‘I don’t feel emotionally motivated to work on AI safety, even though I’m intellectually convinced that it’s important.’
It always surprises me when people say this because I find my work at Nonlinear on AI safety incredibly motivating. I’m sharing my reasons in the hope that they’ll resonate with some of you, and that these ideas will help bring your emotional drives into greater harmony with your abstract convictions.
1. The dramatic scale of AGI is inspiring
When I was a kid, I wanted to save the world. Like many EAs, I was obsessed with stories of superheroes who could use their powers to save whole cities from catastrophe. I aspired to be like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, and to do something really big and important; something that would forge widespread, lasting change. But as I got older, these dreams collided violently with the harsh reality: changing things is really really hard. I became more realistic and scaled down my ambitions.
I started off working on global health. In this area, the most I could hope for was (for example) to reduce infant mortality by a percent or two in a single country - and that’s if my career was an astonishing success. This is significant - that’s a lot of lives saved! - but it’s far more modest than my childhood ambitions. I resigned myself to the fact that while I could make significant improvements to the world, the problems we face would remain immense and oppressive.
Similarly, at one time, I felt most motivated to work on animal welfare. But again: even if I was unusually successful in my work, I could only hope to make a small dent in the problem. I might (for example) secure slightly better conditions for factory-farmed chickens in the US, but there would still be factory farms. And even if factory farms were abolished, what about the suffering of animals in the wild?
This situation was demotivating over time: the thought of so much intense pain was emotionally crushing, and I knew that even if I worked extremely hard and improved some animals’ lives, those improvements would be dwarfed by the suffering that remained.
With AGI, on the other hand, my ambitions to really change things have returned. AI is likely to change the world massively: for better or for worse. When we talk about AI, we often focus on its dangers: the fact that misaligned AI could kill us all or cause astronomical suffering. But there is a more positive side: if we manage to align AGI - if we get it right - it could fix so much. A superintelligent AI aligned with human values could end poverty, war, oppression, abuse, suffering itself - you name it. It could improve the world far more than any other intervention or advance to date.
This could be the most important cause in all of history. This time, if enough people work hard, if we’re thoughtful and strategic, we could really achieve utopian improvements to the human condition. I find this vision incredibly inspiring.
2. AI safety means you don’t have to “choose” a cause
Because aligned AI could have such wide-reaching effects, I find it easier to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to AI alignment. I used to feel terrible about all the problems I wasn’t helping with. As EAs, we know that we are always in triage and need to prioritize ruthlessly, but it can still feel painful, even if we know it’s the right thing to do.
I was working on poverty and animal welfare, but then I’d think - what about domestic abuse? What about the lobsters you see in tanks? What about depression? What about human rights abuses? What about North Korea? Or just plain old cancer, heart disease, death?
In the past, when I thought about one of these problems, I had to regretfully set it aside, and tell myself ‘yes, this is bad; but what you’re working on is more impactful. Stay focused!’
Now, though, whenever I remember that billions are still poor, or wild animals are being torn apart by predators, or that so many people still live under oppression and tyranny, I think to myself ‘AI could fix this’. Before, other problems were distracting; now, they only add fuel to my motivation to help AI go right. An aligned superintelligence could solve every problem that (for now) we neglect in order to work on aligning superintelligence; so choosing to work on AI safety seems like less of an agonizing trade-off.
3. It’s globally and locally helpful
If you work on AI risk, you don’t need to make trade-offs between your self-interest and your altruistic desires, because if AGI is developed in your lifetime, it will benefit or harm everyone.
For most EA cause areas, you need to be motivated by pure altruism; when you work on the cause, you are not working towards your personal goals. Working on animal welfare or global development benefits others, but it doesn’t benefit us. But when I work on AI safety, this could directly benefit me and my loved ones, as well as countless others. If a misaligned superintelligence kills us all within my lifetime, then it won’t just harm strangers living on the other side of the world, or unknown future people - it will harm me and everyone I care about!
Similarly, if we create an aligned superintelligence, it could solve problems that directly affect me: sickness, sadness, death. AI could make us immortal! This would be pretty motivating by itself, even if I didn’t have any purely altruistic motivation.
4. It’s awe-inspiring to try to build something so good
There is something deeply awe-inspiring about building something that is so much smarter, stronger, and better than us. We talk a lot about how much AI could surpass us in skill or intelligence; but (if we succeed), our superintelligence will also surpass us in goodness. It could embody all of our human virtues without our human vices: our partiality, our irrationality, the biases baked into us by evolution. It could be genuinely impartial and benevolent in a way that humans can’t.
I want something that good to exist.
And this and so many other reasons are why I find AI safety to be one of the most compelling cause areas I’ve ever worked in.
Let me know other reasons you find AI x/s-risks emotionally compelling in the comments. It would be great to compile the best ones and have a piece you can re-read or point people towards when they need a boost.
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This post was written collaboratively by Kat Woods and Amber Dawn Ace as part of Nonlinear’s experimental Writing Internship program. The ideas are Kat’s; Kat explained them to Amber, and Amber wrote them up. We would like to offer this service to other EAs who want to share their as-yet unwritten ideas or expertise.
If you would be interested in working with Amber to write up your ideas, fill out this form.