Dec 23, 2015
In this post, we:
We are in the middle of our matching fundraiser; so if you’ve been considering donating to CFAR this year, now is an unusually good time.
CFAR’s mission is to help people develop the abilities that let them meaningfully assist with the world’s most important problems, by improving their ability to arrive at accurate beliefs, act effectively in the real world, and sustainably care about that world.
We know this is an audacious thing to try—especially the “ability to form accurate beliefs” part—but it seems to us that such attempts work sometimes anyhow. Eliezer’s Sequences seem to offer principled improvements to some aspects of some peoples' world-modeling skill (via synthesizing much recent cognitive science, probability theory, etc.); this seems to us to be a useful point from which to build.
The fact remains that we do not yet have the talent necessary to win—to see the world’s problems clearly, plot strategies that have a shot at working, update when those strategies don’t work, and plan effectively around unknowns. To avoid any great filters that may be lurking, solve global and even astronomical challenges, and create a flourishing world for all.
Arguably, people of the caliber we’re shooting for don’t exist yet, but even if they do, it seems clear that we don’t have enough of them to have enough of a guarantee of actually succeeding.
So, audacious or not, this is a task that needs to be done, and CFAR is our attempt to do it. If we can widen the bottleneck on thinking better and doing more, we’re increasing the odds of a better future regardless of what the important problems turn out to be.
By the end of 2014, CFAR had created workshops that participants liked a lot and which evidence suggests had concrete benefits for them. However, our mission remains to impact the world. The question became whether we could adapt our workshops into something that had the potential for large impact.
Our central goal for 2015 was therefore to create what we called a "minimum strategic product" -- a product that, as we put it last year, would "more directly justify CFAR's claim to be an effective altruist project" by demonstrating that we could sometimes improve peoples' thinking skill, competence, and/or do-gooding to the point where they were able to engage in direct work on a key talent-limited task.
Running the MIRI Summer Fellows program gave the opportunity we'd sought to try our hand at creating such direct impact. Our plan was to test and develop our curriculum and training methods through running a training program that would not only improve people’s ability to think about some of the big questions, but also do so in a fashion that could lead to immediate progress.
How did we do? Here’s what Nate Soares, MIRI’s Executive Director, had to say:
“MSFP was a resounding success: many participants gained new skills relevant to alignment research, and the program led directly to multiple MIRI hires. The world needs more talented people focusing on big important problems, and CFAR has figured out how to develop those sorts of talents in practice.”
While working to help create AI alignment researchers, we also found that this focus on how to become a better scientist led us into more fruitful territory for improving our understanding of the art. (If you're curious, you can see a highly incoherent version of some of the skills we tried to get across in this working document. Read below for more details about art creation, and our plans to expand on more targeted training programs.)
We hit some of our concrete goals for 2015 and got distracted from others (partly, perils of unanticipated opportunities :-/).
We created a provisional metric for participants' before-and-after strategic usefulness, hitting the first goal; we started tracking that metric, hitting the second goal. Then we found that the metric was too unwieldy and too interpersonally tricky to regularly use on participants, making this "hitting" of our "goals" somewhat less useful than we had hoped. (On the upside, we learned something about how not to build metrics. :-/)
We then got the opportunity to run MIRI Summer Fellows, as noted above... and mostly dropped our previously declared goals to pull off the program, partly because our goals had been meant as a concretization of "can we train people who matter for the world", and the Summer Fellows program seemed like a better concretization of the same. (The program required a lot of new curriculum beyond what we had before, and a lot of skill development on the part of our teaching staff; and even so, and despite Nate's calling it a "resounding success", we had a feeling of leaving a lot of opportunity on the table; opportunity we intend to pick up in our second MIRI Summer Fellows program this coming summer).
From the original "concrete goals" list: goal three was a bit wishy-washy but was probably done. Goals four and five we did not even measure to see if we hit. We should and will measure this, and will let you know when we do; it seems good that we opportunistically put our all into the summer fellows program (and okay to de-emphasize old goals in pursuit of that), but good also to then follow it up for the sake of feedback loops and honesty.
