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The Open Philanthropy Blog
May 6, 2016
We’re planning to make potential risks from artificial intelligence a major priority this year. We feel this cause presents an outstanding philanthropic opportunity — with extremely high importance, high neglectedness, and reasonable tractability (our three criteria for causes) — for someone in our position. We believe that the faster we can get fully up to speed on key issues and explore the opportunities we currently see, the faster we can lay the groundwork for informed, effective giving both this year and in the future.
With all of this in mind, we’re placing a larger “bet” on this cause, this year, than we are placing even on other focus areas — not necessarily in terms of funding (we aren’t sure we’ll identify very large funding opportunities this year, and are more focused on laying the groundwork for future years), but in terms of senior staff time, which at this point is a scarcer resource for us. Consistent with our philosophy of hits-based giving, we are doing this not because we have confidence in how the future will play out and how we can impact it, but because we see a risk worth taking. In about a year, we’ll formally review our progress and reconsider how senior staff time is allocated.
This post will first discuss why I consider this cause to be an outstanding philanthropic opportunity. (My views are fairly representative, but not perfectly representative, of those of other staff working on this cause.) It will then give a broad outline of our planned activities for the coming year, some of the key principles we hope to follow in this work, and some of the risks and reservations we have about prioritizing this cause as highly as we are.
- It seems to me that artificial intelligence is currently on a very short list of the most dynamic, unpredictable, and potentially world-changing areas of science. I believe there’s a nontrivial probability that transformative AI will be developed within the next 20 years, with enormous global consequences.
- By and large, I expect the consequences of this progress — whether or not transformative AI is developed soon — to be positive. However, I also perceive risks. Transformative AI could be a very powerful technology, with potentially globally catastrophic consequences if it is misused or if there is a major accident involving it. Because of this, I see this cause as having extremely high importance (one of our key criteria), even while accounting for substantial uncertainty about the likelihood of developing transformative AI in the coming decades and about the size of the risks. I discuss the nature of potential risks below; note that I think they do not apply to today’s AI systems.
- I consider this cause to be highly neglected in important respects. There is a substantial and growing field around artificial intelligence and machine learning research, but most of it is not focused on reducing potential risks. We’ve put substantial work into trying to ensure that we have a thorough landscape of the researchers, funders, and key institutions whose work is relevant to potential risks from advanced AI. We believe that the amount of work being done is well short of what it productively could be (despite recent media attention); that philanthropy could be helpful; and that the activities we’re considering wouldn’t be redundant with those of other funders.
- I believe that there is useful work to be done today in order to mitigate future potential risks. In particular, (a) I think there are important technical problems that can be worked on today, that could prove relevant to reducing accident risks; (b) I preliminarily feel that there is also considerable scope for analysis of potential strategic and policy considerations.
- More broadly, the Open Philanthropy Project may be able to help support an increase in the number of people – particularly people with strong relevant technical backgrounds - thinking through how to reduce potential risks, which could be important in the future even if the work done in the short term does not prove essential. I believe that one of the things philanthropy is best-positioned to do is provide steady, long-term support as fields and institutions grow.
- I consider this a challenging cause. I think it would be easy to do harm while trying to do good. For example, trying to raise the profile of potential risks could contribute (and, I believe, has contributed to some degree) to non-nuanced or inaccurate portrayals of risk in the media, which in turn could raise the risks of premature and/or counterproductive regulation. I consider the Open Philanthropy Project relatively well-positioned to work in this cause while being attentive to pitfalls, and to deeply integrate people with strong technical expertise into our work.
- I see much room for debate in the decision to prioritize this cause as highly as we are. However, I think it is important that a philanthropist in our position be willing to take major risks, and prioritizing this cause is a risk that I see as very worth taking.
My views on this cause have evolved considerably over time. I will discuss the evolution of my thinking in detail in a future post, but this post focuses on the case for prioritizing this cause today.Read More
April 29, 2016
This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.
- Our 2015 goals revolved mostly around building our staff capacity, and particularly around hiring. Broadly speaking, we mostly accomplished our goals, though we significantly scaled back our goals for scientific research at mid-year.
- Our team has roughly doubled in size compared to a year ago. We’re now in a much better position to recommend a significant amount of grantmaking. We also feel much better positioned to identify outstanding causes.
- This year, we have a general goal of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found. This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. We expect to prioritize building knowledge and staff capacity again in the future, but we think this is a good year to focus on increasing our grantmaking. We currently are bottlenecked in terms of management capacity, and we believe that focusing on grantmaking will likely lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.
- Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016. Not only will Daniel Dewey be working on this cause full-time, but Nick Beckstead and I will both be putting significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate.
- Other major focus areas where we expect significant grantmaking include criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and biosecurity. We expect to recommend at least $10 million in grants in each of these areas.
