Weighing up the rewards is easier when they are more certain.

Part 2: Estimating cost-effectiveness for problems of unknown difficulty

Owen Cotton-Barratt This is part of a series of posts on how we should prioritise research and similar activities. In a previous post we explored how we should form subjective probabilities about chances of success of problems of unknown difficulty. This post is concerned with how to use these probabilities to estimate the expected value […]

Sometimes, the problem is harder than it looks. Sometimes, the coin is just under the cup.

Part 1: How to treat problems of unknown difficulty

Owen Cotton-Barratt This is the first in a series of posts which take aim at the question: how should we prioritise work on problems where we have very little idea of our chances of success. In this post we’ll see some simple models-from-ignorance which allow us to produce some estimates of the chances of success […]

"Lichtenberg figure in block of Plexiglas" by Bert Hickman - en:Image:Square1.jpg. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lichtenberg_figure_in_block_of_Plexiglas.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lichtenberg_figure_in_block_of_Plexiglas.jpg

Cost-effectiveness and scale: cause area and intervention

Owen Cotton-Barratt When we choose between giving time or money to different interventions, we’re making a comparison. It’s nice to know what these comparisons come down to. There are a lot of sources of evidence, and different ones will be more appropriate in different contexts. Say we are comparing between intervention x in cause area […]

Some mistakes have more slack than others

Why we should err in both directions

Owen Cotton-Barratt This is an introduction to the principle that when we are making decisions under uncertainty, we should choose so that we may err in either direction. We justify the principle, explore the relation with Umeshisms, and look at applications in priority-setting. Some trade-offs How much should you spend on your bike lock? A […]

Speed of takeoff matters for AI.

Strategic considerations about different speeds of AI takeoff

Owen Cotton-Barratt and Toby Ord There are several different kinds of artificial general intelligence (AGI) which might be developed, and there are different scenarios which could play out after one of them reaches a roughly human level of ability across a wide range of tasks. We shall discuss some of the implications we can see […]


A relatively atheoretical perspective on astronomical waste

Nick Beckstead, Oxford University, Future of Humanity Institute Introduction It is commonly objected that the “long-run” perspective on effective altruism rests on esoteric assumptions from moral philosophy that are highly debatable. Yes, the long-term future may overwhelm aggregate welfare considerations, but does it follow that the long-term future is overwhelmingly important? Do I really want […]


The timing of labour aimed at reducing existential risk

Toby Ord, Oxford University, Future of Humanity Institute Work towards reducing existential risk is likely to happen over a timescale of decades. For many parts of this work, the benefits of that labour is greatly affected by when it happens. This has a large effect when it comes to strategic thinking about what to do […]

On causes

On ’causes’

Owen Cotton-Barratt This post has two distinct parts. The first explores the meanings that have been attached to the term ‘cause’ within the effective altruism movement, and suggests my preferred usage. The second makes use of these distinctions to clarify the claims I made in a recent post on the long-term effects of animal welfare […]

Extraterrestrial colonies

Will we eventually be able to colonize other stars? Notes from a preliminary review

Nick Beckstead, Oxford University, Future of Humanity Institute Summary I investigated this question because of its potential relevance to existential risk and the long-term future more generally. There are a limited number of books and scientific papers on the topic and the core questions are generally not regarded as resolved, but the people who seem […]


Human and animal interventions: the long-term view

Owen Cotton-Barratt, Oxford University This post discusses the question of how we should seek to compare human- and animal-welfare interventions. It argues: first, that indirect long-term effects mean that we cannot simply compare the short term welfare effects; second, that if any animal-welfare charities are comparably cost-effective with the best human-welfare charities, it must be […]