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It almost sounds like the plot of an absurdist comedy written by the team that brought us Revenge of the Nerds: Computer scientists gather to combat global poverty, only to become increasingly obsessed with interstellar travel and potential artificial intelligence-driven doomsday scenarios. Yet that’s what Dylan Matthews of Vox found at the Effective Altruism Global conference at the Google Quad campus in Mountain View, Calif., a couple of weeks ago — a convention of (mostly) white males more worried about a Terminator-like Götterdämmerung in a speculative future than about the homeless in present-day Los Angeles.
Effective altruism (or EA, as proponents refer to it) is more than a belief .... It’s a movement, and like any movement, it has begun to develop a culture, and a set of powerful stakeholders, and a certain range of worrying pathologies. At the moment, EA is very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers. And it 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.In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence-provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”
In a review of Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, philanthropist Fred Smith muses, “I often wonder if philanthropy is one of those words that has either lost its traditional definition (love of mankind) or never should have been used to describe giving in the first place.” Certainly, a preference for saving 1052 estimated future lives rather than improving the lives of 3 billion existing people who live on less than $2.50 a day (2013) speaks more of a love of numbers than a love of mankind.
The mathematics by which the EA Global nerds justify this preoccupation with existential risk is a kind of “Pascal’s Mugging”, creating a false risk-reward analysis by slapping high probability values on events which are too hypothetical to give honestly estimable odds. Even within the often-repugnant calculations of utilitarianism, a life five generations from being conceived has no claim on us equal to that of a life currently being lived.