Update 2020-01-08: Fundraiser success!
The Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative is aiming to raise $50,000 by the end of the year, to support new university collaborations in 2021.
Why should I give to BERI?
Giving to BERI makes sense if you:
- value the long-term future,
- want to make sure humanity is there to experience it, and
- believe that helping university research groups who share these values is a good way to achieve that.
BERI collaborates with university research groups working to reduce existential risk (“x-risk”), by providing them with free services and support. We try to help each group work more like a “start-up” by spending money to support them in whatever way they need to pursue their mission (which we’ve vetted for relevance to our mission). The idea is to make operations faster and more flexible for these groups—not only to make them more directly effective, but also to improve morale by unblocking tasks and projects they care about that are hard to do efficiently through other means (e.g. university administration).
Each research group is different. Recognizing this, BERI invests time and effort in learning new skills and adapting our systems to the needs of new collaborators. It takes some trialing and exploration to figure out which groups are good fits for BERI support, and the $50,000 we raise this year will be directed towards these trial collaborations.
These trial collaborations create opportunities for learning on both sides of the equation—BERI will learn more about which potential new services we are well-equipped to provide, and the collaborator will learn more about what they need, and which of those needs are best fulfilled by an external entity like BERI. More broadly, the process of BERI experimenting with new collaborations helps the x-risk ecosystem as a whole, because the services we provide will become more robust and better-informed over time.
What did BERI do in 2020?
In the past 12 months, BERI has hired more than 50 contractors for our collaborators:
- $250k to contracted researchers and research assistants
- $170k for additional support: productivity coaches, software engineers, copy editors, graphic designers, and other specialty services
We invested $100k in providing a supportive and productive work environment for x-risk researchers, including:
- $35k in software for communications, hiring, project management, etc.
- $30k in catered meals for meetings, both in-person and virtual
- $23k in computers, office furniture, and other equipment
As part of our main collaborations, we supported several special projects:
- Continued to employ two machine learning research engineers to work alongside researchers at CHAI
- Hired Robert Trager and Joslyn Barnhart to work as Visiting Senior Research Fellows with GovAI, as well as hiring a small team of supporting research personnel
- Supported research on European AI strategy and policy in association with CSER
- Combined immediate COVID-19 assistance with long-term benefits:
- In collaboration with Cassidy Nelson (FHI) and the Oxford Department of Zoology, BERI quickly purchased supplies and equipment for a study on the true prevalence of infection in the UK community, while also validating a new pathogen-blind diagnostic tool to improve future pandemic preparedness.
- In support of epidemicforecasting.org, a project led by FHI researchers Jan Kulveit and Jacob Lagerros, BERI hired a group of expert forecasters and operations staff to facilitate the project’s rapid expansion in the early days of the pandemic. Similar tools and approaches can be used to plan for future pandemics.
In the past 12 months, we’ve spent ~$1.4 million on our university collaborations, the majority of which was donated in support of specific collaborations. Our present fundraiser is for a smaller pot of collaboration-non-specific funds, which we’ll use to try out new collaborations with a chance of growing them into larger ongoing relationships.
In August, we launched six new trial collaborations. While COVID-related uncertainty has in some cases delayed the starting of new projects, we’ve hired several software engineers to build tools and analyze research data for our collaborators. We’re planning to expand these trial activities over the next six months. That being said, much of BERI’s value lies in “standing ready” for urgent and last-minute needs which fall outside of normal university timelines. Even when particular needs have yet to arise, BERI provides value by holding capacity to fulfill those needs.
What would have happened if BERI didn’t exist?
We think around 50% (by dollar of BERI spending) of the projects described above would probably still have happened without BERI’s existence. However, they probably would have moved more slowly, or would have been more time-consuming for the researchers involved. Researchers and staff at our collaborating institutions have extensive knowledge of university procedures: their strengths and their weaknesses. So when existing collaborators choose BERI as a partner on a new project, this is evidence that BERI is the best choice for carrying out that project swiftly and effectively.
The remaining 50% of the projects described above probably would not have happened without BERI, or would have happened in a significantly diminished form. BERI provides some services that are not available via normal university channels. By shaping our organization around the needs of x-risk researchers, BERI is able to accomplish things that universities are not able to do or not interested in doing.
What will BERI do in 2021?
Main collaborations (3): We’ve continued to attract dedicated funding for our collaborations with CHAI, FHI, and CSER, and we expect those collaborations to continue at spending levels similar to previous years.
Existing trial collaborations (6): As mentioned above, we plan to increase activity on all six of these in 2021. By the end of the year, we hope to have proven the value of at least one of them enough to attract dedicated funding and “convert” it into a new main collaboration.
New trial collaborations (~6): You can donate to these here! In mid-2021, we’ll run a collaborator application process similar to the one we ran in 2020. Based on the applicant pool and our available funding, we’ll start new trial collaborations, with the intention of converting some of them into permanent, self-sustaining “main collaborations” within two years of launch.
Before this year, BERI has been primarily funded by large private donors. