(Repost) Bloomberg -- Effective Altruism Has a Sam Problem

(Credit: Transcript by OpenAI Whisper)

Effective altruism has a Sam problem. At a New York City dive bar on a recent December night, pitbull blared from the sound system, and a gathering of like-minded young people had passionate debates about morals and the future of humanity. The local community of effective altruists was holding its end-of-year celebration. It seemed like EAs had little to celebrate. Because for the second time in as many years, a guy named Sam was the subject of an extraordinary tech story and an apparent indictment of the EA philosophy. This time it wasn't crypto criminal Sam Bankman-Fried, but the artificial intelligence industry's superstar, Sam Altman. It's been quite the ride for those calling themselves effective altruists, an embodiment of a philosophy that morphed from doing good, into how to make as much money as possible to give to world-saving causes. Having bathed in the glow of an instant best-selling book by the movement's co-founder William McCaskill in August 2022, the hype swiftly unraveled with the fall of Bankman-Fried a few months later. The cryptocurrency entrepreneur had been one of the most recognizable proponents of EA. After Bankman-Fried's companies collapsed, McCaskill went mostly silent. Read more, what is effective altruism and how does it relate to artificial intelligence pursuits? But the EA meetups continued, and the focus for many remained on how to do the most good. That was the main topic of conversation at the East Village Bar earlier this month as attendees sampled vegan snacks and drank beer. Rachel Woodard wasn't interested in talking about either of the Sams. She lives in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, in a house with eight EA friends, and said she's sometimes overwhelmed trying to decide how to do the most good in the world. She's practicing the 80,000 Hours Project, dedicating that amount of time in one's career to solving the world's most pressing problems, but was unsure if her role was indeed having the most impact. People in this group were especially concerned about animals, the meat industry and factory farming. In the other corners of EA, it's the threat of AI to humanity. The tension between EAs, who held board seats at OpenAI and fired Altman as Chief Executive Officer, and Altman, who's more of an optimist about AI, delivered a fresh blow to the movement. Altman won that battle by getting himself reinstated as CEO, and most of the board was ousted. After the saga, Vinod Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist and OpenAI investor, posted on ex-mocking an uninformed misapplied EA religion versus a real vision for AI. Harvard University professor Steven Pinker called EA cultish and said it had lost its way. So what of these supposed cult members? Well, many of them are still fretting about AI. Garrison Lovely, an enthusiastic, Hawaiian shirt-wearing member, described a paper he was writing about the overlooked risks of AI. He went on to describe how extraordinary the last couple of years had been for EA and how it made him feel like an early employee of a unicorn startup. The exuberance, the media attention, the money raised. Some of the attendees admitted to being frustrated by the EA backlash, propelled by a group calling itself effective accelerationists, but mostly they were idealists seeking to create a better future, if the robots don't kill us first.

The article discusses several key aspects related to the effective altruism (EA) movement, its challenges, and its connections to the tech and AI industries:

  1. Sam Bankman-Fried and Sam Altman Controversies: The article highlights two individuals named Sam who have impacted the perception of the EA movement. Sam Bankman-Fried, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, was a prominent proponent of EA before his companies collapsed, which tarnished the movement's image. Sam Altman, an AI industry leader and CEO of OpenAI, was temporarily ousted from his position due to tensions within the EA community, but later reinstated.

  2. Effective Altruism Philosophy Evolution: The EA movement initially focused on doing good through philanthropy and has evolved to include earning significant wealth to fund world-saving causes. This shift has led to debates and criticisms within and outside the community.

  3. Community Resilience and Ongoing Debates: Despite these controversies, the EA community continues to gather, debate, and focus on how to do the most good. These debates often revolve around pressing global issues like animal welfare, the meat industry, factory farming, and the potential threats of AI to humanity.

  4. Internal Tensions and External Criticisms: The article mentions tension between EAs with differing views on AI's future, exemplified by the temporary ousting of Sam Altman from OpenAI. Critics like Harvard professor Steven Pinker have labeled EA as cultish and accused it of losing its original focus.

  5. Personal Stories and Commitments: The article shares personal accounts of EA members, like Rachel Woodard, who are dedicated to making a positive impact but sometimes feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. These members are often involved in projects like the 80,000 Hours Project, committing significant time to solving global problems.

  6. The Role of AI in EA Discussions: AI remains a central topic in EA discussions, with concerns about its potential risks and benefits. Some members are actively researching and writing about these issues.

  7. Media Attention and Public Perception: The EA movement has received considerable media attention and public scrutiny, especially following high-profile controversies. This has led to a mix of exuberance and frustration among its members.

  8. Future Outlook and Ideals: Despite setbacks, many in the EA community remain idealistic and committed to creating a better future, though there is an acknowledgment of the challenges ahead, particularly regarding the development and impact of AI.

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