried to call out in this post that several other groups were important to recommending it! (And also something I emphasised in the facebook post you link to.)
I don’t know how many groups fed into the overall process and I’m sure there were big parts of the process I have no knowledge about. I know of two other quite significant entities that have publicly made very similar recommendations (Angus Deaton and the Centre for Global Development) as well as about half a dozen other entities that made similar but slightly narrower suggestions (many of which we cited). The general development aid sector is clearly enormous, but the field of people proposing this sort of thing is smaller.
Assigning causal credit for policy outcomes is very complicated. It obviously matters to us to assess it, so that we can tell if it’s worth doing more work in an area. What we do is just talk to the people we made recommendations to and ask them how significant a role our recommendation played. Usually people prefer we don’t share their reflections further, which is unfortunate but inevitable.
At the moment most of the orgs within CEA target 12 months reserves (though some have less and, in particular, they sometimes fall quite low at some point in the course of the year because we avoid on-going fundraising).
If we had something like 3 months of reserves for all costs unrestricted it would give us either greater financial security or the ability to cut the size of restricted overall reserves to, say, 7 months while keeping similar stability. This would free up EA capital for other projects.
It’s a little unclear what the right level of reserves ought to be. In the US it’s common for charities to have very large endowments (say 20 years). I think the 12 months at all times target we have right now is about appropriate, given the value of capital to EA projects, but would expect that number to drift upwards as the EA community matures.
You’re quite right, they are different. At the moment, we are planning to use marginal unrestricted funds to invest in shared services. Partly this aims to increase the autonomy of the shared services function and reduce the extent they feel they need to ask for permission to all the orgs to do useful things.
Past that level though, unrestricted funding would help us build a small reserve of unrestricted money that would provide us with financial stability. Right now, each organisation needs to keep a pretty significant independent runway because virtually all our reserves are restricted. If we had a bigger pool of funds that could go to any org, we could get the same level of financial security with smaller total reserves.
GPP’s total budget for 2016 will be roughly £220,000 which is roughly what our minimum target is. The reason there’s a discrepancy between this figure and the £95k figure is that the £95k figure presented in the overall CEA budget includes only sums that flow through CEA and doesn’t include any shared services. However, GPP is a joint project with FHI, so in 2016 a significant portion of the total costs will be funded via FHI rather than CEA. In addition, we are expecting to hire a seconded civil servant whose salary will be partly funded by the state. This is not counted as part of the CEA budget but is counted as part of the GPP budget.
You can find lots more detail on GPP here
CEA shared services are the parts of CEA that are not linked to just one specific organisation. This includes parts that are funded straight from org contributions and parts that we are trying to fundraise for separately. Not quite exhaustively the part funded straight from org contributions includes office costs, legal, finance, HR, and my salary. The part funded from unrestricted donations will be more discretionary projects that we think are likely to benefit CEA as a whole in the longer term. This will include hiring a marketing expert, EA strategy researcher and potentially a fundraising expert (though we did not end up hiring for that position this winter).
The shared services budget is going up quite a lot partly because it has been held artificially low (we haven’t had enough capacity and had large amounts of volunteer or intern work), partly because we’re expanding to the US and partly because we’ll offer the orgs new services like full-stack marketing help. It’s staying roughly constant as a proportion of total expenditure. There are some downward pressures. For example, Tara has secured a pro bono deal where we can outsource our accounting for free once we upgrade to a more sophisticated platform.
I’m sorry, it was confusing to split out shared services here when we normally show all the costs distributed to the orgs. In the future, when not all of the shared services budget will come through the orgs, the new layout of the information is likely to make more sense.
With Owen’s even more detailed version here http://globalprioritiesproject.org/2015/02/give-now-or-later/
The EA community, broadly defined, donates a huge amount of money. GiveWell moved more than $20m (excluding GoodVentures) in 2015, source and credits effective altruism as motivating a substantial part of this. Giving What We Can moved more than $3m. FLI committed grants worth about $7m. Leverhulme Foundation granted $15m for existential risk research. This is far from exhaustive, but we’re looking at something on the order of magnitude of $50m fairly easily.
Relative to this, CEA’s $1.8m does not seem nearly as large. I think one of the sources of intuitive surprise is just that the EA movement as a whole seems to be roughly doubling or a bit more in size every year which means that the heuristics we have for thinking about size become out of date very quickly. Relative to EA as a whole, CEA may be shrinking slightly since we have been growing a little slower than doubling.
