Reflections on Effective Altruism 2017 San Franciso

I heard about the Effective Altruism organization through a blog post on Giving What We Can. Here’s how EA explains their aim:

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

Here’s an example of the effective altruism concept (from this excellent article):

Most donors say they want to “help people”. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of 550,000 pounds to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that 550,000 pounds to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Interesting, right? I didn’t know a ton about the Effective Altruism community or ideas, so going to EA Global 2017 was a perfect crash course.

I was surprised by how much the conference focused on the dangers of AI. It makes sense — AI could very well be disastrous for humanity — but I thought that global warming would still be a focus. At least in the sessions I attended, it wasn’t. The only mention of global warming was from the numerous vegan groups at the conference, citing that a primary cause of global warming is meat consumption.

Speaking of the vegan groups, one of the highlights from the conference was learning about The Good Food Institute, an organization whose perspective is that educating the public about the immeasurable suffering in factory farms will not be effective enough to change people’s consumption patterns. The true solution to this truly horrific problem is to change the food supply itself. Their aim is to make lab-grown meat and other meat alternatives so much cheaper and palatable that those sources will simply replace meat in the food supply. I thought this was a genius and very promising approach.

I summoned my courage and tried iAnimal, a virtual reality experience of factory farming. While I have been aware of the horrors of factory farming (and even small animal farms), it was a very different experience to witness it in VR. VR has a quality of feeling more real than reality, and the experience had a way of sticking in my body and mind for weeks. It was effective. While I try to choose animal products from farms I think will be treated better, I have found myself just opting for vegan options instead. Why risk being the cause of any animal suffering, ever?

At the conference, I was introduced to the concept of QALYs. A QALY, defined as a year lived in perfect health, is a unit of measurement used to gauge the impact of disease or death prevention. One amazing EAer had created a board game where you had to work with the other players to earn thousands of human and animal QALYs. Each round, players would earn money based on their economic position and have the opportunity to donate toward the goal of accumulating QALYs. Donate to the Against Malaria Foundation and you’ll save people from malaria and rack up QALYs quickly. Donate to Make a Wish Foundation and you won’t help much at all.

My favorite part of the conference was meeting people and asking them questions. Everyone was super smart, kind, and happy to talk about any number of interesting topics they had spent years researching. It was easy to feel intimidated by these people with stacks of research papers to their name, so I was relieved when Will MacAskill said that marketing is one of the needed career paths for the movement. Phew, there’s a need for a plebian like myself. Despite my insecurities, everyone was incredibly open and willing to connect. I felt like I had finally found a community I felt inspired and positively challenged by.

For a much more thorough and informed review of the conference, please see Scott Alexander’s excellent blog post on it. (Thanks for the link, Justin.)