Effective Altruism Has a Sam Altman 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 MacAskill 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, MacAskill went mostly silent.

But the EA meet-ups 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.

Rachael 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 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 X mocking an “uninformed misapplied EA religion vs 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.

 

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