07/16/2015 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

Elon Musk To Address 'Nerd Altruists' At Google HQ

Elon Musk is set to appear at the Googleplex next month, not to talk electric cars or space exploration but to address a burgeoning movement of “nerd altruists.” 

The Tesla and SpaceX founder will speak at Effective Altruism (EA) Global, a gathering of far-flung technologists, entrepreneurs, students and activists who use data and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.

Effective altruists say they’re “trying to do as much good as possible with each dollar and each hour that we have.” Put another way recently in The Atlantic, the movement is “injecting science into the sentimental issue of doing good in the world.”

That means, for instance, figuring out precisely which causes will bring about the greatest positive impact (e.g. distributing bed nets to halt malaria or funding microloans in poor countries?). It means determining which charities to support to accomplish the maximum benefit per dollar spent. And, for a movement flush with millennials, it means deciding on a career path that will maximize one’s lifetime social impact.

Groups devoted to each of these aspects of effective altruism (and a variety of others) have sprung up in recent years. Their efforts are increasingly well-funded by supporters from quantitative fields like tech and finance who care about social justice, have money to spend, and want hard evidence that they’re making a difference.

One prominent EA organization called GiveWell rigorously researches the most effective and low-cost strategies to reduce extreme poverty (turns out bed nets are a great investment, microloans not so much), then identifies nonprofits employing these strategies that are evidence-backed and underfunded. GiveWell’s largest donor is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and last year the group moved $28 million to its recommended charities. A related EA organization, Giving What We Can, has fostered a community of people who pledge to give 10% or more of their lifetime income to effective charities.

A newer effort called 80,000 Hours (named for the typical amount of time people spend working during their lives) offers guides and coaching to young people to help them maximize the social impact of their career choices. In some cases, the group encourages an unorthodox practice called “earning-to-give”—that is, rather than working directly on a social cause, you’d seek a high-income job specifically so you can donate a large portion of your salary to charity. 

Another big focus of the EA movement is assessing catastrophic risks to humanity—events like global pandemics whose probability is low but whose results could devastate civilization. At the conference next month, Elon Musk will discuss his view that the “biggest existential threat” to humanity is advanced artificial intelligence. 

“He’s almost the perfect effective altruist.”

Elon Musk, CEO & Chief Product Architect of Tesla Moters, attends the premiere of "Racing Extinction" during the 2015 Sun
Paul Marotta via Getty Images
Elon Musk, CEO & Chief Product Architect of Tesla Moters, attends the premiere of "Racing Extinction" during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Park City, Utah.

Musk should fit in well.

The billionaire tech entrepreneur often notes that he focused his career on the internet, sustainable energy, and space because of their importance to humanity. "I really was thinking about this stuff in college," Musk is quoted saying in a recent biography. "I don't want to seem like a Johnny-come-lately or that I'm chasing a fad or just being opportunistic. I'm not an investor. I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way."

"He's almost the perfect effective altruist," said Tyler Alterman, president of EA Global, referring to Musk. "In college, he wasn't asking questions like, What sorts of things am I passionate about? Or what sorts of things am I good at? Rather his question was, What does the world need? What are going to be the most important technologies and problems in the future? That is essentially the effective altruist's question."

At the conference, Musk will appear alongside Nick Bostrom, author of the book "Superintelligence," which examines the dire potential consequences of machines attaining human-level intelligence, as well as Stuart Russell, a machine-learning pioneer who drafted an open letter urging researchers to pursue work that will "maximize the societal benefit of AI." Hundreds of top scientists have signed the letter, and in January, Musk donated $10 million to help kickstart such research. 

That their discussion will take place at Google headquarters is ironic given Musk's expressed concerns that Google founder and CEO Larry Page, whom Musk considers a friend, may end up building the very superintelligent machines that doom mankind. "I'm really worried about this," Musk told his biographer. "He could produce something evil by accident." 

More substantially, the Googleplex locale reflects the make-up of the movement, which is heavy on people from technology, science, and analytical disciplines. "I would say there are more effective altruists at Google than any other company in the world," Alterman told HuffPost. The head of Google's social impact arm, Jacqueline Fuller, is another conference headliner.

Campus groups focused on effective altruism have also been growing, particularly at top universities. Harvard recently hosted its first Effective Altruism week featuring a packed keynote. That level of enthusiasm "basically never happens for academic events," a faculty advisor told the Harvard Political Review. “It is a new phenomenon."

 "I think what the people in the EA movement have in common is an optimization meme," said Alterman. "It's pretty hard to get down with EA if you don't have something like this. You're not just trying to do good. You're trying to do the most good, in the most efficient way possible, with every dollar spent, with every unit of effort delivered, with every unit of attention focused, and so forth. So the stereotypical types you find in effective altruism like computer programmers and finance people and tech types are just already used to this style of thinking."

What's on the agenda.

Here are some other hot topics at this year's EA Global:

Farm animal protection: Over 9 billion farm animals are killed for food each year in the United States, and virtually all of them are raised on factory farms, where evidence suggests their lives include substantial pain and distress. Yet efforts to advocate for farm animal protections receive relatively little funding, even from large animal welfare groups. Effective altruists see this as a prime area for action to reduce wide-scale suffering. 

Giving cash to poor people, no strings attached: One EA Global speaker is a co-founder of GiveDirectly, an aid organization that distributes large sums of cash, no strings attached, to extremely poor people in Africa. At first glance it might seem a radical idea, but actually it's one of the most comprehensively researched and consistently effective anti-poverty interventions.

Earning to give: Also at the conference will be Matt Wage, an earning-to-give exemplar, who in 2012 turned down a prestigious postgrad opportunity at Oxford University to take a job as an arbitrage trader on Wall Street. During his first year on the job, he donated over $100,000 (about half of his pretax income) to charity. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote, "Wage told me that he plans to remain in finance and donate half his income. One of the major charities Wage gives to is the Against Malaria Foundation, which, by one analyst’s calculation, can save a child’s life on average for each $3,340 donated. All this suggests that Wage may save more lives with his donations than if he had become an aid worker."

Applying EA approaches to other policy areas: The Open Philanthropy Project, also backed by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, is applying an EA approach to important but under-resourced policy areas like criminal justice reform, factory farming, and science funding.

In a similar vein, there are newer groups like EA Ventures (described as "Moneyball for impact") and EA Policy Analytics, a DC area-based federal policy project whose team includes an economist at the Food and Drug Administration.

Self-improvement: One speaker seemingly out of place is author Olivia Fox Cabane, whose book "The Charisma Myth" promises to explain "how anyone can master the art and science of personal magnetism." Alterman acknowledged it was a counterintuitive choice, but noted with a laugh that "social skills are kind of at a premium" amongst effective altruists. "This is probably going to happen in any movement that deliberately curates brainiacs." 

But he said the numbers add up. "One of most effective activities you can do is not necessarily direct work, but spending time trying to recruit the most talented people in the world to work on the world's most important problems. And if you can learn something that makes you more effective at doing that, like improving your charisma, that's a major multiplier of the amount of good you can do." he said. "Hence, Olivia Fox Cabane."