Most of the projects have significant non-EA funding, but this is something we’re trying to grow (for example by recruiting for a development manager who could expand our non-EA donor base). 80k got a lot of funding through YCombinator and associated leads. GWWC gets a substantial amount from people with a strong interest in development and giving but less in effective altruism itself. GPP gets significant funding from grant sources that wouldn’t otherwise fund EA work. Even EAO got at least $50k from people who have not typically given to EA charities, which is surprising for an organisation focused so heavily on the EA community itself. I’ve gone over our numbers and think 80k may have gotten more than half its budget outside the EA community recently. GPP gets around 40%. This is pretty loose stuff though, because it’s so hard to define what counts as EA money and we don’t have good access to the counterfactuals. Ben also makes a really important point about the donors who move from giving to us to supporting other EA projects.
You can find the detailed calculations here.
I agree that if you’d asked me five years ago what one could expect in a fundraising ratio I would have been surprised by estimates like 100:1. Most charitable fundraising is in the ballpark of 10:1. Nevertheless, the folks at GWWC are very methodical about gathering huge amounts of data and processing it carefully and transparently. If you have any specific suggestions for the methodology I’d be very open to exploring them.
It’s a good question, and one that we ask ourselves a lot. If we thought we were worse than AMF and that wasn’t likely to change, we would close up shop. I am fairly confident that we produce more value than AMF, partly because our activities raise more for AMF than they take away. However, I think it’s right to be uncertain about this and Owen makes some good points.
In addition, I think most of the value of CEA’s activities comes from long term potential of our projects and EA as a whole—as Ben discusses here.
Our positive effect on AMF is clearest at Giving What We Can which has a return of roughly 100:1 in high-value donations (counterfactually adjusted and time-discounted, but not all to AMF). Even if you assume that not a single member of GWWC gives another penny ever, the ratio is still 5:1. It is unclear if the marginal return on a donation to GWWC is higher or lower than the average return. It would be higher if we thought that GWWC could still realise increasing economies of scale. It would be lower if we thought most of the value comes from the idea itself and not execution on it. I tend to think marginal funds are more effective than average funds, but I’m very uncertain. A fuller discussion is here (http://effective-altruism.com/ea/ql/giving_what_we_can_needs_your_help_this_christmas/)
At 80k, the metrics are less directly comparable. At the last review we estimated it cost £1,670 to achieve a significant plan change (and these costs have been coming down every review cycle, indicating we are getting more cost-effective). It’s unclear how much each plan change is worth—but it seems very likely that getting someone to earn-to-give or move to do valuable direct work will be worth far more than £1,670 to AMF even within one year.
GPP impact is extremely hard to estimate because idea change and policy-work are chaotic and complex. In order to get a lower bound, we can focus on just one policy that we advocated which was successfully implemented—increasing the research budget for treatment and vaccines for malaria, TB, and NTDs and pandemic prevention by £2.5bn over 5 years. If our calculations are correct this move was worth $1.5bn-$30bn in donations to AMF. Even if we are only responsible for a very small part of this, it isn’t hard to imagine our 2015 budget outperformed a donation to AMF. (See discussion here http://globalprioritiesproject.org/2015/12/new-uk-aid-strategy-prioritising-research-and-crisis-response/)
EA Outreach is probably hardest to compare directly against AMF-type charities because much of our estimate of its value depends on the fact that we think effective altruism and its ideas have huge upside potential. Any attempt to calculate the direct impact within the first year of its running in terms of money to AMF would short-change the value of the work.
Because most of the money that goes to CEA has a huge counterfactual positive impact on funding for AMF, I’m quite confident in recommending giving to CEA.
With respect to your question about growth in costs—I think Owen has some good thoughts here. It seems, however, that the unit costs of CEA outputs are stable or decreasing so the growth in costs represents expanding outputs rather than decreasing marginal returns.
Sorry, document is now linked to in post.
Not quite, our total budget for 2016 is about £1.2m, about $1.8m (detailed breakdown on page 12 of the prospectus).
The sum of the funding targets is greater than our budget because at the moment many of our organisations have quite small reserves and need to raise more than they plan to spend this year in order to have healthy reserves at the end of the year. That would allow us to only fundraise once per year, which is a much more efficient use of staff time. General advice is for charities to have roughly 6-18 months of reserves at all times.