opinion | Make a donation this holiday season: GiveWell needs your help
Some of Ord’s estimates are supported by data – we know a little about past supervolcano eruptions and asteroid impacts, for example – but the threats we’re told to fear the most are also the closest to pure speculation. Which isn’t to say the speculation is wrong; I find synthetic bioweapons terrifying, and the risks of artificial intelligence are worth seriously considering. But I think the wrong level of precision can make the unreal seem real and hide the shakiness of anything that came before quantification.
This, to me, is the clearest connection between Bankman-Fried’s downfall and certain elements of an effective altruistic culture: Crypto is based on attaching values and probabilities to fictional assets and currencies. What looks like a balance sheet from one perspective turns out to be a collection of arguments, assertions and thought experiments from the other.
This problem exists elsewhere in capitalism, but it is concentrated in crystalline form in the crypto markets. Too often, the only real value in crypto assets is self-referential: the asset is valued because it is valued. There is nothing behind it but other people’s willingness to believe the story you tell them. There is no army or car factory or even a beloved work of art. There is only code and quantification. The numbers add undeserved solidity to an abstraction. I think effective altruists tend to enchant themselves in a similar way.
We can do more good, and we should
I worry that this column will be taken as a reason to dismiss any concerns that may sound strange the first time. I’m not saying that.
Effective altruists have fought hard to get people to care more about artificial intelligence, and they were right. I don’t think you get to look at the remarkable performance of the latest models of artificial intelligence – meta created Cicero, an AI system that can manipulate and deceive humans to achieve other ends, and OpenAI’s newest bot will advise you on how to make nuclear weapons if you ask smart enough – and do not consider it important to consider the consequences of far more powerful AI systems.
But I think too much of the energy and talent of effective altruism flows away from the compassionate rigor that originally characterized it and that the world still needs. Effective altruism will not be nearly as effective if it loses touch with its early focus on improving the lives of those alive today.
All of this brings me back to GiveWell. GiveWell was set up to assess and even create this evidence and it does an excellent job. His research is comprehensive, thoughtful and, most importantly, transparent. I don’t agree with every decision she makes – I think she sets the bar too high for cost-efficiency, and some charities that have been crossed off her list like it give directly, stay with me – but persistence is the point. I donate to GiveWell’s charities every year and while that’s not all I donate, that’s the part I’m most confident about. Give to organizations I’m sure it’s a good feeling and I hope you will too.
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https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/04/opinion/charity-holiday-gift-givewell.html opinion | Make a donation this holiday season: GiveWell needs your help