My first EAG: a mix of feelings

By Lovkush @ 2024-06-11T17:49 (+56)

TLDR

I had a mix of feelings before and throughout EAG London 2024. Overall, the experience was excellent and I am more motivated and excited about my next steps in EA and AI safety. However, I am actually unsure if I will attend EAG next year, because I am yet to exhaust other means of networking, especially since I live in London.

Why might this be useful for you?

My background

I did pure maths from undergraduate to PhD, then lectured maths for foundation year students for a few years, then moved to industry and have been a data scientist at Shell for three years. I took the GWWC pledge in 2014, but I had not actively engaged with the community or chosen a career based on EA principles.

A few years ago I made an effort to apply EA principles to my career. I worked through the 80000 Hours career template with AI safety being the obvious top choice, took the AI Safety Fundamentals course, applied to EAG London (and did not get accepted, which was reasonable), and also tried volunteering for SoGive for a couple of months. Ultimately the arguments for AI doom overwhelmed me and put me into defeatist mindset (‘How can you out-think a god-like super intelligence?’) so I just put my head in the sand instead of contributing.

In 2023, with ChatGPT and the prominence of AI, my motivation to contribute came back. I did take several actions, but spread out over several months:

I go into these details to illustrate a key way I differ from the prototypical EA: I am not particularly agentic! Somebody more rational would have created more concrete plans, accountability systems, and explored more thoroughly the options and actions available. Despite being familiar with rationality / EA for several years, I had not absorbed the ideas enough to apply them in my life. I was a Bob who waits for opportunities to arise, and thus ends up making little progress.

The breakthrough came when I got accepted into ML4Good. I have written my thoughts on that experience, but the relevant thing is it gave me a huge boost in motivation and confidence to work on AI safety.

Preparing for EAG

I actually did not plan to attend EAG London! My next steps in AI Safety were clear (primarily upskilling by getting hands-on experience on projects) and I was unsure what I could bring to the table for other participants. However, three weeks before EAG, somebody in my ML4Good group chat asked who was going, so I figured I may as well apply and see what happens.

Given I am writing this, I was accepted! When reading the recommended EA Forum posts for EAG first-timers, I was taken aback by how practical and strategic these people were. This had a two-sided effect for me: it was intimidating and made me question how valuable I could be to other EAG participants, but it did also help me be more agentic and help me push myself outside my comfort zone.

In the end, I set these goals for the conference:

I organised around ten 1-1s: three with people in a similar situation to me, five in AI governance, one in AI safety field-building, one organiser of AI safety camp, and a couple not related to my goals but who had interesting non-standard profiles. I also planned to attend a couple of talks, a speed networking session, an ML4Good catch-up and office hours with Neel Nanda.

To my pleasant surprise, I also had a few people reaching out to me for 1-1s! I was not sure if I could help them, but naturally I accepted.

Positive experiences at EAG

I list these to show what you could get out of the conference. This is just my experience - there will be a huge range amongst all the participants.

General organisation and atmosphere

My goals

Unexpected ways I can contribute to EAs

Miscellaneous learnings, EA related

Miscellaneous learnings, other

A bit of fun

Negative experiences at EAG

None of what I say should reflect badly on the individuals involved.

One person who asked me for a 1-1 was an 18-year-old about to start a maths degree. It turns out they know more about AI safety than me, e.g. asking about how the simulation model changes our reasoning about intelligent agents. I only have vague knowledge of this, so had nothing to say. Furthermore, the 18-year-old just got a full-time job as technical writer for Ars Technica, so they are about to start a maths degree while also having to write one article a day! Wild! To top it off, somebody else joined the conversation and I searched for them on SwapCard: they had an impressive profile, with a list of around 20 projects they have done or are interested in pursuing, in AI safety and GenAI. This admittedly put a dent in my confidence for a few hours.

My next 1-1 focussed on my idea of technical syllabus for non-technical people and I left with the feeling it was not a great idea. In retrospect, I cannot actually pinpoint why I left with this feeling, because I did leave with various practical and positive suggestions. Maybe I felt low because they were so able to quickly think of useful questions and ideas on the spot. Or maybe I was just not in a confident mindset from the previous conversation.

This general low feeling did stay with me for a few hours, but eventually subsided towards the evening. On Sunday, I was actually so exhausted that my mind did not have enough energy to go into negative spirals (exhausted because of non-EAG reasons: I stayed up until 4am at a close friend’s party. Not recommended.)  But I did still have one negative bout.

At lunchtime on Sunday, I saw a Facebook acquaintance I had never met, so I joined them for lunch. They were already in a conversation about the risk of civil conflict in the USA and its consequences on AI safety: would this slow down AI capabilities, would AI labs send staff to a safer country, would the US government nationalise the AI labs to prevent staff from leaving, etc. I did not have anything to add, so I quietly ate my lunch while listening to them bounce ideas off each other. This does not make me feel terrible - it is normal for me to not contribute in group conversations - but for those 15 minutes or so, I felt inadequate to an extent.

Why I am unsure about attending next year

The positive experiences outweigh the negative significantly, so why am I unsure of attending? It boils down to two things:

This is not a criticism of CEA and I know there are good reasons why the event is expensive. I am likely under-valuing the benefits I received and over-estimating how replicable the benefits are online.

Recommendations

Thanks to Emily Fan and Matthias Endres for reading a draft and their helpful suggestions.


Bella @ 2024-06-12T10:22 (+7)

Thanks for writing up your experiences here; I found them interesting to read/reflect on!

A 3rd-year undergrad asked me for career advice in a 1-1. I provided my thoughts, but more importantly, I gave them the ‘obvious’ idea of asking 80,000 Hours for advice. They already knew about them, but somehow did not consider it.

Woo thanks so much for doing this! My impression is that a lot of people just need this kind of nudge :)

Aaron Gertler @ 2024-06-13T11:08 (+2)

I'd have benefited from that kind of nudge myself! I was aware of 80K for years but never even considered coaching.