Details of Taskforces; or, Cooperate Now

by paulfchristiano10 min read5th Apr 201116 comments

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Personal Blog

Recently I've spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly I should be doing with my life. I'm lucky enough to be in an environment where I can occasionally have productive conversations about the question with smart peers, but I suspect I would think much faster if I spent more of my time with a community grappling with the same issues. Moreover, I expect I could be more productive if I spent time with others trying to get similar things done, not to mention the benefits of explicit collaboration.

I would like to organize a nonstandard sort of meetup: regular gatherings with people who are dealing with the question "How do I do the most good in the world?" focused explicitly on answering the question and acting on the answer. If I could find a group with which I am socially compatible, I might spend a large part of my time working with them. I am going to use the term "taskforce" because I don't know of a better one. It is vaguely related to but quite different from the potential taskforces Eliezer discusses.

Starting such a taskforce requires making many decisions.

Size:

I believe that even two people who think through issues together and hold each other accountable are significantly more effective than two people working independently. At the other limit, eventually the addition of individuals doesn't increase the effectiveness of the group and increases coordination costs. Based on a purely intuitive feeling for group dynamics, I would feel most comfortable with a group of 5-6 until I knew of a better scheme for productively organizing large groups of rationalists (at which point I would want to grow as large as that scheme could support). I suspect in practice there will be huge constraints based on interest and commitment; I don't think this is a terminal problem, because there are probably significant gains even for 2-4 people, and I don't think its a permanent one, because I am optimistic about our ability as a community to grow rapidly.

Frequency:

Where I am right now in life, I believe that thinking about this question and gathering relevant evidence is the most important thing for me to be doing. I would be comfortable spending several hours several times a week working with a group I got along with. Due to scheduling issues and interest limitations, I think this means that I would like to invest as much time as schedules and interests allow. I think the best plan is to allow and expect self-modification: make the choice of time-commitment an explicit decision controlled by the group. Meeting once a week seems like a fair default which can be supported by most schedules.

Concreteness:

There are three levels of concreteness I can imagine for the initial goals of a taskforce:

  • The taskforce is created with a particular project or a small collection of possible projects in mind. Although the possibility of abandoning a project is available (like all other changes), having a strong concrete focus may help a great deal with maintaining initial enthusiasm, attracting people, and fostering a sense of having a real effect on the world rather than empty theorizing. The risk is that, while I suspect many of us have many good ideas, deciding what projects are best is really an important part of why I care about interacting with other people. Just starting something may be the quickest way to get a sense of what is most important, but it may also slow progress down significantly.
  • The taskforce is created with the goal of converging to a practical project quickly. The discussion is of the form "How should we be doing the most good right now: what project are we equipped to solve given our current resources?" While not quite as focused as the first possibility, it does at least keep the conversation grounded.
  • The taskforce is created with the most open-ended possible goal. Helping its members decide how to spend their time in the coming years is just as important as coming up with a project to work on next week. A particular project is adopted only if the value of that project exceeds the value of further deliberation, or if working on a project is a good way to gather evidence or develop important skills.

I am inclined towards the most abstract level if it is possible to get enough support, since it is always capable of descending to either of the others. I think the most important question is how much confidence you have in a group of rationalists to understand the effectiveness of their own collective behavior and modify appropriately. I have a great deal, especially when the same group meets repeatedly and individuals have time to think carefully in between meetings.

Metaness:

A group may spend a long time discussing efficient structures for organizing, communicating, gathering information, making decisions, etc. Alternatively, a group may avoid these issues in favor of actually doing things--even if by doing things we only mean discussing the issues the group was created to discuss. Most groups I have been a part of have very much tried to do things instead of refining their own processes.

My best plan is to begin by working on non-meta issues. However, the ability of groups of rationalists to efficiently deliberate is an important one to develop, so it is worth paying a lot of attention to anything that reduces effectiveness. In particular, I would support very long digressions to deal with very minor problems as long as they are actually problems. Our experiences can be shared, any question answered definitively remains answered definitively, and any evidence gathered is there for anyone else who wants to see it. A procedural digression should end when it is no longer the best use of time--not because of a desire to keep getting things done for the sake of getting things done. Improving our rationality as individuals should be treated similarly; I am no longer interested in setting out to improve my rationality for the sake of becoming more rational, but I am interested in looking very carefully for failures of rationality that actually impact my effectiveness.

