I applied for a MIRI job in 2020. Here’s what happened next.
I recently saw Rob Bensinger asking what MIRI could do to improve hiring. I tried to get a job at MIRI in February 2020 and I have some feedback to give. I am sorry, because I am about to say some harsh things, but I think they might be important for you to hear, and my previous more low-key attempts to point out problems had little to no effect.
tl,dr: MIRI promised to contact me once the pandemic no longer prevents them from hiring people. They never did.
I applied for a Software Engineer role at MIRI on February 26th. I hoped to end up as a researcher eventually, but this position seemed like the easiest way in for a foreigner. The first stage was a multiple choice test from Triplebyte. I took it on March 2nd. After a week, on the 9th of March (why does it take a week to grade a multiple choice quiz?!), I got the following letter from Triplebyte:
Triplebyte partners with Machine Intelligence Research Institute to help candidates that go through their process find the job that’s right for them. If the opportunity with Machine Intelligence Research Institute is not the right fit, we believe we can help you find a great fit somewhere else.
Seeing as you did particularly well on Machine Intelligence Research Institute’s assessment, we are going to fast-track you to the final stage of our application process! All that is left is our technical interview. If you pass, you will be matched with top tech companies and fast-tracked to final round interviews. [...]
This gave me the impression that I passed the quiz, so I was surprised to get a rejection letter from Buck Shlegeris on the same day. The letter left me with a way forward: Buck sent me a list of ways to impress him and get back into the interview. The tasks looked about a week of work each. I wondered if doing one is worth the opportunity cost.
I lived in Russia at the time. Russia was fighting two wars, in Syria and Ukraine. I think it’s fair to estimate that all marginal tax payments were spent on war. It didn’t cost much to hire an additional soldier to fight in Ukraine. There’s a word “15-тысячники” for a mercenary hired to fight for DNR for 15000 rubles a month. I easily paid that sum monthly in taxes. Staying in Russia was costing human lives. Once I stopped trying to overthrow the government the normal way, there was no reason to stay. Wasn’t it better to spend the time applying to other US companies then, to increase the chances of landing a job before the H-1B application deadline? I thought about it and decided to go for MIRI. I didn’t want to spend time on companies that weren’t doing alignment research. I was reasonably confident I’d pass the interview if I was able to get in. (I think this was justified. I interviewed for a FAANG company last year and passed.)
So I solved a task and sent it to Buck while reminding about the H-1B application deadline. He said he’d get back to me about further steps. The H-1B application deadline passed. There was no reply. I later discovered that MIRI can actually apply for H-1B all year round. Well, at least that was true 6 years ago. Buck never told me about this. If I knew, I could have applied for another job. The ML living library position was still open (at least that’s what the job page said), and I’d being working in ML for 2 years.
Two months later I got a letter from Buck. He said that MIRI applications process is messed up by COVID, and that he put me on the list of people to contact when things are starting up again.
I asked Buck if MIRI does green card sponsorship and he said he isn’t sure how all of that works. I asked who I should contact to find out, and got no reply. This is weird, how can an interviewer not know these things? It was very important to me to know whether I’d have a path to a green card. An H-1B visa lasts at most 6 years. Given the things I said about Ukraine online, I’d surely go to prison if I ever returned to my home country. Having a green card means being able to leave your employer to do independent research, or change a job more easily without making the new employer go through another visa application process. It’s a major job perk, so maybe you should figure out if you can do this?
I tried to get in touch with Buck before the new H-1B deadline in 2021. I couldn’t, so I posted on lesswrong (I wrote under the nickname “seed” when I lived in Russia). Buck replied to give me some general advice on getting an AI safety job. Anna Salamon offered to talk to me about AI safety jobs. I sent her a direct message and an email to email@example.com. I got no reply. At this point, I no longer felt that I could rely on rationalists’ help to get out of the country. I found a regular ML job in Germany. Shortly after, I won the diversity lottery. I spent the last year working in Germany, moved to the US last month and got into the SERI MATS program.
Rob Bensinger told me 3 months ago that “for all practical means and purposes, pandemic is already over”. However, I never got contacted by Buck. Maybe you no longer consider it important to keep the promise, since MIRI no longer needs programmers? But it would me important for me if someone contacted me to tell me this, because then I’d know that I can trust MIRI at least a little bit. I have since seen evidence that some MIRI employees are commited to being honest even when it’s inconvenient. I feel a bit more trusting of MIRI now.
However, I cannot believe what MIRI told me to believe: that you wanted to hire programmers, but couldn’t do so for years because of the pandemic, even though you managed to hire at least 3 other people despite the pandemic. Even though lots of IT companies not in the business of saving the world from imminent doom worked through the pandemic. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Here is my best hypothesis of what happened. By the end of February 2020, MIRI did not need more programmers. What you needed was people with new research ideas. Maybe you just filled the Software Engineer position and hadn’t yet taken down the vacancy. That would be consistent with my observation that the job information on MIRI’s website only seems to get updated after I nag you about it. That’s why I was rejected after passing the test. The standard rejection letter happened to include a suggestion to do a week-long task to impress Buck. After I completed it, it became awkward to reject me anyway. Fortunately, COVID was there to take the blame.
