Mathematician and climate activist John Baez finally commented on charitable giving. I think the opinion of highly educated experts who are not closely associated with LessWrong or the SIAI but have read most of the available material is important to estimate the public and academic perception of risks from AI and the effectiveness with which the risks are communicated by LessWrong and the SIAI.
[...] if I asked what you would do with $100,000 if it were given to you on the condition that you donate it to a charity of your choice?
John Baez replied:
[...] it’s good that you added the clause “on the condition that you donate it to a charity of your own choice”, because I was all ready with the answer in case you left that out: I’d have said “I’ll save the money for my retirement”. Given the shaky state of California’s economy, I don’t trust the U.C. pension system very much anymore.
Since I haven’t ever been in the position to donate lots of money to a charity, I haven’t thought much about your question. I want to tackle it when I rewrite my will, but I haven’t yet. So, I don’t have an answer ready.
If you held a gun against my head and forced me to answer without further thought, I’d probably say Médecins Sans Frontières, because I’m pretty risk-averse. They seem to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, they seem financially transparent, and I think it’s pretty easy to argue that they’re doing something good (as opposed to squandering money, or doing something actively bad).
Of course, anyone associated with Less Wrong would ask if I’m really maximizing expected utility. Couldn’t a contribution to some place like the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence, despite a lower chance of doing good, actually have a chance to do so much more good that it’d pay to send the cash there instead?
And I’d have to say:
1) Yes, there probably are such places, but it would take me a while to find the one that I trusted, and I haven’t put in the work. When you’re risk-averse and limited in the time you have to make decisions, you tend to put off weighing options that have a very low chance of success but a very high return if they succeed. This is sensible so I don’t feel bad about it.
2) Just to amplify point 1) a bit: you shouldn’t always maximize expected utility if you only live once. Expected values — in other words, averages — are very important when you make the same small bet over and over again. When the stakes get higher and you aren’t in a position to repeat the bet over and over, it may be wise to be risk averse.
3) If you let me put the $100,000 into my retirement account instead of a charity, that’s what I’d do, and I wouldn’t even feel guilty about it. I actually think that the increased security would free me up to do more risky but potentially very good things!
Hmm, here’s a better idea:
Could I get someone to create an institute, register it as a charity, and get the institute to hire me?
What can one learn from this?
- That people value financial transparency.
- That people value openness and trustworthiness.
- Explain that openness isn't necessarily good.
- Address the good reasons for SIAI not to publish AGI progress.
- Dealing with risk aversion.
- Explain why one would decide to contribute to the SIAI under uncertainty.
- Why it is important to consider charitable giving in the first place.