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RS 226 - Rob Wiblin on "An updated view of the best ways to help humanity"

Release date: February 4th, 2019

Rob Wiblin

If you want to do as much good as possible with your career, what problems should you work on, and what jobs should you consider? This episode features Rob Wiblin, director of research for effective altruist organization 80,000 Hours, and the host of the 80,000 Hours podcast.
Julia and Rob discuss how the career advice 80,000 Hours gives has changed over the years, and the biggest misconceptions about their views. Their conversation covers topics like:

Should everyone try to get a job in finance and donate their income?

The case for working to reduce global catastrophic risks

Why reducing risk is a better way to help the future than increasing economic growth

What percentage of the world should ideally follow 80,000 Hours advice?


Rob's Personal Page

Rob's Podcast: "80,000 Hours"

  • Episode #45 – Prof. Tyler Cowen's stubborn attachments to maximising economic growth, making civilization more stable and respecting human rights
  • Episode #10 – Dr. Nick Beckstead on how to spend billions of dollars preventing human extinction
  • Episode #29 – Dr. Anders Sandberg on three new resolutions for the Fermi Paradox and how to easily colonise the universe
  • Episode #6 – Dr. Toby Ord on why the long-term future matters more than anything else and what to do about it
  • Episode #15 – Prof. Tetlock on how chimps beat Berkeley undergrads and when it’s wise to defer to the wise

"Making Sense of Long-Term Indirect Effects" by Rob Wiblin

"Broad versus narrow approaches to shaping the long-term future" by Nick Beckstead

Calculator for whether it’s better to speed up or slow down growth: "Differential technological development: Some early thinking"

"On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future" by Nicholas Beckstead

"Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States" by James C. Scott

"Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?" by Graham Allison

"Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck" by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen

"Why despite global progress, humanity is probably facing its most dangerous time ever" by Benjamin Todd

"Presenting the long-term value thesis" by Benjamin Todd

"The Aestheticising Vice," Paul Seabright's review of Seeing Like a State, by James Scott

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (11)

That 80,000 Hours discloses its mistakes does increase the credibility of the organization.

Given the general stupidity of so many humans, it does not come as a surprise that the probability that humanity will exterminate itself outweighs the probability of extermination from all natural threats combined.

Instead of focusing on Global Development and Health, or on Earning to Give, would simply focusing on developing new technology that radically increases world GDP have a much greater impact on human wellbeing? Would increasing world GDP greatly increase resources available to the world's poor, and also greatly increase the demand for labor, thus providing the world's poor with jobs?

China exports about $522.9 billion (2017) of goods and services to the US annually. China has a substantial disincentive to make war on its largest customer. Would increasing world trade in general further decrease the possibility of a major world conflict?

Great podcast. Very interesting as usual.
February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
- Not considering the rate of growth is silly. The moral goodness of the future seems to depend on there being people to experience it. Rob says something to the effect of "as long as we make it we have as much time as the universe allows". But growth is exponential. Getting sustained 2% or 3% growth is huge in the long term. So if we could end global poverty in 200 years via economic growth at 2%, we'd do it in 133 years at 3%. Do all the people who now live good productive lives and can contribute to the 80,000 hour cause 67 years earlier not matter?

- Julia mentioned this incentive to try stuff and see what happens which I think is the sort of thing Taleb would advise. It isn't clear why Rob thinks targeted interventions are more or less likely to have bad consequences than the things he thinks he knows are dangerous. Clear and immediate threats like stopping someone from launching the nuke aside, how can he (or anyone) know that stopping tensions with China doesn't lead Russia to be isolated and end the world? Or that the increase in protective technologies doesn't lead to increased risk taking (like protective equipment in football leading to harder hits). I would guess that Taleb would note that nothing I imagine here is likely to be the thing that we should have worried about.
February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark
"Not considering the rate of growth is silly."

Hi Mark, I got myself in a bit of a tangle explaining this, and we were running out of time so I couldn't go back and clarify. Maybe I can make more sense here.

Inasmuch as we know exponential growth is going to continue as long as it possibly can - so no catastrophe - we'll eventually expand to control the entire accessible universe. 2% growth for just 200,000 years will get us growth of a factor of 10^1720, which looks like more value output than there is matter in the accessible universe to support at technological maturity.

If we are going to plateau and stay there for billions of years while we gradually run down the universe's endowment of matter and energy - or wait around and then use the whole universe abruptly at some ideal later time - then you can see that it's close to irrelevant how fast we get there. The total value harvested will be almost identical whether we reach that plateau in 200,000 years, or 2,000,000 years.

