Ineffective Altruism

There are many things I can put my time toward.

  • I started a company that provides a low-cost tool that helps people who pull their hair out.

  • I volunteer as a coach for my neighborhood highschool Robotics Club.

  • I frequently blog about rationality.

  • I sometimes blog about machine learning.

These do not have the same impact. My technology work helps more people per hour invested than my volunteering at Robotics Club. Does that mean I should put all of my time into inventing technology and none of it into Robotics Club?

No. That would be premature optimization. The root of all evil is premature optimization.

Occasionally someone who has used my inventions will message me and tell me it changed their life. Occasionally. Occasionally a reader of my blog will tell me they found it useful. Occasionally. When I help out at Robotics Club, the teenagers are happy to see me. Every. Single. Time.

I recently flew down to San Francisco to teach a class and give a speech. The organizers offered to put me in a fancy hotel. Instead, I found the cheapest AirBnb in the area and walked for an hour to the location. Partially I did this to save money, but I also did it to stay in touch with reality.

Evil happens when you are separated from the pain you inflict upon other people.

The host of my AirBnb was an elderly Black man. He grew up poor. His mother would clean white folks’ houses all day to earn money and then clean his home to save money. His parents worked so hard to survive they had little time to raise their children. Two of his sisters became pregnant at age thirteen.

When I arrived at my host’s home, he gave me a white towel with lots of visible stains. But it was clean. I immediately used it to wipe my face.

My AirBnb host is really into Black Power, but he never pushed his political beliefs on me. He wanted to know what it was like to be rich. I wanted to know what it was like to be poor. Were I to go to a fancy hotel, the system would make sure I never had to interact with a man like him.

Not that AirBnb didn’t try. We communicated via SMS instead of AirBnb’s website because AirBnb’s website has an algorithm that scans our messages for keywords and punishes hosts it thinks did a poor job—regardless of the star rating a customer like me provides.

This man who was born before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already lives in a dystopia run by an AI.