Some thoughts on Effective Altruism (EA) and Progress Studies (PS), as both are influential and generally related to Silicon Valley's increased influence on the discourse…

EA is the fusion of some prominent moral philosophers: Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill, plus the rationalist community, then injected with Silicon Valley money. They take a big tent approach, with the philosophers focused, at least initially, on alleviating immediate suffering and the rationalist community worried about existential risk. While the approach is somewhat disjointed – placing statements like 'we need RCTs to compare near term interventions' alongside 'AI has a 1% chance of ending life so we should minimize risk of misalignment' – the development of a universal, humanistic framework for thinking about impact is nevertheless extremely powerful. As Tyler Cowen said, "Effective Altruism is and will be more influential than you think". Today, EA is over 10 years old, and still growing. They have built an effective movement, an underrated challenge of creating a sustainable intellectual influence, though the core ideas, as they’ve propagated, have begun to be watered down. 

Progress Studies is newer, launched with a 2019 Atlantic article by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison. PS focuses primarily on how to accelerate technological innovation. It grew out of a worry about The Great Stagnation, and why economic growth at the frontier appeared to be slowing. While EA is more idealistic and universal, PS is more contextual. It starts with the facts – a slowdown of technological progress and the resulting negative impact on human living standards – and accordingly asks how to re-accelerate progress. PS is also more focused. EA has 'cause areas', like global development, animal welfare, and existential risk. PS simply has 'progress'.

The backgrounds of the founders of PS are different from EA, creating a distinct movement culture. Tyler, with his role at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University (both with a reputation for heterodox economic thought), brought a focus on governance and policy to PS. Patrick, the co-founder of Stripe, brought an entrepreneurial mindset. As a result, PS is more action oriented than EA.

I tend to think that PS will be more influential than EA. The basic heuristic is that their influence levels are both a function of the power of Silicon Valley. PS is newer, capturing more of the mindshare of the current tech elite. I anticipate Silicon Valley will be more influential in 2030 than today, and PS will be able to take advantage of that wave more effectively than EA. Additionally, I expect PS to dictate what is the ‘current thing’ more than EA over the next decade. Global welfare, animal welfare, and existential risk are less relevant to monthly news cycles than technological innovation and related governance successes and failures.

On the other hand, EA has been hugely influential in shaping present-day AI. If AI becomes a general purpose technology, given EA's role in shaping AI, it will also be one of the most influential schools of thought in history.

An alternative vision is a co-evolution of EA and PS. Future Fund, while labeled as an EA organization, is heavily influenced by PS. Given the overlapping social circles and conversations between these two groups, they likely commingle. Whatever the outcome, given the challenges facing the world, I am happy to see these new, influential schools of thought originate from Silicon Valley.



7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:38 PM
New Comment

I think there's likely to be a bit more tension between EA of today and Progress Studies vs. EA of the past.

The EA of the past was much more focused on global development (progress = good), whilst EA is currently undergoing a hard pivot towards long-termism, most notably bio-risk and ai-risk (progress = bad). Actually, the way I'd frame it is more about the importance of ensuring differential progress rather than progress in general. And I don't know how optimistic I am about Progress Studies heading that direction because thinking about progress itself is hard enough and differential progress would be even harder.

I'm quite involved in EA, so I'm probably biased towards thinking EA will be more influential than it may very well turn out to be. EA has built up a lot of infrastructure, including 80,000 Hours, EA Globals and student groups at top universities; and a huge number of new projects launched this year. Progress Studies may be able to replicate that, but it remains to be seen.

I still expect EA to be more influential in 2030. I'd be interested in making a bet on this.

How would you define the terms of the bet?

Haven't thought about this thoroughly but number of EAF/PSF users/views springs to mind as a crude proxy.

Hmm, they have a big head start though. Comparing absolute numbers would be unfair to us; comparing growth rates would be unfair to them!

Well, maybe as a measure of “influence” absolute numbers would still make sense

One thing to keep in mind regarding measuring influence by numbers: Because EA started earlier, many EAs will be further into executing their plans. As an example, someone who is a student in 2020 at a top university, might be a senior manager by 2030.