I can see how this approach might be dangerous; but it has the great advantage of being able to rescue itself from failure, by correctly noticing that entertaining procedural digressions is counter-productive. In some sense this is universally true: a system which does not limit self-examination can at least in principle recover from arbitrary failures. Moreover, it offers the prospect of refining the rationality of the group, which in turn improves the group's ability to select and implement efficient structures, which closes a feedback loop whose limit may be an unusually effective group.

Homogeneity:

A homogeneous taskforce is composed of members who face similar questions in their own lives, and who are more likely to agree about which issues require discussion and which projects they could work profitably on. An inhomogeneous taskforce is composed of members with a greater variety of perspectives, who are more likely to be able have complementary information and to avoid failures. In general, I believe that working for the common good involves enough questions of general importance (ie, of importance to people in very different positions) that the benefits of inhomogeneity seem greater than the costs. 

In practice, this issue is probably forced for now. Whoever is interested enough to participate will participate (and should be encouraged to participate), until there is enough interest that groups can form selectively.

Atmosphere:

In principle the atmosphere of a community is difficult to control. But the content of discussion and structure of expectations prior to the first meeting have a significant effect on the atmosphere. Intuitively, I expect there is a significant risk of a group falling apart immediately for a variety of reasons: social incompatibility, apparent uselessness, inability to maintain initial enthusiasm based on unrealistic expectations, etc. Forcing even a tiny commmunity into existence is hard (though I suspect not impossible).

I think the most important part of the atmosphere of a community is its support for criticism, and willingness to submit beliefs to criticism. There is a sense (articulated by Orson Scott Card somewhere at some point) that you maintain status by never showing your full hand; by never admitting "That's it. That's all I have. Now you can help me decide whether I am right or wrong." This attitude is very dangerous coupled with normal status-seeking, because its not clear to me that it is possible to recover from it. I don't believe that having rational members is enough to avoid this failure.

I don't have any other observations, except that factors controlling atmosphere should be noted when trying to understand the effectiveness of particular efforts to start communities of any sort, even though such factors are difficult to measure or describe.

Finding People:

The internet is a good place to find people, but there is only a weak sense of personal responsibility throughout much of it, and committing to dealing with people you don't know well is hard/unwise. The real world is a much harder place to find people, but conversations in person quickly establish a sense of personal responsibility and can be used to easily estimate social compatibility. Most people are strangers, and the set of people who could possibly be convinced to work with a taskforce is extremely sparse. On the other hand, your chances of convincing an acquaintance to engage in an involved project with you seem to be way higher.

My hope is that LW is large enough, and unusual enough, that it may be possible to start something just by exchanging cheap talk here. At least, I think this is possible and therefore worth acting on, since alternative states of the world will require more time to get something like this rolling. Another approach is to use the internet to orchestrate low-key meetings, and then bootstrap up from modest personal engagement to something more involved. Another is to try and use the internet to develop a community which can better support/encourage the desired behavior. Of course there are approaches that don't go through the internet, but those approaches will be much more difficult and I would like to explore easy possibilities first.

Recovery from Failure:

I can basically guarantee that if anything comes of my desire, it will include at least one failure. The real cost of failure is extremely small. My fear, based on experience, is that every time an effort at social organization fails it significantly decreases enthusiasm for similar efforts in the future. My only response to this fear is: don't be too optimistic, and don't be too pessimistic. Don't stake too much of your hope on the next try, but don't assume the next try will fail just because the last one did. In short: be rational.


Conclusion:

There are more logistical issues, many reasons a taskforce might fail, and many reasons it might not be worth the effort. But I believe I can do much more good in the future than I have done in the past, and that part of that will involve more effectively exploiting the fact that I am not alone as a rationalist. Even if the only conclusion of a taskforce is to disband itself, I would like to give it a shot.

As groups succeed or fail, different answers to these questions can be tested. My initial impulse in favor of starting abstractly and self-modifying towards concreteness can be replaced by emulating the success of other groups. Of course, this is an optimistic vision: for now, I am focused on getting one group to work once.

