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August 11, 2015

Opinion: Has Effective Altruism Lost Its Focus on Real Problems?

After attending the Effective Altruism Global conference in Mountain View, Calif., columnist Dylan Matthews of Vox suggests that the movement's dominance by white male tech industry workers is skewing its focus away from real-world problems like global poverty and toward existential risks like an artificial-intelligence apocalypse.

The movement, he writes, "is increasingly obsessed with ideas and data that reflect the class position and interests of the movement's members rather than a desire to help actual people. ... The computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research."

Existential risk is the idea that eventual human extinction is much worse than anything that could happen to humans living today. A panel on artificial-intelligence risk, featuring Tesla/SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, Nate Soares of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and UC Berkeley artificial intelligence researcher Stuart Russell, was the "most hyped event" of the conference, Matthews noted.

Other groups of people were promoting the idea of giving to and working for effective altruist groups, though some expressed concern that the movement is not doing much to expand its demographic reach. The author did see some signs of hope, like efforts by the Humane League, which has used effective altruism principles in seeking better treatment of farm animals.