- We have a variety of other goals, including completing the separation of the Open Philanthropy Project as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.
April 4, 2016
One of our core values is our tolerance for philanthropic “risk.” Our overarching goal is to do as much good as we can, and as part of that, we’re open to supporting work that has a high risk of failing to accomplish its goals. We’re even open to supporting work that is more than 90% likely to fail, as long as the overall expected value is high enough.
And we suspect that, in fact, much of the best philanthropy is likely to fail. We suspect that high-risk, high-reward philanthropy could be described as a “hits business,” where a small number of enormous successes account for a large share of the total impact — and compensate for a large number of failed projects.
If this is true, I believe it calls for approaching our giving with some counterintuitive principles — principles that are very different from those underlying our work on GiveWell. In particular, if we pursue a “hits-based” approach, we will sometimes bet on ideas that contradict conventional wisdom, contradict some expert opinion, and have little in the way of clear evidential support. In supporting such work, we’d run the risk of appearing to some as having formed overconfident views based on insufficient investigation and reflection.
In fact, there is reason to think that some of the best philanthropy is systematically likely to appear to have these properties. With that said, we think that being truly overconfident and underinformed would be extremely detrimental to our work; being well-informed and thoughtful about the ways in which we could be wrong is at the heart of what we do, and we strongly believe that some “high-risk” philanthropic projects are much more promising than others.
This post will:Read More
March 31, 2016
When I started as the Open Philanthropy Project’s Farm Animal Welfare Program Officer in October, I decided to prioritize investigating opportunities to speed up the corporate transition away from using eggs from caged hens. Based on that investigation, the Open Philanthropy Project recommended three grants, totaling $2.5 million over two years, to the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection Campaign. This post explains why I wanted to make our first farm animal welfare grants on corporate cage-free campaigns.
- Battery cages cause severe suffering, and cage-free systems are much better.
- Corporate cage-free campaigns are tractable and high-impact, with a strong recent track record.
- The cost-effectiveness of these campaigns, in terms of animal suffering averted per dollar, looks better than any alternatives I’m aware of.
- I don’t see these campaigns as representing a “short-term-only” approach. I see them as a logical step along a long-term path toward greatly reduced farm animal suffering, and I think they’re competitive with other approaches when thought of in these terms.
- I believe our funding has made and will continue to make a tangible difference to the success of these campaigns.
Details follow.Read More
March 15, 2016
In keeping with our quarterly GiveWell open threads, we wanted to host a separate open thread for questions related to the Open Philanthropy Project.
Our goal is to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at email@example.com if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.Read More
February 23, 2016
Around this time of year, we usually publish a review of the past year’s progress and an outline of our plans for the coming year. Past examples are here.
This year, the annual review and plan will be delayed significantly, because we feel that the plan we’re considering calls for a fair amount of investigation and consideration. We expect to publish our annual review and plan in April or May.Read More
February 10, 2016
The Open Philanthropy Project has recommended a grant of $1.75 million (plus a personal gift from Cari Tuna of $250,000) to launch the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), a multi-state policy reform organization. This will be one of our first large grant recommendations within criminal justice reform since Chloe Cockburn joined us to lead our work in that area.
ASJ is being incubated by and modeled after Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a state-based justice reform advocacy organization led by Lenore Anderson and Robert Rooks. CSJ has spent the last four years working on criminal justice reform in California, including by developing the first statewide organizing network for crime survivors that support justice reform. Vote Safe, the sister 501(c)(4) organization of CSJ, also crafted and ran the successful campaign for Proposition 47, a Californian ballot measure that changed several low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and reallocated the prison cost savings into prevention and treatment. In the first year after the measure passed, California’s jail and prison population is estimated to have fallen by 13,000 people. We view CSJ’s work as an unusually successful example of state-based advocacy and organizing in the criminal justice reform space.
ASJ will build on these strategies to bring Anderson’s and Rooks’ strategic and policy sophistication to bear on state-level efforts across the U.S. ASJ aims to advance state efforts to reduce incarceration and reallocate from spending on prisons to prevention and community health. ASJ plans to select partner states to engage deeply with, in order to help state advocates strengthen their communications, alliance-building and organizing strategies and win policy reform. ASJ also plans to build a national ‘center of gravity’ for state advocates to share information and strategies across states and give more prominence to state-based reform efforts in the national dialogue on justice reform. Finally, ASJ aims to change the national narrative on safety by drawing attention to the experiences and voices of crime survivors calling for new safety priorities.Read More
February 9, 2016
We’ve written previously about our approach to choosing focus areas for the Open Philanthropy Project, and we’ve described the advantages that working within causes (as opposed to being open to making grants in any area at any time) has for grantmaking. To date, however, we haven’t said much about our grantmaking process itself.