I welcome thoughts on other high-level issues, criticism of my beliefs,  or (optimistically) discussions/prioritization of particular logistical issues. But right now I would mostly like to gauge interest. What arguments could convince you that such a taskforce would be useful / what uncertainties would have to be resolved? What arguments could convince you to participate? Under what conditions would you be likely to participate? Where do you live?

I am in Cambridge, am willing to travel anywhere in the Boston area, need no additional arguments to convince me that such a taskforce would be useful, and would participate in any group I thought had a reasonable chance of moderate success.

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Potentially useful: I once interviewed Zachary Moore about the strategy and logistics for creating an atheist community - somewhere between a church and a taskforce. Moore was a leader at the North Texas Church of Freethought, and then co-founded an even more successful community called Fellowship of Freethought.

From my experience effectively trying to create a "task-force" out of a highly rational and cohesive group of friends... high homogeneity is going to extremely important if we want to achieve something at a really high level. For example, I have friends who agree with me on everything epistemic (we update the same way), and who have the same general goals as me, but have a slightly different talent set. This results in very different optimal life paths for the each of us, and that makes the "task-force" not really work like a "task-force." As you said, it's just much harder to find a project that fully uses diverse talents.

However, people who are homogeneous can perform at an incredible level. This is because two people who have almost exactly the same knowledge, goals, and talents reinforce each other. For example, an artist who works with a programmer might create a beautiful program, but two programmers who dual code can quite possibly outperform the diverse combination just by the sheer increased excellency of execution. My experience with intellectual pursuits certainly indicates that they work more like this, which I would expect. However, even my logistical, technical and creative experiences which I thought would benefit from diversity also seem to work better when everyone is more homogeneous. The coordination problems of diversity seem to overwhelm the benefits in all but very rare cases.

I think this is because even members of a homogeneous group can begin to specialize and search for outside information that is directly relevant to the task at hand. This is functionally very close to the advantage of having diversity in the group (not quite as good, but close). Then the homogeneity allows them to communicate the new information more effectively to each other, and to better harmonize their specialized actions with each other. These advantages more than close the small gap in knowledge and experience they have when compared to a diverse group in the vast majority of typical situations... or so my experience seems to indicate.

Your observation rings true, though I don't have much experience to confirm or deny.

What was the outcome of your experience? Was it worthwhile?

A lot of what I care about is figuring out what I should be doing. For that problem, I think inhomogeneity helps, because I think having different perspectives is valuable for general complicated questions about the world. I don't have much confidence in this view either, and I don't think the issue is too important.

It was absolutely worthwhile. Completely changed my life... all of our lives. In fact, I had one friend who tried to go it alone and who now seriously regrets the decision.

For figuring out what you should be doing, I think that diversity will help greatly. I've had many "heavy," value laden discussions with my friends, and those were made much more productive and insightful by the diverse values we hold. So I think for your goals diversity is going to be very helpful. However, once you figure out what you should be doing, homogeneity has produced the best results for me.

Although I'd like to emphasize that homogeneity can actually help a great deal in working out personal value systems as well. For example, my friend who I am most similar to and I will sometimes intentionally explore different angles of approach to things. It's kind of like being able to live two lives at once and we've learned a great deal from it.

So I guess the general idea is that diversity is good for getting your bearings, but similarity helps you efficiently make your way along that chosen route.

If you self-improve, it's not necessarily ideal to spend a disproportionate amount of resources on self-improvement. See http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/07/how-to-conduct-five-whys-root-cause.html for inspiration :)

I am in Cambridge. If you were to organize a couple of meetings, I would attend. I'm probably too committed to my projects to consider changing course, but it sounds interesting enough to spend a couple of hours thinking about.

On motivating:

I think having clear milestones and progress indicators would help motivate people, and make goals seem less abstract. Goals seem more tangible when you have a plan to accomplish them, and its easier to convince people that you're being realistic when you have past successes to point to.

It also helps you know how well things are going.

On scaling:

On my robotics team, scaling is easyish after a task is sufficiently split up. Basically each subtask of the greater goal has a few people (in robotics, 3-5) working together on it, and one person held accountable for the completion of that task. There are meetings in which the leader just basically joins the group to see how they're doing, and then there are other meetings where the leaders of each group convene to discuss the larger issues. For the really big changes, pretty much everyone is involved.

