What Should I Do?

by paulfchristiano1 min read6th Apr 201131 comments

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Personal Blog

I have been having some difficulty deciding what to do with my life. I'm not really ashamed or surprised, because the problem seems extremely difficult and worth getting right. I still don't really know. Here are some of my options, though I wouldn't be surprised if what I end up doing is not on the list. I thought I would share to elicit advice, to give some context to some of my recent remarks, and maybe to provide comparison for people in similar situations.

1. Research

I could do research in a university, or in a private research lab. Many fields have at least a few questions that seem important and interesting.

A. Theoretical Computer Science. I could work on collaborative learning, recommendation and reputation systems, distributed protocols, or anything else that might assist collaboration in the future. 

B. AI / Computational Cognitive Neuroscience. I could work on algorithms for inference and planning, to increase the probability that we develop comprehensible or human-like AI before something horrible happens (like developing incomprehensible strong AI).

C. Neuroscience. I know almost nothing about this field, but technology for measuring and interfacing with the brain appears to be important and developing rapidly. I don't know how hard it would be to start working in the field, but I suspect that the connection to computer science is strong enough at MIT that it wouldn't be impossible.

2. Start a company

This seems way harder, but I am sufficiently arrogant and risk-neutral that I consider it a reasonable option. In particular, this is what I would do if I decided that making money as efficiently as possible and giving it away

A. Tech company. If I had to guess based on the currently available evidence, I would guess that this is the way to maximize my expected earnings.

B. Online Education. I would like to take a shot at designing materials for online education of smart, significantly underserved, high school students.

3. Cooperate with Other Rationalists

A. Work for a rational charity. Self-explanatory. Probably worse than earning a lot of money and giving away.

B. Start a rational charity. Probably worse than supporting an existing charity.

C. Work for a rational start-up. Can't really arrange this one; but optimistically it could happen if you were prepared (someone else does 2).

4. Be a Hobbyist

I could also simply try and earn a living as quickly as possible (rather than making as much excess as possible, or having a more structured way of doing good) and do work on the side. I don't think this is a good idea.

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I'm holding off on proposing a solution. The Law of Comparative Advantage is a relevant concept here, because whatever you end up doing would have been done by someone else if you had made a different choice. You should pick the thing where you are the most above average in expected success, because that's where the marginal gain to the world from you doing it is highest.

My other advice is, don't forget to do something you'll enjoy. For a start, it will make you more motivated. You'll be doing good in the world whatever you pick--and while you can't be sure which thing will do the most good, you have a better chance at figuring out what you'll most enjoy.

You should pick the thing where you are the most above average in expected success, because that's where the marginal gain to the world from you doing it is highest.

You're assuming perfect equivalence between success and value creation. That is a very shaky assumption in any realistic human society. Success may stem from creating value and trading it, but also from winning zero- or negative-sum games such as signaling arms races and rent seeking contests, and even the created value can be offset by the negative externalities you generate. Humans are amazingly capable of rationalizing away such unpleasant observations when it comes to themselves and people they like and admire, as well as exaggerating them when it comes to those they dislike, so evaluating any concrete success scenario accurately is a very difficult problem.

(Of course, if you're altruistic, you'd also care about your positive externalities for which you capture no benefit, and similar caveats apply there too.)

By "success" I meant successfully doing useful research/getting money to charity/spreading rationality. Which I think is closer to "value creation" or "positive externalities" than what you seem to be calling "success," namely personal welfare.

All I meant was that if he would create an above average amount of value in one area, but even more in another, relative to the rest of the labor pool, he should go with the one where he's best by comparison.

By "success" I meant successfully doing useful research/getting money to charity/spreading rationality. Which I think is closer to "value creation" or "positive externalities" than what you seem to be calling "success," namely personal welfare.

Actually, I didn't mean only personal welfare. What I wrote certainly applies to career success that brings money and power, but also to all other kinds of accomplishments that are commonly seen as worthy and admirable.

In fact, often it's even more difficult to judge the latter accurately. People are used to arguing whether someone who profits from success has deserved it, and they're normally willing to listen to someone who argues either way in some particular case. However, when it comes to accomplishments that are seen as selfless idealism, it's much more difficult to criticize those without being perceived as weird or malicious. This despite the fact that these can be about signaling games, rent-seeking, and unaccounted externalities just as much as any for-profit endeavor, no matter how admirable and high-status they are commonly perceived.

Agreed.

If anything, it seems like he's trying to create positive externalities, not make his personal life as good as possible.

The Law of Comparative Advantage is a relevant concept here, because whatever you end up doing would have been done by someone else if you had made a different choice.

