The purpose of this post is to call attention to a comment thread that I think needs it.
Wait, I thought EA already had 46$ billion they didn't know where to spend, so I should prioritize direct work over earning to give? https://80000hours.org/2021/07/effective-altruism-growing/
I thought so too. This comment thread on ACX shattered that assumption of mine. EA institutions should hire people to do "direct work". If there aren't enough qualified people applying for these positions, and EA has 46 billion dollars, then their institutions should (get this) increase the salaries they offer until there are.
To quote EY:
There's this thing called "Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage". There's this idea called "professional specialization". There's this notion of "economies of scale". There's this concept of "gains from trade". The whole reason why we have money is to realize the tremendous gains possible from each of us doing what we do best.
This is what grownups do. This is what you do when you want something to actually get done. You use money to employ full-time specialists.
For those trying to avert catastrophe, money isn't scarce, but researcher time/attention/priorities is. Even in my own special niche there are way too many projects to do and not enough time. I have to choose what to work on and credences about timelines make a difference.
I don't get the "MIRI isn't bottlenecked by money" perspective. Isn't there a well-established way to turn money into smart-person-hours by paying smart people very high salaries to do stuff?
My limited understanding is: It works in some domains but not others. If you have an easy-to-measure metric, you can pay people to make the metric go up, and this takes very little of your time. However, if what you care about is hard to measure / takes lots of time for you to measure (you have to read their report and fact-check it, for example, and listen to their arguments for why it matters) then it takes up a substantial amount of your time, and that's if they are just contractors who you don't owe anything more than the minimum to.
I think another part of it is that people just aren't that motivated by money, amazingly. Consider: If the prospect of getting paid a six-figure salary to solve technical alignment problems worked to motivate lots of smart people to solve technical alignment problems... why hasn't that happened already? Why don't we get lots of applicants from people being like 'Yeah I don't really care about this stuff I think it's all sci-fi but check out this proof I just built, it extends MIRI's work on logical inductors in a way they'll find useful, gimme a job pls." I haven't heard of anything like that ever happening. (I mean, I guess the more realistic case of this is someone who deep down doesn't really care but on the exterior says they do. This does happen sometimes in my experience. But not very much, not yet, and also the kind of work these kind of people produce tends to be pretty mediocre.)
Another part of it might be that the usefulness of research (and also manager/CEO stuff?) is heavy-tailed. The best people are 100x more productive than the 95th percentile people who are 10x more productive than the 90th percentile people who are 10x more productive than the 85th percentile people who are 10x more productive than the 80th percentile people who are infinitely more productive than the 75th percentile people who are infinitely more productive than the 70th percentile people who are worse than useless. Or something like that.
Anyhow it's a mystery to me too and I'd like to learn more about it. The phenomenon is definitely real but I don't really understand the underlying causes.
Consider: If the prospect of getting paid a six-figure salary to solve technical alignment problems worked to motivate lots of smart people to solve technical alignment problems... why hasn't that happened already?
I mean, does MIRI have loads of open, well-paid research positions? This is the first I'm hearing of it. Why doesn't MIRI have an army of recruiters trolling LinkedIn every day for AI/ML talent the way that Facebook and Amazon do?
Looking at MIRI's website it doesn't look like they're trying very hard to hire people. It explicitly says "we're doing less hiring than in recent years". Clicking through to one of the two available job ads ( https://intelligence.org/careers/research-fellow/ ) it has a section entitled "Our recommended path to becoming a MIRI research fellow" which seems to imply that the only way to get considered for a MIRI research fellow position is to hang around doing a lot of MIRI-type stuff for free before even being considered.
None of this sounds like the activities of an organisation that has a massive pile of funding that it's desperate to turn into useful research.
I can assure you that MIRI has a massive pile of funding and is desperate for more useful research. (Maybe you don't believe me? Maybe you think they are just being irrational, and should totally do the obvious thing of recruiting on LinkedIn? I'm told OpenPhil actually tried something like that a few years ago and the experiment was a failure. I don't know but I'd guess that MIRI has tried similar things. IIRC they paid high-caliber academics in relevant fields to engage with them at one point.)
Again, it's a mystery to me why it is, but I'm pretty sure that it is.
Some more evidence that it's true:
--Tiny startups beating giant entrenched corporations should NEVER happen if this phenomenon isn't real. Giant entrenched corporations have way more money and are willing to throw it around to improve their tech. Sure maybe any particular corporation might be incompetent/irrational, but it's implausible that all the major corporations in the world would be irrational/incompetent at the same time so that a tiny startup could beat them all.
--Similar things can be said about e.g. failed attempts by various governments to make various cities the "new silicon valley" etc.
Maybe part of the story is that research topics/questions are heavy-tailed-distributed in importance. One good paper on a very important question is more valuable than ten great papers on a moderately important question.
I can assure you that MIRI has a massive pile of funding and is desperate for more useful research. (Maybe you don't believe me? Maybe you think they are just being irrational
Maybe they're not being irrational, they're just bad at recruiting. That's fine, that's what professional recruiters are for. They should hire some.
If MIRI wants more applicants for its research fellow positions it's going to have to do better than https://intelligence.org/careers/research-fellow/ because that seems less like a genuine job ad and more like an attempt to get naive young fanboys to work for free in the hopes of maybe one day landing a job.