In robotics, splitting up the tasks are pretty easy by what skill set is needed to accomplish them. There's a programming, electronics, and drive group, along with a few groups for the various mechanical systems. Someone is in charge of coordinating all of the groups.

So basically you have 5-6 leaders, each working with a few people on a project. The 5-6 leaders work together as a team on larger decisions, and in robotics in specific there are 3 people who work together to lead the leaders, and 1 person who is entirely managerial.

Make sure that people feel included, and know that having managers is purely for simplification so that there's one point person for each project. Anyone can come up with ideas and concerns, and things within groups and the taskforce should be based on consensus.

This works pretty well for having 30ish dedicated (and 40ish nondedicated) people build a robot.

tl;dr:

  • Have milestones

  • Have a few people (enough to be held together socially) work on each project

  • Then, have a greater taskforce of all the project managers/leaders

  • Build consensus, you're working with smart people

  • Make sure that responsibilities are known, that way people know that if they want something to happen, they have to do it.

  • Responsibilities also mean that you have fewer dropped balls

I'm in the greater Boston area and would definitely be a part of this.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

While we are on this topic, let me take a chance to promote my own project, currently on the verge of release.

The project is meant to given a common development framework to improve decision-making, to inspire a transhumanist agenda, and to push the development of open source hardware.

{And I am going to wait until at least Sunday night / early Monday morning to release the website in this forum.}

Currently the program is formulated in Java, but that is subject to change. The software application is a serverless P2P application.

I am developing animated content in Blender, but the source of the video files need not be consistent.

The technology initiatives derive from established technologies or ongoing research (though some are as of yet unsolved).

This project is proceding ahead of schedule.

Programmers are needed to bring the application from demo to production. Animators and other producers of videos are needed to present the storyline. Engineers are needed to develop the hardware.

Collaborators are needed accross the board.

If you have relevant skills or would just like to learn more, let me know your skills and areas of interest so I can direct you to the proper resources.

More to come.

While we are on this topic, let me take a chance to promote my own project, currently on the verge of release.

The project is meant to given a common development framework to improve decision-making, to inspire a transhumanist agenda, and to push the development of open source hardware.

{And I am going to wait until at least Sunday night / early Monday morning to release the website in this forum.}

Currently the program is formulated in Java, but that is subject to change. The software application is a serverless P2P application.

I am developing animated content in Blender, but the source of the video files need not be consistent.

The technology initiatives derive from established technologies or ongoing research (though some are as of yet unsolved).

This project is proceding ahead of schedule.

Programmers are needed to bring the application from demo to production. Animators and other producers of videos are needed to present the storyline. Engineers are needed to develop the hardware.

Collaborators are needed accross the board.

If you have relevant skills or would just like to learn more, let me know your skills and areas of interest so I can direct you to the proper resources.

More to come.

This sounds interesting! However, I don't from your comment alone understand what the project is, exactly. Can you go into more detail?

I think I might work on the transhumanist portal for the project website, until that is ready, here is the opensource page:

Plan A

I'm not sure that explains it either. It's a set of screensavers and / or an online shopping aid?

Once implemented, the software application will answer unbounded (limited only by unicode) user requests with peer created responses. These responses will in turn point to peer-created methods to satisfy those requests.

Peer created data will be shared in the background via a P2P network (JXTA) which will also serve as the backbone for a P2P barter network.

A scheduling function allows the same needs to be met with differing methods on a regular basis.

The "screensavers," or animated content, run within the app and provide hard links into the request function to allow users to obtain or contribute to the technology depicted.

A variety of additional software modules and hardware projects fill out the project to enable it to comprise an economy.

Interesting! Let us know how it progresses.

Thank you.

So far, circumstances have pushed me ahead of schedule for this release of information.

Hardware suitability tests are long since complete for food printing, urban agriculture, and personal manufacturing. The purpose of which was to examine datatypes necessary for shared devo.

Previous implementations of the significant sharing algorithm has undergone three iterative testing phases, in an alternate context. To wit, a play-by-mail civilization simulator. But we trust it because it is Bayesian.