I believe that if I donate to charity, more will be donated to charity. If I do research in a field, more research will get done in that field. If I start a company, more companies will get started. (All of this in in expectation). This holds even more true for a particularly charity, a particular research program I consider important, or a particular need I think needs to be filled.

don't forget to do something you'll enjoy

I'm not too worried about this. I enjoy both thinking and deliberating in a very broad sense, and I could direct the time I spend on both in pretty arbitrary directions before it became unfun. My plan is to find out what would be best, and then think about how to perturb it to keep me happy enough to remain productive.

I believe that if I donate to charity, more will be donated to charity. If I do research in a field, more research will get done in that field. If I start a company, more companies will get started.

I agree on charity, but what if the funding for research in a field is limited, and there is someone who is better at doing research than you are, but worse at doing job interviews, so by deciding to go into that field, you take their place? Similarly for starting companies, if there's a profitable niche, it will be filled by someone sooner or later, unless there's some reason only you can see that niche.

I enjoy both thinking and deliberating in a very broad sense, and I could direct the time I spend on both in pretty arbitrary directions before it became unfun.

I found out that if I work in some field I'll get bored after a time-frame of months to years, and this was not something I expected when I was in college. Luckily I'm in a position to easily change what to work on. Sometimes what became boring will be interesting again if I leave it for a while.

If you're still in college, you're probably not yet aware of how easily you get bored, so this may be something to keep in mind. (I wish I had more data about how easily people get bored. Most people seem to stay in one field their entire lives without complaining too much, but are they just going through the motions after a while?)

what if the funding for research in a field is limited, and there is someone who is better at doing research than you are, but worse at doing job interviews, so by deciding to go into that field, you take their place?

Even in the worst case, I suspect I am much better at doing research than the marginal person who would lose their job. Maybe there are some weird other issues with imperfect candidate selection, but I don't see why those would have any effect on average.

In reality, I expect the situation to be much better, for two reasons. For one, even holding the total amount of research funding fixed, how do you think that the allocation between various fields or subfields is done? I believe the number of competent researchers/grant-writers working in a field effects the fraction of funding it captures. For two, most people in most fields pursue programs which are optimized for maintaining status, not for doing good. You shouldn't expect the amount of socially optimal research to be conserved unless funding agencies are very good. In practice they actually seem to be astoundingly bad (at least for this way of evaluating good/bad). I guess these points are the same, but at different levels: working on the best programs within the best subfields of the best fields is important, and I don't think the average person you statistically expect to replace is doing any of these.

if there's a profitable niche, it will be filled by someone sooner or later

I believe this for a sufficiently generous notion of "later," and for enterprises which create marketable value proportionate with the good they do. But I care about shorter timescales than niches generically get filled on, and my notion of value is quite different than most peoples. Evidence for the first point comes from the amount of money that goes to successful entrepreneurs. Evidence for the second comes from looking around at the world, or reasonable expectations of marketplaces.

In both cases, I think others' remarks are essentially correct: markets work to distribute labor evenly in some sense, but my motives are different from my competitors' and so I suspect I will displace people who are doing substantially different things.

I found out that if I work in some field I'll get bored after a time-frame of months to years, and this was not something I expected when I was in college.

I guess I don't know if this will be a problem. I have definitely gotten bored of particular problems, but at MIT at least there are a pretty wide variety of problems being worked on and it seems pretty easy to move around. Maybe it will become harder to move around (I imagine I can avoid this) or a higher level of meta-boredom will set in which would require a more disruptive change.

Right now this is not high on my list of reasons not to go into academia, though it would be good to know more before spending years getting a PhD.

Another thing to check is how much you like writing and publishing academic papers. I tried it once and found the process quite painful, both the writing and the publishing parts. (And that was one of the actual reasons I didn't try to go into academia. I didn't find out about the boredom issue until later.) I'm not sure if I'm being rational or just rationalizing, but it seems that I can spread my ideas (and get plenty of credit) just by writing about them informally on mailing lists and blogs.

don't forget to do something you'll enjoy

I'm not too worried about this. I enjoy both thinking and deliberating in a very broad sense, and I could direct the time I spend on both in pretty arbitrary directions before it became unfun. My plan is to find out what would be best, and then think about how to perturb it to keep me happy enough to remain productive.

Are you sure? In my experience most people who claim they'd enjoy doing anything, say that because it seems like the kind of think that is virtuous to say/believe.

He didn't say he'd enjoy doing anything, he said there was a fairly wide range of things he enjoys.

I believe that if I donate to charity, more will be donated to charity. If I do research in a field, more research will get done in that field. If I start a company, more companies will get started. (All of this in in expectation). This holds even more true for a particularly charity, a particular research program I consider important, or a particular need I think needs to be filled.

Which spill over effect due to your specific involvement will be the largest?

