Room for more funding at the Future of Humanity Institute

post by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-11-16T20:45:18.580Z · score: 18 (21 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

In case you didn't already know: The Future of Humanity Institute, one of the three organizations co-sponsoring LW, is a group within the University of Oxford's philosophy department that tackles important, large-scale problems for humanity like how to go about reducing existential risk.

I've been casually corresponding with the FHI in an effort to learn more about the different options available for purchasing existential risk reduction. Here's a summary of what I've learned from research fellow Stuart Armstrong and academic project manager Sean O'Heigeartaigh:

Although neither Stuart nor Sean mentions this, I assume that one reason individual donations can be especially valuable is if they free FHI researchers up from writing grant proposals so they can spend more time doing actual research.

Interesting comment by lukeprog describing the comparative advantages of SIAI and FHI.

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Gedusa · 2012-11-17T13:53:02.462Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Slightly off topic, but I'm very interested in the "policy impact" that FHI has had - I had heard nothing about it before and assumed that it wasn't having very much. Do you have more information on that? If it were significant, it would increase the odds that giving to FHI was a great option.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2012-11-19T12:42:12.739Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

We get to talk to government and military people quite a bit, attending seminars and giving them presentations, and they nod wisely and ask pertinent questions which we answer. We're not sure how much this has translated into actual policy differences at the end of the day, but there does seem to be a class of people in government willing to listen to these ideas (informally, it seems that the military is more interested than the standard civil servants and politicians).

There are other policy achievements, but Nick and Anders would know more...

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-11-17T21:00:31.205Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I happened to see this on the FHI website, but don't know of anything beyond that.

comment by mytyde · 2012-11-20T08:36:32.749Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, the impact of information is often too closely tied to the funding poured into its propagation. Look at the way American media networks are basically billboards for the rich

comment by ESRogs · 2013-07-02T23:10:30.021Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

billboards for the rich

What kinds of things do you have in mind -- does there seem to be a clear bias in favor of the interests of the rich over those of the poor?

comment by Giles · 2012-11-17T18:00:28.190Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Another donation opportunity came up recently, which I responded to with a big long list of questions and I'll put the answers up when I get them. People seemed to like this approach - can we do something similar for the FHI?

Some thoughts:

  • Are the people at FHI going to be too busy to answer this kind of stuff?
  • Are they likely to be limited in how candid they can be with their answers if the answers are going to be made public?
  • I'm guessing Stuart or Sean would be the people you'd recommend talking to?
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2012-11-19T13:25:38.972Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I'll give a small attempt at answering some of the questions (I know little from the financial side, alas)

1 What would you do with different funding levels?

Hire more people, put current people on longer contracts, not have current people writing grant applications or slavishly following the requirements of the grants they currently are on (which would probably mean an increased AI-risk focus)

2 How much money are you expecting?

No idea.

3 Which is more useful, regular donations or lump sums?

Generally interchangeable; regular donations with a definite timeline ("I will donate at least until the date of XXXX") are equivalent with a particular lump sum. Regular donations with no commitment are a bit more iffy, as they increase uncertainty.

4 If you had funds to hire an extra person, do you know how that person would be?

We have some people in mind (eg Nick Beckstead, for instance). In general, the FHI gets far more high quality applications than we have places, so we can select from the best.

5 Where do you see the delineation between what FHI does and what other effective altruist orgs do?

Others have commented on this; I'll simply point out that the FHI is in a totally unique position, being a university research institute with some political contacts. No other org could easily replicate this.

6 How much personal connection and communication is there between FHI and these orgs?

Not much. We have "giving what we can" on staff, and interact with SIAI and (to some extent) with 80KH, but the FHI tends to interact with specific individuals (Robin Hanson, Eric Drexler, Milan Circovic...) rather than organisations.

7 How do you assess the credibility of money pledged?

The University probably has a policy on that.

8 How are you measuring money moved/pledged?

I don't know this side of things, sorry!

9 You do a bunch of different but related things - website content, speaker events, career counseling,

Not really relevant to the FHI - our two main things are academic research (with all the presenting, publishing and so on that that entails) and outreach/policy efforts. We won't be giving up either any time soon.

10 I have very little idea about what the FHI community is like or how exactly you invest in it

We're rather conventional in organisation: a standard university research institute, people pursuing their own projects and meeting to coordinate and exchange a lot of ideas.

11 Is FHI planning activity in any new physical locations?

We want to move downstairs in our building. This isn't really relevant to donors.

12 What does FHI plan in the way of self-evaluation?

13 What are you planning in the way of financial transparency?

This is more a question for Sean or Nick. Being part of the university, we follow their criteria for transparency, and a lot of the self-evaluation is based on other-evaluation: seeing how much of our papers are accepted, the attendance at conferences, and similar.

Questions 14-16 not relevant to the FHI.

Hope this brief answer helps!

comment by Giles · 2012-11-19T17:57:28.712Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Oh wow, totally wasn't expecting you to go ahead and answer that particular list of questions. Thanks for being so proactive!

Questions 7-11 aren't really relevant to FHI. Question 16 is relevant (at least the the "are there other orgs similar to you?" part) but I'm guessing you'd answer no to that?

The other answers are helpful, thanks!

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2012-11-19T19:42:45.195Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Other orgs similar: SIA, the group in Cambridge which may be founded, some governmental and corporate future-predicting think tanks. But none of them are really that similar.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2012-11-19T12:36:57.846Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are the people at FHI going to be too busy to answer this kind of stuff?

Always! But we can try...

Are they likely to be limited in how candid they can be with their answers if the answers are going to be made public?

Probably not. We don't have any interesting secrets.

I'm guessing Stuart or Sean would be the people you'd recommend talking to?

Sean is even more busy than me, so I'd recommend - gulp - talking to me.

comment by CarlShulman · 2012-11-16T23:52:52.706Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that FHI's room for more funding (on small scales) is significantly higher this year than in the last few years, when I would have said it was relatively more immediately limited by staff supply.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-11-16T23:43:01.920Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I assume that one reason individual donations can be especially valuable is if they free FHI researchers up from writing grant proposals so they can spend more time doing actual research.

Correct.

In fact, it might be the best use of additional funding for FHI. An additional 10 hours of x-risk work (rather than grant-writing) from Nick Bostrom or Stuart Armstrong is hard to beat in terms of x-risk reduction purchased per dollar. (The other 'core' FHI researcher, Anders Sandberg, seems to do x-risk work less frequently than Nick and Stuart.)

Similarly, at SI we're always trying to find ways to spend money to "free up" Eliezer, since additional hours of x-risk work from Eliezer are also very hard to beat in terms of x-risk reduction purchased per dollar.

comment by drethelin · 2012-11-17T00:57:16.722Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is he still teaching a bayes class at minicamps?

comment by CarlShulman · 2012-11-17T01:14:53.150Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think he has now been replaced in that role. He is spending this week working intensively on one of the "FAI open problems" with a group of visitors every day, and there is a minicamp going on right now.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2012-11-19T12:39:14.341Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Although neither Stuart nor Sean mentions this, I assume that one reason individual donations can be especially valuable is if they free FHI researchers up from writing grant proposals so they can spend more time doing actual research.

Yes yes yes! :-)

Words can only begin to describe how much time and energy even small grant applications can suck from you.