Except of course for the reason I pointed out, that cosmological expansion means the accessible universe is shrinking by a billionth each year, so growth delayed is mass denied.

I also failed to mention that the universe's negentropy is being gradually depleted by e.g. the burning of stars. This reduces our remaining ability to perform computations, though this process is occurring surprisingly slowly and probably outweighed by other factors.

At this point we have to call in the physicists and cosmologists as we're beyond what I as an economist can usefully discuss.

Of course as I say on the show, all the non-total-utilitarian reasons to go more quickly, such as a selfish preference for a better life now, or concern for the wellbeing of our friends and immediate descendants, remain as strong as before.
February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin
Thank you for the response Rob. In the framework you are using (total value) and conditioned on no extinction, it makes some sense that the rate doesn't matter.

But I wonder where both those assumptions are justified? Given a 1/1000 annual chance of extinction events, we have a 50/50 shot of making it about 700 years. To survive a billion years with 50/50 odds would require a 1/1,000,000,000 annual chance of extinction. It isn't clear that 1) that is achievable or 2) we could even know. So relying on unlikely future existence seems an odd reason to justify not helping more now.

It seems almost like having to reconcile quantum physics and gravity in that the scale being considered now and a billion years from now are just completely different. I don't know that I agree the long view you've taken is one that makes the most sense but I do appreciate the clarification and very much enjoyed listening to the interview.
February 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark
Hi Mark - I absolutely do think the risk of extinction or catastrophe per year at the moment is far above zero. This both provides us a reason both to care more about the present (in the case that we fail and die out) and to focus on reducing the risk (because it's large enough that many useful things can be done to reduce it further).

I expect that at some point, if humanity persists e.g. 1,000 years, that we will find ways to reduce the risk of extinction very close to zero, for example by spreading widely across the galaxy so that no single disaster can wipe us out. This decline in the annual risk increases our civilisation's expected lifespan, and so reduces the relative value of focussing on the present.

As for why I give weight to a total utilitarian view, would take us into a long philosophical discussion. There's probably about 10 hours of discussion of that general topic on my show: .

We think 80,000 Hours can add more to the conversation by focussing on outcomes, especially welfare outcomes because: i) there is more good material already written about careers from a virtue ethics or deontological position; ii) the stakes for consequentialists are very large; iii) and the way to create the best consequences with one's work is very non-obvious.

That said, I agree that given the preliminary state of ethical research we should spread our bets and give weight to various different moral considerations. Figuring out how to do that is a research focus for our trustee Will MacAskill.
February 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin
Rob’s use of the word “research” at the beginning of the podcast is conventional but it would be better to say that 80000 hours reviews the literature in order to achieve a consensus view of best practice. It’s not a research organisation at the moment and the extent to which particular recommendations are evidence-based varies substantially.
February 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIan Pitchford
I've been made aware that whether US nuclear weapons codes were ever set to 00000000 is disputed. See these two articles for example:

The original source appears to be Bruce Blaire, who served in the U.S. Air Force as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer at the time:

While Dr Blaire is a credible source I would now say it's only 70% likely to be true.

"it would be better to say that 80000 hours reviews the literature in order to achieve a consensus view of best practice"

That would have described quite a bit of our work back in 2013/14 when we were getting up to speed on what was known. It's not a more accurate description of what we do today than the catchall term 'research'.

Most of the things we now care about have very little published literature about them, so we learn more by speaking to experts, and then critiquing and compiling their views. Consider this article for example:
February 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin
Thanks for the clarification Rob. The more recent work you describe does sound closer to an understanding of research as “creating new knowledge”. I should also point out that my comment was not a criticism of 80000 Hours. I have supported the organisation financially in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future.
February 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIan Pitchford
Thanks so much for your support Ian, didn't take it at a criticism! :) Literature reviews are super important.

One thing I'll certainly concede is that that some of the work we do (me in particular) is just communicating what is already known in a clearer way than has been done before. Lately I'm glad to say we're starting to run out of things we know that just need to be explained, and are venturing into new territory more often.
February 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin
I might be revealing my ignorance of the larger conversation on this topic, but wondering why Rob/Julia did not bring up global warming as a serious existential threat?

Thanks for a great discussion, as always.
March 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Rae
Hi Sarah - climate change is obvious a big risk worth working on.

It hasn't gotten as much attention from my community so far because so many other people are already aware of it and working to solve the problem.

As a small group we expect we can have more impact as 'venture capitalists', trying to sound the alarm about - and find ways to fix - new risks that haven't yet been broadly recognised.
March 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin

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