Last month, I attended the Effective Altruism Global conference in Berkeley. Since then, it’s taken me some time to think about and process everything that I learned there.
EA Global is a conference based on the idea of effective altruism. Effective altruism is a movement that focuses on improving people’s lives, and finding the most effective ways for us to save lives, improve quality of life, and prevent avoidable disasters. From their website, effective altruism is “the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible.”
The talks at the EA Global conference covered a variety of topics such as ending poverty, career choices, the risks of AI, ending malaria with gene drive, and encouraging corporations to make a more positive impact on issues such as global poverty.
Career Targeting for Software Developers
The first talk that I attended was called “Career Targeting for Software Developers.” While I plan on working on my own for now, I still enjoyed hearing the speaker’s career recommendations for developers. Much of the advice was stuff that I had heard from other sources, but was still good to be reminded of. There was an emphasis on learning general non-coding skills, such as communicating with other teams, interviewing users and stakeholders, and getting better at talking to non-tech people to discover their problems. Additional technical (but not development) skills such as analytics and A/B testing were also suggested.
The speaker recommended that developers only spend time on learning new techniques as those techniques are needed. This is something that I’ve often seen myself and other developers waste time on—instead of spending the time on “soft” skills such as communication or research techniques, it’s often easier and more fun to check out the latest frameworks and tools that we don’t have an immediate need for.
One other aspect that was mentioned was that developers should try to focus 75% of their time on the actual work that they’re assigned to do, and 25% of the time finding other work and convincing the manager (if the developer is not self-employed, that is) to let them pursue it. This was an interesting concept, both for how an employee can add value to their organization and progress their own career goals, and to have a wider impact in pushing their organization to be involved in relevant social causes.
Malaria & Gene Drive
One of the most fascinating talks was Dr. Kevin Esvelt’s presentation on how gene drive can be used to end malaria. Gene drive requires using genome editing technology such as CRISPR to alter a whole population of a species. In this case, mosquitos that carry malaria.
One of the charities associated with the EA movement is the Against Malaria Foundation, which has been shown to be one of the most effective charities in lives saved per amount donated. However, in some countries, the bed nets that are distributed by the organization are less effective at preventing malaria deaths. In areas where the bed nets are ineffective, something else must be done to prevent the spread of malaria.
A possible solution to this is the use of gene drive, and modifying the mosquito population’s DNA so that they are either unable to carry malaria or just completely unable to reproduce.
However, there’s a considerable resistance to this use of genetic engineering in Africa and Europe. Esvelt offered a few suggestions on how research can better prove that this is a worthwhile technique, and to show that it is safe. One of the suggestions was for scientists to conduct more of their research in the open, and to share results between other possibly competing groups of scientists. Currently, much of the research on this technique is done in secret, so that each group could be the first to come up with the solution – this prevents scientists from reviewing each other’s work and pointing out any safety issues.
According to Esvelt, the risk is so great that scientists need to collaborate better — because if any mistake occurs and causes damage to a population, the resistance to using this technique may never be overcome. And if that happens, many millions more will die from malaria.
Dr. Esvelt also proposed a way to test it first in the US. This method involves using gene drive on ticks in the northeast US to eradicate lyme disease. The technique could first be tried on a remote island in the northeast US, to avoid affecting any other populations. If it works to eradicate lyme disease on the island without side effects, it could then be tried in other communities in the northeast, with the goal of eradicating lyme disease in the US. Eventually, these results could prove the safety of the technique so that it can then be accepted elsewhere in the world.
One topic that was completely new to me was the topic of artificial intelligence. A number of talks at the conference focused on artificial intelligence, both on how it could be useful, and the potential risks that could be associated with it. One of the panels focused on discussing some of the risks and myths that are commonly held about AI. A few of the commonly held myths are:
- It could turn “evil”—the actual problem is that the AI could have goals that are misaligned with ours, and would act on those goals.
- It can’t control humans—if it’s effectively more intelligent than humans, it could learn to control humans.
- AI is either inevitable or impossible—there’s considerable disagreement on the possibility and timeline for when it may be developed.
The Future of Life Institute gives more detail on some of the myths that were discussed:
And the whole panel discussion can be viewed here.
The whole event was fascinating and eye-opening to me. As with many conferences, talking to some of the other attendees was even better than the talks themselves. It was both humbling and inspiring – many of the people I talked to were working on solving large problems and were quite intelligent. And many of the topics covered in the talks were new ideas to me, which I’ll continue to research and learn more about.