2015 was the year in which we finally managed to stop wearing all the hats thanks to a huge increase in organizational capital. At the start of 2015 workshops were stressful for staff. Between workshops, our workdays were cluttered with a disproportionate amount of attention spent on logistics, alumni followups, and tasks like accounting.
This stress and clutter was part of what was preventing us from seeing what we were doing, and figuring out how to actually contribute to the world; smoothing out the wrinkles in our day-to-day workflow was (we think) a major stepping stone toward discovering our minimum strategic product.
That’s why we spent a lot of time and effort this year on streamlining operations and increasing specialization so that we could both free the capacity to focus on developing the art and create the capacity to scale our workshops. We systematized tasks like accounting and venue searches, and began using alumni volunteers as follow up mentors to supplement our newly-created post-workshop email exercises and online hangouts. These efforts culminated in two new hires—Pete Michaud and Duncan Sabien—and a reorganization of CFAR into two subteams, Core (focused on operations) and Labs (focused on research).
For a complete overview of what we intend to accomplish in 2016, see Ambitions for 2016 below.
There is the process by which we improve a workshop, and there is the process by which we improve our understanding of how rationality works at its core. The two processes don’t always help one another, but this year they did.
How we got there:
Here are some brief highlights of the new Art of Rationality that we’re currently seeing:
Our net cashflow for the year is about $14k positive so far, though without any further revenue we expect to be around $30k negative by the end of December 2015, as most of our large expenses (rent, payroll, etc.) occur at the end of the month. Note that this includes donation revenue from last year’s winter fundraiser.
Our basic monthly operating costs for 2015 have averaged $40k, although the average after September went up to $44k due to changing and slightly expanding our team. This is the number we use to determine burn rate.
$30k of this was payroll in the last quarter, and the rest was split amongst rent and utilities, parking, office supplies, meals, and miscellaneous. Many of these resources are used for in-office events like test sessions, Less Wrong meetups, and rationality training sessions; each staff member has a different and often changing split of percentage time working on operations, curriculum design, teaching, data analysis, etc. That’s why giving a good number for monthly overhead is tricky and unreliable. But to give it a go, it looks like roughly a third of monthly expenses is for organization maintenance.
A bit over half of the revenue covering this came from donations. The rest came from net revenue from our standard introductory workshops plus MIRI’s payment for our running MSFP. (More details below.)
Our standard introductory workshops serve several important purposes for us. One of them is that we hope to develop useful products that simultaneously support our mission and also make CFAR less fiscally dependent on donations.
We ran four of these workshops (three in the Bay Area and one in Boston). They varied widely in both cost and revenue due to travel, testing out new venues, changing the number of participants per workshop, and several other factors. All told, ignoring costs of staff time (as that’s factored into the above burn rate), CFAR main workshops took in a total of ~$123k net revenue (i.e., revenue exceeding cost), or an average of ~$31k net revenue per workshop. Compared to last year, this is down ~$107k total, but up ~$6k per workshop. This is due to us choosing to run less than half as many workshops so as to focus on:
In addition, we’ve continued a trend from last year: we’ve decreased the per-workshop cost in staff time, partly through streamlined curriculum and improved systems and partly through training volunteers to conduct follow-ups, freeing up our core staff to build new programs and spend more time developing advanced rationality theory and instruction. (The volunteer training also does double-duty: the original impetus for doing it was wanting to help alumni benefit from the “learn by teaching” phenomenon, so we are both freeing up staff time and also using this to help deepen alums’ skill with rationality.)
CFAR typically goes into alumni events (workshops and the annual reunion) with the assumption that we’re taking on a cost. We view these as opportunities to explore potentially new areas of rationality and also as ways of encouraging and supporting the CFAR alumni community in their development as rationalists and as a community. It has generally been our policy that we don’t charge for alumni events, but instead we let our alumni know what the per capita cost comes to and ask them to consider donating to compensate.
