Nadia Asparouhova has a new essay on “Idea machines”:

An Idea Machine is a self-sustaining organism that contains all the parts needed to turn ideas into outcomes:

  • It starts with a distinct ideology, which becomes a memetic engine that drives the formation of a community
  • The community’s members start generating ideas amongst themselves
  • Eventually, they form an agenda, which articulates how the ideology will be brought into the world. (Communities need agendas to become idea machines; otherwise, they’re just a group of likeminded people, without a directed purpose.)
  • The agenda is capitalized by one or several major funders, whose presence ensures that the community’s ideas can move from theory to practice – both in terms of financing, as well as lending operational skills to the effort. (Without funding, an idea machine is just that: an inert system that needs fuel to turn the crank and get it moving.)

As community members move from ideas to action, they might become scene builders, who help sustain the community, develop the agenda, and attract new members; or operators, who drive the operating initiatives that lead to outcomes – the ultimate purpose of the entire machine. Both types might also lend a hand to create support organizations, whose purpose is to strengthen the values and best practices of the idea machine.

A bit later, she assesses progress studies in this framework:

We can use our previous framework to better understand which stages of development these machines are in, and how they could become more effective. For example:

Progress studies is a philosophy and community that’s just starting to build its first support organizations (ex. Roots of Progress, Works in Progress), but hasn’t yet developed an agenda or operating initiatives to cross over from the ideas -> action pipeline (an exception is The Institute For Progress).


Here (lightly edited) is what I originally told Nadia a few weeks ago when she asked me whether progress studies had an agenda or set of cause areas:

I don't know if there will be an agenda around specific technologies that should be pushed forward. Maybe? The Foresight Institute does basically that, and I think it is interesting. 

I wrote about some of the cultural/philosophical agenda here:

Metascience orgs might develop their own agenda too. E.g., Ben Reinhardt's PARPA will have a set of projects they are sponsoring; ditto for Convergent Research's FROs.

I'm less interested in there being a top-down science/technology agenda for the progress movement, because I'd be afraid that if it became too institutionalized it would constrain creativity.

That said, I could see it happening. Nuclear, longevity, nanotech, etc. There would be a lot of overlap with Foresight.

Since then I've been thinking about this, and I've come around to the idea that it would help to have an agenda (as long as we make it clear that the agenda is meant to be inspiring and not constraining). I'd like to do some explicit cause identification & prioritization / agenda-building soon. I'll start a thread on this forum soon to kick off some brainstorming.


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A few thoughts:

  • I really like the idea of an idea machine. I think more people within EA should consider EA as a system.
  • I'm surprised to hear "It's time to build" is different Progress Studies as they seem pretty aligned. Then again, I've only really seen that essay by itself. Is there a broader community around it and where can I find out about it?
  • "We seem to understand that entrepreneurship operates in a free market of ideas, so I’m not sure where the idea comes from that there is, or could be, One True Approach to philanthropy" - Agreed. In particular, I think that a lot of efforts to improve the world through politics shouldn't occur through EA. I also appreciate that the rationality community is somewhat distinct from EA as that allows it to focus more on epistemics.
  • Own Cotton-Barratt's talk Prospecting for Gold has been pretty influential in Effective Altruism in shifting more effort towards lots of small experiments with high-upside and limited downside (but that said a lot of money is still just redirected to the Against Malaria Foundation and other top charities)
  • Regarding expressive value, I'd suggest Eliezer's essay - Purchase Fuzzies and Utilions Separately. In order to be an EA you don't have to choose all your donations or actions according to EA principles. I think of it like being an artist - in order to be an artist you have to produce at least some art, but you can do other things with your time as well.
  • "EA will continue to grow, but it will never become the dominant narrative because it’s so morally opinionated" - There's some intentionality here. Lots of people don't want EA to grow too fast as they are worried that communities that grow too fast can fail to pass on their culture. In contrast, this is probably an accurate statement for Giving What We Can, which is aims to grow as fast as it can, but which is rigorous enough that I expect it will only ever find a niche audience.
  • "Why aren’t there more effective altruisms?" - Perhaps it's because being part of EA is appealing enough[1] that many people or groups that could have formed their own movement end up becoming part of EA (take for example AI Safety, although from what I heard at EAG London, AI Safety specific movement building is starting to take off).
  • One interesting question to ask is why is EA an idea engine and not LW. Again, part of this is some people within LW don't want it to become more of a movement because they are worried about this distorting its epistemics.
  • I think it is possible to turn ideas into action without major funders, but unfortunately, EA had limited success here.
  1. ^

    Access to talent and money

Re “It's Time to Build”; I was also a bit surprised to see that here as a separate item, for the same reason. But, I was also surprised to see Schmidt Futures as a separate item—it's a bit hard for me to understand how a single entity can be an idea machine unto itself? Nadia is coming at these things at a very granular level, and I find that interesting in itself.

Thinking out loud here...

Would want to keep any agenda specific enough to drive outcomes, but not too specific as to turn people off from petty disagreements. Balance it at some middle level of abstraction, and make it very straightforward/logical that the agenda leads to progress. What are the different areas an agenda could cover?

Specific technologies -- as you mentioned, something like "progress is good. energy allows more progress. cheaper energy allows more energy. nuclear is cheaper energy. nuclear is good => promote nuclear"

Media -- definitive stance on pro-progress media (books, videos, podcasts, memes, movies, etc.) and what makes something "pro-progress"

Regulation -- hypotheses with lots of data on specific regulations that, if removed or revisited, would increase progress

"Would want to keep any agenda specific enough to drive outcomes, but not too specific as to turn people off from petty disagreements."

I think unfortunately, this is the equivalent of eating your cake and having it too. Progress studies, if it's actionable, largely is going to impact into the political world (because we want to do xyz things, which government has some presence in, to accelerate the pace of progress), so disagreement is going to exist. 

For instance, you mention regulations that "if removed or revisited" would increase progress. Two areas that come to mind for me are housing construction and nuclear regulation - but these are contentious, political topics. If we actually want to achieve real-world things here, I think specificity is unfortunately required. 

Do you think that you could significantly improve the prospects of nuclear power if you were commissioner of the NRC? or would you be too constrained by politics and other rules?

If you think it would be impactful to have a progress-minded person running the NRC, then convincing the current commissioner or getting the right person appointed seems like an important and even tractable agenda item.

A single commissioner would be too constrained I think. It's not just the NRC holding back nuclear: it's also state-level restrictions, the Yucca Mountain problem, environmental review, community opposition, etc.