I Vouch For MIRI

Another take with more links: AI: A Reason to Worry, A Reason to Donate

I have made a $10,000 donation to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) as part of their winter fundraiser. This is the best organization I know of to donate money to, by a wide margin, and I encourage others to also donate. This belief comes from a combination of public information, private information and my own analysis. This post will share some of my private information and analysis to help others make the best decisions.

I consider AI Safety the most important, urgent and under-funded cause. If your private information and analysis says another AI Safety organization is a better place to give, give to there. I believe many AI Safety organizations do good work. If you have the talent and skills, and can get involved directly, or get others who have the talent and skills involved directly, that’s even better than donating money.

If you do not know about AI Safety and unfriendly artificial general intelligence, I encourage you to read about them. If you’re up for a book, read this one.

If you decide you care about other causes more, donate to those causes instead, in the way your analysis says is most effective. Think for yourself, do and share your own analysis, and contribute as directly as possible.


I am very confident in the following facts about artificial general intelligence. None of my conclusions in this section require my private information.

Humanity is likely to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI) vastly smarter and more powerful than humans. We are unlikely to know that far in advance when this is about to happen. There is wide disagreement and uncertainty on how long this will take, but certainly there is substantial chance this happens within our lifetimes.

Whatever your previous beliefs, the events of the last year, including AlphaGo Zero, should convince you that AGI is more likely to happen, and more likely to happen soon.

If we do build an AGI, its actions will determine what is done with the universe.

If the first such AGI we build turns out to be an unfriendly AI that is optimizing for something other than humans and human values, all value in the universe will be destroyed. We are made of atoms that could be used for something else.

If the first such AGI we build turns out to care about humans and human values, the universe will be a place of value many orders of magnitude greater than it is now.

Almost all AGIs that could be constructed care about something other than humans and human values, and would create a universe with zero value. Mindspace is deep and wide, and almost all of it does not care about us.

The default outcome, if we do not work hard and carefully now on AGI safety, is for AGI to wipe out all value in the universe.

AI Safety is a hard problem on many levels. Solving it is much harder than it looks even with the best of intentions, and incentives are likely to conspire to give those involved very bad personal incentives. Without security mindset, value alignment and tons of advance work, chances of success are very low.

We are currently spending ludicrously little time, attention and money on this problem.

For space reasons I am not further justifying these claims here. Jacob’s post has more links.


In these next two sections I will share what I can of my own private information and analysis.

I know many principles at MIRI, including senior research fellow Eliezer Yudkowsky and executive director Nate Sores. They are brilliant, and are as dedicated as one can be to the cause of AI Safety and ensuring a good future for the universe. I trust them, based on personal experience with them, to do what they believe is best to achieve these goals.

I believe they have already done much exceptional and valuable work. I have also read many of their recent papers and found them excellent.

MIRI has been invaluable in laying the groundwork for this field. This is true both on the level of the field existing at all, and also on the level of thinking in ways that might actually work.

Even today, most who talk about AI Safety suggest strategies that have essentially no chance of success, but at least they are talking about it at all. MIRI is a large part of why they’re talking at all. I believe that something as simple as these DeepMind AI Safety test environments is good, helping researchers understand there is a problem much more deadly than algorithmic discrimination. The risk is that researchers will realize a problem exists, then think ‘I’ve solved these problems, so I’ve done the AI Safety thing’ when we need the actual thing the most.

From the beginning, MIRI understood the AI Safety problem is hard, requiring difficult high-precision thinking, and long term development of new ideas and tools. MIRI continues to fight to turn concern about ‘AI Safety’ into concern about AI Safety.

AI Safety is so hard to understand that Eliezer Yudkowsky decided he needed to teach the world the art of rationality so we could then understand AI Safety. He did exactly that, which is why this blog exists.

MIRI is developing techniques to make AGIs we can understand and predict and prove things about. MIRI seeks to understand how agents can and should think. If AGI comes from such models, this is a huge boost to our chances of success. MIRI is also working on techniques to make machine learning based agents safer, in case that path leads to AGI first. Both tasks are valuable, but I am especially excited by MIRI’s work on logic.


Eliezer’s model was that if we teach people to think, then they can think about AI.

What I’ve come to realize is that when we try to think about AI, we also learn how to think in general.

The paper that convinced OpenPhil to increase its grant to MIRI was about Logical Induction. That paper was impressive and worth understanding, but even more impressive and valuable in my eyes is MIRI’s work on Functional Decision Theory. This is vital to creating an AGI that makes decisions, and has been invaluable to me as a human making decisions. It gave me a much better way to understand, work with and explain how to think about making decisions.

Our society believes in and praises Causal Decision Theory, dismissing other considerations as irrational. This has been a disaster on a level hard to comprehend. It destroys the foundations of civilization. If we could spread practical, human use of Functional Decision Theory, and debate on that basis, we could get out of much of our current mess. Thanks to MIRI, we have a strong formal statement of Functional Decision Theory.

Whenever I think about AI or AI Safety, read AI papers or try to design AI systems, I learn how to think as a human. As a side effect of MIRI’s work, my thinking, and especially my ability to formalize, explain and share my thinking, has been greatly advanced. Their work even this year has been a great help.

MIRI does basic research into how to think. We should expect such research to continue to pay large and unexpected dividends, even ignoring its impact on AI Safety.


I believe it is always important to use strategies that are cooperative and information creating, rather than defecting and information destroying, and that preserve good incentives for all involved. If we’re not using a decision algorithm that cares more about such considerations than maximizing revenue raised, even when raising for a cause as good as ‘not destroying all value in the universe,’ it will not end well.

This means that I need to do three things. I need to share my information, as best I can. I need to include my own biases, so others can decide whether and how much to adjust for them. And I need to avoid using strategies that would be distort or mislead.

I have not been able to share all my information above, due to a combination of space, complexity and confidentiality considerations. I have done what I can. Beyond that, I will simply say that what remaining private information I have on net points in the direction of MIRI being a better place to donate money.

My own biases here are clear. The majority of my friends come from the rationality community, which would not exist except for Eliezer Yudkowsky. I met my wife Laura at a community meetup. I know several MIRI members personally, consider them friends, and even ran a strategy meeting for them several years back at their request. It would not be surprising if such considerations influenced my judgment somewhat. Such concerns go hand in hand with being in a position to do extensive analysis and acquire private information. This is all the more reason to do your own thinking and analysis of these issues.

To avoid distortions, I am giving the money directly, without qualifications or gimmicks or matching funds. My hope is that this will be a costly signal that I have thought long and hard about such questions, and reached the conclusion that MIRI is an excellent place to donate money. OpenPhil has a principle that they will not fund more than half of any organization’s budget. I think this is an excellent principle. There is more than enough money in the effective altruist community to fully fund MIRI and other such worthy causes, but these funds represent a great temptation. They risk causing great distortions, and tying up action with political considerations, despite everyone’s best intentions.

As small givers (at least, relative to some) our biggest value lies not in the use of the money itself, but in the information value of the costly signal our donations give and in the virtues we cultivate in ourselves by giving. I believe MIRI can efficiently utilize far more money than it currently has, but more than that this is me saying that I know them, I know their work, and I believe in and trust them. I vouch for MIRI.