We track the donations that are in support of these events separately from our standard general donations. As a result, we can pretty clearly see how much each event cost us on beyond the associated donations. That is, we can see net cost. In that spirit, here is what we “paid” on net for each of our alumni programs, ignoring staff time:
This year we ran two main summer programs:
In addition, an unnamed company hired CFAR to run a small training for them. The net financial effect on CFAR was zero: we charged enough to cover costs, viewing this workshop as an opportunity to continue exploring how CFAR might tailor its material for particular workplaces or specific needs.
Our financial focus this last year was less on making money now and more on establishing internal infrastructure and strategies for developing solid income going forward.
We’re now in an excellent position to make CFAR much less dependent on donations going forward while simultaneously putting more focused effort on development, testing, and sharing of rationality tools than we’ve been able to do in the past.
This has made 2016 look very promising — but it has also put us in a difficult position right now.
We’re farther behind right now than we were this time last year, and we need some capital to implement the plans we have in mind. Predicting markets is always hard, but we think that with one more financial push this winter, we can both improve our contribution to the development of rationality and also make CFAR largely or maybe even entirely financially self-sustaining in 2016.
CFAR’s mission cashes out when people we equipped to think better and do more are actually in positions where they are changing the future of our world for the better.
With our external brand and our positioning within the community, we are perhaps uniquely well positioned to attract bright people, orient them to the values of systematically truer beliefs and world scale impact, and then make sure they get into the highest leverage positions they can fill.
We’ve spent the last three years leveling up our own ability to transmit a skillset and culture that we believe will move the needle in the right direction, and now is the time to execute at scale.
To make scaling possible and still be able to competently tackle the pedagogical challenges we face, CFAR has arranged itself into two divisions: CFAR Core and CFAR Labs.
Pete Michaud (that’s me!) was hired to manage Core operations, including workshop and curriculum production and logistics. Anna Salamon will take the helm of CFAR Labs, which will be principally responsible for answering the questions:
Broadly, in order to attract more people, level them up reliably, and make sure they land in the highest impact positions they can, our plan is to:
We intend to substantially increase the number of intake workshops we run and the number of participants we can serve per workshop.
“Intake workshops” here means workshops for people who haven’t necessarily been exposed to our material or community; said another way, these are workshops that will bring new people into our alumni network.
We are actively seeking a direct sales manager who can not only generate leads but close workshop sales. An alternative is to hire a two person marketing and sales team who together can generate leads and place prospects into workshops.
With the help of that new outreach team, we hope to add on the order of 1,000 new alumni in 2016, increasing our total throughput by nearly an order of magnitude.
Handling that new volume of alumni will require increasing attention to streamlining operations, which CFAR Core is handling partially by adding new team members and clarifying roles. In addition to me as the new Managing Director, we’ve already hired Duncan Sabien, an experienced educator and robustly capable operations generalist. Aside from the outreach team already mentioned, we also intend to hire a community manager (see below for details) and office assistant to fill in the inevitable gaps of an organization moving as fast as we intend to.
Bringing more talented people into the alumni network is only half the battle. Once participants have gone from “Zero to One,” only a community of practice can help ensure continued growth for most people.
We believe that one of the primary benefits of CFAR training is ongoing participation in the alumni community, both local to the Bay Area and throughout the world in local meetups and online. That’s why we’re going to invest in making the community stronger, with even more alumni events, experimental workshops, and deep-dive classes into specific aspects of our curriculum.
Perhaps the crown jewel of our community program is our Mentorship Training Program (MTP), which began its life as our TA Workshop. We intend to develop that seed into a robust pipeline capable of transforming workshop participants into trained rationality instructors.
One major benefit of the MTP will be that we’ll have more mentors and instructors to handle the increased load of all these workshops, classes, and other events.
But the MTP is a major growth opportunity even for people who aren’t necessarily interested in spreading the art of rationality themselves; we believe from our experience over the past three years that the best way to fully grok the art is to be immersed in a field of peers striving for the same, and ultimately to be able to teach it yourself.