Why on Earth would an organisation that is serious about recruitment tell people "Before applying for a fellowship, you’ll need to have attended at least one research workshop"? You're competing for the kind of people who can easily walk into a $500K+ job at any FAANG, why are you making them jump through hoops?
Eye Beams are cool:
Holy shit. That's not a job posting. That's instructions for joining a cult. Or a MLM scam.
For what it is worth, I agree completely with Melvin on this point - the job advert pattern matches to a scam job offer to me and certainly does not pattern match to any sort of job I would seriously consider taking. Apologies to be blunt, but you write "it's a mystery to me why it is", so I'm trying to offer an outside perspective that might be helpful.
It is not normal to have job candidates attend a workshop before applying for a job in prestigious roles, but it is very normal to have candidates attend a 'workshop' before pitching them an MLM or timeshare. It is even more concerning that details about these workshops are pretty thin on the ground. Do candidates pay to attend? If so this pattern matches advanced fee scams. Even if they don't pay to attend, do they pay flights and airfare? If so MIRI have effectively managed to limit their hire pool to people who live within commuting distance of their offices or people who are going to work for them anyway and don't care about the cost.
Furthermore, there's absolutely no indication how I might go about attending one of these workshops - I spent about ten minutes trying to google details (which is ten minutes longer than I have to spend to find a complete list of all ML engineering roles at Google / Facebook), and the best I could find was a list of historic workshops (last one in 2018) and a button saying I should contact MIRI to get in touch if I wanted to attend one. Obviously I can't hold the pandemic against MIRI not holding in-person meetups (although does this mean they deliberately ceased recruitment during the pandemic?), and it looks like maybe there is a thing called an 'AI Risk for Computer Scientists' workshop which is maybe the same thing (?) but my best guess is that the next workshop - which is a prerequisite for me applying for the job - is an unknown date no more than six months into the future. So if I want to contribute to the program, I need to defer all job offers for my extremely in-demand skillset for the opportunity to apply following a workshop I am simply inferring the existence of.
The next suggested requirement indicates that you also need to attend 'several' meetups of the nearest MIRIx group to you. Notwithstanding that 'do unpaid work' is a huge red flag for potential job applicants, I wonder if MIRI have seriously thought about the logistics of this. I live in the UK where we are extremely fortunate to have two meetup groups, both of which are located in cities with major universities. If you don't live in one of those cities (or, heaven forbid, are French / German / Spanish / any of the myriad of other nationalities which don't have a meetup anything less than a flight away) then you're pretty much completely out of luck in terms of getting involved with MIRI. From what I can see, the nearest meetup to Terrence Tao's offices in UCLA is six hours away by car. If your hiring strategy for highly intelligent mathematical researchers excludes Terrence Tao by design, you have a bad hiring strategy.
The final point in the 'recommended path' is that you should publish interesting and novel points on the MIRI forums. Again, high quality jobs do not ask for unpaid work before the interview stage; novel insights are what you pay for when you hire someone.
Why shouldn't MIRI try doing the very obvious thing and retaining a specialist recruitment firm to headhunt talent for them, pay that talent a lot of money to come and work for them, and then see if the approach works? A retained executive search might cost perhaps $50,000 per hire at the upper end, perhaps call it $100,000 because you indicate there may be a problem with inappropriate CVs making it through anything less than a gold-plated search. This is a rounding error when you're talking about $2bn unmatched funding. I don't see why this approach is too ridiculous even to consider, and instead the best available solution is to have a really unprofessional hiring pipeline directly off the MIRI website.
However, if what you care about is hard to measure / takes lots of time for you to measure then it takes up a substantial amount of your time.
One solution here would be to ask people to generate a bunch of alignment research, then randomly sample a small subset of that research and subject it to costly review, then reward those people in proportion to the quality of the spot-checked research.
But that might not even be necessary. Intuitively, I expect that gathering really talented people and telling them to do stuff related to X isn't that bad of a mechanism for getting X done. The Manhattan Project springs to mind. Bell Labs spawned an enormous amount of technical progress by collecting the best people and letting them do research. I think the hard part is gathering the best people, not putting them to work.
You probably know more about the details of what has or has not been tried than I do, but if this is the situation we really should be offering like $10 million cash prizes no questions asked for research that Eliezer or Paul or whoever says moves the ball on alignment. I guess some recently announced prizes are moving us in this direction, but the amount of money should be larger, I think. We have tons of money, right?
They (MIRI in particular) also have a thing about secrecy. Supposedly much of the potentially useful research not only shouldn't be public, even hinting that this direction might be fruitful is dangerous if the wrong people hear about it. It's obviously very easy to interpret this uncharitably in multiple ways, but they sure seem serious about it, for better or worse (or indifferent).
Give Terrence Tao 500 000$ to work on AI alignement six months a year, letting him free to research crazy Navier-Stokes/Halting problem links the rest of his time... If money really isn't a problem, this kind of thing should be easy to do.
Literally that idea has been proposed multiple times before that I know of, and probably many more times many years ago before I was around.
a six-figure salary to solve technical alignment problems
Wait, what? If I knew that I might've signed the f**k up! I don't have experience in AI, but still! Who's offering six figures?