Effective Altruism supports impactful careers

EA seminar members attend a spring semester kick-off event which featured a Fermi estimation activity — estimating answers to various questions about global issues. // Photo courtesy of Michael Chen

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Tech’s Effective Altruism president. It is Michael Chen, not Michael Chem.

Many Tech students attended the Career Fair this week and began to look to their future beyond graduation. However, some may be concerned with how to make the impact in the world that they wish to. Although it may seem daunting to know how to apply the skills learned at Tech to global issues, one student organization at Tech, Effective Altruism, is working to provide students with the knowledge they need to create change. 

“Effective altruism (EA) is a social movement about trying to help others the most we can given our limited resources. It involves carefully researching the most promising ways of making an impact on people’s wellbeing, and then taking action on the basis of that research,” said fourth-year CS major and president of EA at Georgia Tech Michael Chen.

EA was launched at Tech by Chen in April of 2021. Chen has been aware of EA since he was in eighth grade, when he discovered the website 80000hours.org, which has information about how to have a positive impact in the world with your career.

“I was deeply moved by the idea that we could systematically identify how to help others the most and then apply that research to make a real difference in the world. We have so many opportunities to make an incredible impact, whether by donating to high-impact charities or addressing pressing global issues with our careers,” Chen said. 

Although EA has been a big part of Chen’s life, he initially did not know how many of his peers at Tech would be interested in participating in an EA club. However, starting last year, Chen’s efforts to begin a program quickly paid off.

“I learned about the virtual Effective Altruism Seminar which was run by Stanford Effective Altruism back then, and I tried publicizing it on various group chats at Tech and r/gatech and the like,” Chen said. “We had about eight participants for that program, and I could see that a lot of them really enjoyed learning about ideas from EA and wanted to help start a club.”

Chen worked with Anish Upadhayay, third-year CS, who was also interested in starting an EA club to launch an EA Seminar in Fall 2021 with a total of 35 participants. This semester, EA at Tech has over 120 participants across three different seminar programs.

The seminar programs offered this semester are an effective altruism seminar, a reading group for the book “The Precipice” by Toby Ord and a seminar on artificial intelligence safety. 

“The EA Seminar provides an overview of key ideas from EA and introduces frameworks for assessing impact. It discusses issues like global public health, factory farming, climate change, and more, primarily in the context of the best ways we can personally address them given our limited resources,” Chen said.

These seminars run for several weeks throughout the semester. 

“Each of these programs involves weekly readings and discussions in a small group setting, and I think it’s also a fun way to get to meet other people and discuss deep topics,” Chen said.

Upadhayay agreed with Chen on how interacting and engaging with others at EA is a rewarding experience. 

“From my experience, I’ve left every conversation feeling energized and wishing it lasted longer. Being involved in EA has also been creatively rewarding since it’s an evolving project, and we get to be collaborative and entrepreneurial with our strategy for doing good by exploring new programs to offer and changing the way we engage with participants,” Upadhayay said. “The lunches, socials, 1-on-1’s, and long philosophical discussions make most of what we do fulfilling and gives us an opportunity to deeply engage with one another’s values.”

Looking forward, EA hopes to expand their seminars to cover even more topics, ranging from animal welfare to effective environmentalism. 

Broadening the topics of the seminars is also reflective of the diversity of causes that EA addresses. Among the board members, there are countless causes they are most passionate about. 

For board member and second-year IE Sierra Wehrenberg, the causes she is most passionate about are animal welfare and plant-based lifestyles. 

“Around the world, but specifically in the United States, the treatment of animals in factory farms and other mass meat and dairy production sites is extremely unethical and a shockingly inefficient use of natural resources,” Wehrenberg said. “EA leads many global campaigns to try and have large companies reduce the amount of animal suffering they cause, and I have recently found EA resources to research the development of substitute meat, specifically on a cellular level, which is a quickly growing market which would have a huge impact.”

Specific to the topic of artificial intelligence safety, Upadhayay points out the need to safely develop systems to align with society’s values. 

“It’s clear that humanity’s relative intelligence has allowed us to harness energy on a scale sufficient for changing global temperatures, turn forests into skyscrapers and dictate the fate of other organisms,” Upadhayay said. 

“Increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence could result in similarly profound impacts, and these impacts aren’t likely to be beneficial by default because our values are incredibly complex and difficult to capture algorithmically.”

Other causes of interest among the board of EA include global health, poverty, using public policy to address injustice as well as biosecurity and preventing future pandemics. 

“Reducing the risks posed by pandemics is considered a high-priority cause area within EA,” said second-year MSE and EA secretary Reethika Digumarthy. “Given how COVID-19 has highlighted some of the shortcomings of existing systems to prevent and manage infectious diseases, I think this is an issue that is critical to address.”

For a school like Tech with a large emphasis on STEM, EA and its approach to solving some of these issues listed above fits well. 

“The EA’s community’s liberal use of quantitative cost-effectiveness analyses and terms like ‘expected value’ and ‘marginal utility’ can feel right at home in a STEM environment,” Chen said. “I think most of our members are excited about how they can have a greater impact and want to help others as best they can, and using their STEM training feels like a natural next step.”

However, Chen also pointed out that EA does not rely solely on quantitative methods, but qualitative ones too to make an impact, especially in areas with a lack of current data.

“The interventions that EA focuses on spans a range, from those with strong evidence of impact, such as vitamin A supplementation, to those which are more uncertain but could have an extraordinary impact, such as improving climate policy or developing preventative measures against future pandemics,” Chen said.

Chen emphasized that the goal of EA at Tech is to support students to learn how they can use their career to take action. 

“Many of the world’s greatest challenges, such as pandemic preparedness, AI safety and extreme climate change, are heavily constrained by the number of talented people working on them,” Chen said. “And the skills that an education at Tech provides, whether it’s mechanical engineering or software development or another discipline, are highly applicable for these problems. Our careers are about 80,000 hours long, where we’ll spend nearly half our waking hours from adulthood. It’s also where we’ll develop the most specialized and unique skills that we have, so it’s the biggest opportunity we have to make a difference.”

Outside of the work being done to support Tech students, EA has been able to connect with students across the country — and even the globe. 

“We’re happy to be part of a network of 80+ other EA university groups such as Stanford EA and EA Oxford. 

One of my favorite aspects of the club is how we get to meet other student leaders from across the country through those EA university groups,” Chen said.

As Chen mentioned, by “leveraging the best interventions,” you can multiply your impact.

“Overall, I’m inspired by how effective altruism shows that we can be a lot more ambitious about the impact that we can have on the world,” Chen said. 

For students interested in learning more about EA and getting involved, there are numerous ways to reach out. 

Visit eagatech.org to subscribe to a newsletter, join their Slack, learn more about upcoming events and workshops and read up on EA and its mission.