This is what we intend to create with the MTP and new focus on community events.
To plan and manage all these alumni events, we’re looking for a capable community manager.
In addition to our classic workshops and general education alumni programs, we’ll also be attempting to ramp up our targeted workshops meant to fill talent gaps for specific organizations.
For example, we’ll run our second MIRI Summer Fellows Program, as well as a grant funded by the Future of Life Institute to help promising upcoming AI researchers think about AI safety. We’re in conversation with other organizations, and it’s our intention to have an increasing number of these workshops that focus on thinking skills needed for particular tasks in order to help fill critical gaps in important organizations on very small time horizons.
If funding permits and our experiments in this area go well, we intend to make these types of workshops more frequent, and perhaps expand on past success with programs like a European SPARC, and possible “summer camp” style events where we try to identify particularly talented high school students for training and recruitment into existential risk research.
The split between Core and Labs doesn't only allow focus on operations--it also allows our Lab folk to invest in the informal experiments, arguments, data-gathering, etc. that seems, over time, to conduce to a better applied rationality.
(This process is messy. Rationality today is not at the level of Newton. It isn't even at the level of Ptolemy, who, despite the mockability of the nested-epicycles method, could predict the motions of the planets with great precision. Rationality is more at the level of a toddler running around, putting everything in its mouth, and ending up thereby with a more integrated informal world-model by having examined many example-objects through several senses each. Our aim this year in Labs is basically to put many many things in our mouths rapidly, and to argue about models in between, and to especially expose ourselves to people who are working on issues that matter in already-very-competent ways who we can nevertheless try to make better, and to try in this way to get a better sense of the higher-end parts of "rationality".)
Toward this end, Labs is currently:
The primary limiting factor in these plans is our ability to attract a truly excellent sales person or team. With a sufficient workshop participation, cashflow bottlenecks are broken and we‘ll achieve economies of scale that will fundamentally transform our operations.
Failing that recruitment, the next best alternative is to grow organically through the MTP and other community programs. That is a much slower process, but pushes us in the same fundamental direction.
And as always, our plans coming into contact with the reality of 2016 will correctly cause us to update, iterate, and potentially pivot given new evidence and insight.
CFAR’s mission is to gather together people with the potential for real and meaningful impact, and to cause them to come closer to meeting that potential. It doesn’t much matter whether you think we’re under a ticking clock of existential risk, or you’re concerned about a million humans dying every week, or you’re simply grumpy that we haven’t gotten a human past low earth orbit since 1972—our individual and collective thinking skill is a key bottleneck on our future.
Applied rationality, more than almost anything else, has a shot at being a truly all-purpose tool in humanity’s toolkit, and the bigger the problems on the horizon, the more vital that tool becomes.
2016 will be a particularly critical year in CFAR’s history. We’re restructuring our team in pretty major ways, and finding the right team members (or not) will determine our ability to get the right character and culture from this new beginning; and we've had at least three good people in the last eight months who we wanted to hire, and who wanted to work for us, but who required salaries we couldn't afford. Beginnings are far easier times in which to make change, and this is the closest we've come to a fresh beginning -- and the time we've most expected differential impact from marginal donation -- since our inaugural fundraiser of late 2012.
The world of AI risk is changing rapidly, and decisions made over the coming months will shape the future of the field -- it would be well to get relevant training programs going now, and not to wait for some later additional hard-won new beginning for CFAR in 2018 or something. The strategic competence we will have going into the spring is likely to be the difference between a CFAR that actually matters, and one that sounds good but is ultimately irrelevant.
There are at least four major ways to help:
This is the mission; these are the steps. CFAR has made substantial progress on building a talent pipeline for clear thinkers and world changers, in large part thanks to generous contributions of time, money, energy, and insight from people like you. We’d like to see a world where this goal has been achieved, and your support is what gets us there. Thanks for reading; do send us any thoughts; and do please consider donating now.