Anna probably didn’t reply because she was busy and I didn’t ping her enough times, because my intuition on how many followups are acceptable was just wrong. Sending fewer than 3 is not even trying. I am always able to reach people now that I adopted 3 followups as a rule.
Am I right?
When I am trying to figure out how much to trust MIRI employees, I feel really creeped out by the fact that you developed a whole set of norms for deceiving people. Yes, in theory, one was only supposed to lie for really good reasons, such as saving Jews from Holocaust or, erm, covering up that you broke a murderess out of prison based on hearsay. In practice I saw it invoked to lie for PR purposes. While I feel somewhat reassured by Nate Soares saying that he decided to be more honest, I don’t think it’s generally ok when an empoyee cannot just trust her employer, and is instead expected to ask about his honesty protocols.
Metahonesty culture is incompatible with the Charity culture.
In our society, the prevailing norm—which I just called Charity culture—is that we should assume people innocent until proven guilty. Questioning someone’s integrity is offensive, you don’t do that until you have solid proof. By metahonesty norms, if you suspect someone of lying, you should ask about their honesty protocols. If you don’t, the loss of trust is considered partially your fault, because you could have just asked. Can you actually ask the question without making your interlocutor feel suspected and interrogated, though? People in both Eliezer’s thought experiments didn’t manage to. It’s tricky, especially when your conversation partner actually has something to hide.
Metahonesty norms ignore status differentials
You may notice that in both Eliezer’s examples, it is the higher status person questioning the lower-status one. It is harder to imagine a citizen questioning a Nazi officer than vice versa. Asking about honesty protocols is potentially offensive, and offending a powerful person is dangerous. It is often high-status people who have honesty protocols in this community. Meanwhile, people hesitate to even ask regular questions, and Eliezer has to be careful to ask other employees’ opinion before offering his own lest he biases everyone. What are the chances that an employee will question her boss then? I wager a guess that this never actually happens. I never saw anyone ask about honesty protocols on this forum. I worry that in practice, these metahonesty norms amount to community leaders giving themselves permission to lie to us.
Metahonesty is not scalable
The more community grows, the harder it will be to keep track of everyone’s honesty protocols. It becomes harder for new people to join. And imagine if people actually started asking metahonesty questions all the time, you’d have to deal with hundreds of emails after every public announcement!
Metahonesty fails to preserve trust
Once you see someone lie, you ought to start questioning every claim they made, including their claim of being metahonest. You need other evidence than just their word that they’re metahonest and not a simple liar. It could be a long history of interactions (doesn’t scale!) where you questioned their honesty policies (which I never saw happen) and it always turned out they were metahonest.
I am not insisting on some form of extreme pedantry here. I don’t consider it deception to say “Good morning” when the morning is actually shitty. I also don’t care who hides in your attic. I am just making a modest proposal that we shouldn’t lie to each other about our work and research.
Suppose the genius miracle person we all hope for decides to join alignment research today. What can they learn about MIRI online?
MIRI isn’t publishing research. One proxy a person can use to judge whether a company has its act together is to look at the website. Sometimes things on your website are years out of date. When I see those, I lose confidence that anything is up to date. Kudos for updating recently. Though the Type Theorist job ad is still confusing. It says at the bottom that you are not actively seeking to fill this role at this time. Why keep the job ad then? Do you think you may want to hire Type Theorists in the future? Do you still want them to get in touch? Is it just there as a historical artefact? (Actually, maybe simply taking it down is a bad idea. A comment says that you can do year-round H-1B applications, and this is the only place where a job seeker can learn this fact.) Lots of info never makes it to the careers page. E.g. when MIRI was looking for Haskell programmers, you could learn about it from twitter or reddit, but not from the careers page. Now MIRI wants to hire competent executives who can run their own large alignment programs mostly-independently, but you can only learn that by reading lesswrong comments. I wondered at some point if you are trying to keep out outsiders. Have you considered hiring someone to maintain the website?
What can one learn about MIRI workplace atmosphere from online sources?
There is my story.
There is a story of a job applicant who felt “extremely awkward” at the interview.
There is a story of a researcher who felt afraid that her employers would assasinate her.
Zvi vouches for MIRI researchers based on personal experience with them.
There are 2 positive reviews at the Glassdoor page.
There are many negative impressions, but there can be a self-selection bias here. I think it could help if people shared more stories.
Another thing I wish I knew earlier, is that lots of people are actually willing to help newcomers enter the field. JJ Hepburn from AI safety support, David Manheim, Ryan Kidd and other people were willing to talk to me and help me figure out how to get started. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like maybe I am not alone in this. I just wanted to thank you for making me feel this way.