As part of my role at Open Philanthropy, I manage the logistics and overall process of how we make grants. In this post, I’ll describe the approach we use to grantmaking within our focus areas, and outline our current process for deciding whether or not to make a particular grant.
For our first couple of years, grantmaking has not been the top priority for the Open Philanthropy Project; so far we have focused most highly on selecting cause areas and building internal capacity (see our most recent update and this blog post for more on how we’re thinking about balancing these with grantmaking). As such, the approach and process outlined in this post are both fairly preliminary — we expect them to change and mature somewhat as we gain more experience as a grantmaking organization.
This post describes:
- Our approach to making grants
- The decision process we use for individual grants
- Similarities to and differences from other foundations
- Some of the tradeoffs involved
March 2017 update: Since this blog post was published, our process has largely stayed the same, but we wanted to note a few changes:Read More
February 2, 2016
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last May, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald blackly heralded a “new nationwide crime wave.” She blamed the “Ferguson effect”: a pull-back by police in the face of public hostility over alleged abuses. Ferguson, of course, is the city in St. Louis county where in August 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, leading to days of rioting.
Toward the end of last summer, two reporters at the New York Times chimed in on the existence of an uptick, at least in homicide: “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities.”
These suggestions of an incipient crime wave caught Open Phil’s attention because we are entering the field of criminal justice reform. Might attempts to curb the “tough-on-crime” approach that has made the United States the world’s greatest prison state backfire in the form of higher crime? Or if not, might fear of such obstruct reform?
As the crime wave meme spread, it provoked counterreactions: Joseph Margulies on “The Dangerous Notion of a Nationwide Crime Wave”; Richard Rosenfeld of St. Louis University questioning whether even St. Louis felt the Ferguson effect; FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik on how “Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave”; a Brennan Center report and a New York Times editorial it inspired; and end-of-year updates by Radley Balko for the Washington Post and Thomas Abt for the Marshall Project.
Here, I present my attempt, with the help of GiveWell’s Jake Marcus, to sort out the controversy of whether America is experiencing a crime wave. Our results are all graphical. Our analysis is distinctive in starting from daily data rather than monthly or yearly totals, which I find a bit coarse when examining trends over just the last year or so.
But, as with the other articles and posts, our numbers are not definitive. We obtained high-frequency data—lists of individual crimes—for 19 major municipalities. The statistics pertain only to territories within city limits, not to broader metropolitan areas. Even if they did, the sampled cities may not be representative of all cities, let alone the entire United States.
Nevertheless, the results look reasonable and interesting. In our sample, the murder rate does rise starting around January 2014. But this fluctuation so far looks small compared to the big, overall slide since 2001, and is commensurate with past, temporary reversals. And it may have peaked a few months ago. (You heard it here first.) Meanwhile, totals for the broader category of violent crime, in which the rare offense of homicide hardly figures, rose only slightly, even as property crime kept dropping. These splits across crime types are the opposite of what I would expect from a Ferguson effect. Seemingly, more than with crimes of passion, theft and burglary begin with rational consideration of risk factors such as whether the police are around. But they kept falling.
Zeroing in on the conceptual boundary within violent crime between homicide and everything else, we find that the crime subtype most resembling murder—armed assault—also appears to have ticked upward, especially if we restrict to assault with a firearm. It may be then the recent crime wave is best seen as a gun crime wave. We are not certain, in part because data limitations force us to base that finding on just nine cities. And, in an even smaller sample, non-gun homicides have recently climbed faster than gun homicides.
As the FBI gathers comprehensive statistics this year, the reality of last year will become clearer.Read More
December 23, 2015
The Open Philanthropy Project looks for outstanding giving opportunities, but its target audience is large institutional donors - unlike GiveWell’s top charities work, which targets individual donors. Some individuals have expressed interest in hearing whether there are any organizations we’ve come across, in our work on the Open Philanthropy Project, that they might consider donating to.
For this post, I polled the Open Philanthropy Project team and asked whether there are any organizations they think are reasonably strong options for individual donors, based on their Open Philanthropy Project work. The recommendations are listed below, along with some brief reasoning and information about how to donate.
Some caveats to these recommendations:
- These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn’t be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn’t necessarily the case that the recommender thinks they’re the best option available across all causes). For example, Alexander suggests two groups in causes he’s worked on, but he personally gave to top charities this year (as did I).
- In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a recommendation to individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven’t decided to recommend filling an organization’s full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals. (These tend to be larger organizations.)
- In the cases below, we don’t yet have a public writeup making the case for these organizations. Unlike with GiveWell top charities, we don’t prioritize having writeups completed by the holiday season. As a result, our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don’t expect individuals to put weight on them unless they trust the judgment of the person making the recommendation.
Summary of the recommendations:Read More