[-][anonymous]10y 0

don't forget to do something you'll enjoy

I'm not too worried about this. I enjoy both thinking and deliberating in a very broad sense, and I could direct the time I spend on both in pretty arbitrary directions before it became unfun. My plan is to find out what would be best, and then think about how to perturb it to keep me happy enough to remain productive.

When I tried to plan my life like this, my plans failed but I ended up doing interesting stuff anyway. So my best advice would be, try different things and keep the ones that excite you.

Do you mean: you set out to do one thing but when it failed you fell back on an interesting alternative?

More like I never had enough willpower to stick to a predetermined life plan and focus on one project at a time, and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise :-)

That seems fair, but given your experience I hopefully don't need to rely on this form of blessing :)

Imagine a counterfactual version of your past self which did have the willpower to focus on one project at a time (but the willingness not to if required); could you give him advice which could counteract this disadvantage in disguise? Or do you think it is a matter of luck that this turned out to be a good thing?

Well, for one, I'd tell him that his future self that dropped out of the PhD is doing just fine, so there's no use spending years on it, even if it seems oh so important at the moment :-)

[-][anonymous]10y 0

No, I just didn't have enough willpower to pursue a single goal wholeheartedly, so I pursued many goals half-heartedly. It worked out okay for me :-)

First off, what's your current position?

I'm doing theoretical CS research, and about to apply to grad school. I'm reasonably qualified to do theoretical CS research, and nothing else.

Yes, it'd be helpful to know your qualifications/past record.

I'd vote for starting a company.

The Corporate World is in dire need of companies that aren't evil, to both change the tone of the industry and to serve as an example to other companies. It just feels like for almost every company the bottom line is always the dollar, but it'd be nice if that stopped being the norm, and I think by running a company the way you'd want to you could contribute to that cause. (I am assuming your company wouldn't be evil)

Otherwise: Do 'em all at Once!

Generally, human concepts of fairness don't really extend into economics, physics, biology, or any of the other ways by which the world works.

(Also I don't think most companies are that evil, and most are under legal obligations to maximize profit)

I'm skeptical about how reliably paulfchristiano could hold something away from its equilibrium.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

State run companies are those for which the emphasis on bottom line is a lot weaker than for private run companies, and at least in India it is very clear that this makes them worse overall. Terrible customer service, not enough innovation, overall poor work culture etc.

If a corporate is not making profits (in ethical and legal ways, obviously), they're clearly not providing a service society values enough or they are doing it inefficiently.

I think that you could probably do some community building on the side of anything not absolutely life-consumingly time-intensive.

Like, spend some time getting a regular venue, meeting style, etc. lined up and try to make it so that it mostly runs itself.

Then being a member of it only takes much less regular time.

Go work for Google (Research if possible) for two years, and at the end of it, you will be in a strictly better position to do 2A, and if you are in the right group 1B. I have no idea if they do much of 1A but they're basically the biggest AI company there is. I'm not confident in my naive interpretation of what collaborative learning is, but recommendation and reputation systems are also part of Google's bag, as well as Amazon's.

As far as 2B, online education goes, I suspect you'd be more effective combining that with 3A, by going to work for Khan Academy, or doing a kind of clone, making money, then spending it on getting poor grad students to do videos for the content they're teaching anyway. OCW is great and all, but imagine someone taking the core MIT/CMU/Berkeley CS curriculum, and putting an integrated course for the intersection of those online.

As far as 3C goes; this community is pretty new but people have been doing data driven thinking for a long time and some of them have gotten very good at it. Seriously, Google analyses everything from the traits of successful managers to attempting to predict which employees will leave.

For some perspective on Google you could pm cousin_it, or check these comments out. NLP, information retrieval, and entity extraction are often in Search Quality, not Research. Machine learning is everywhere in the company, even intranet tools.

in many subfields of AI, the stuff that's locked up in Google proprietary information is light years beyond what's available in academia

Most companies are nothing like Google

in many subfields of AI, the stuff that's locked up in Google proprietary information is light years beyond what's available in academia

What is your evidence for this? (Sorry if it's somewhere in the reddit thread, I didn't read too far down.)

I have heard this claimed by multiple sources but looking at the webpages of most google research scientists indicates that they aren't even working on new theory so much as applying what's already out there, so I'm curious what's causing our beliefs to diverge so much.

I don't have any evidence beyond Jonathan Tang's say-so. And the fact that Peter Norvig works at Google. There may be something useful in Reddit's video interview with him, but it's been ages since I watched it, so I don't know.

Define rational startup?

"Rational" is perhaps not the right word. What I mean is, "a company which makes a rational effort to do as much good as possible and which is concerned with earning money precisely to the extent that this is a useful instrumental goal for doing good." I expect the focus of such a company would not be on earning as much as possible, although it might be (this is the sort of uncertainty I am trying to resolve).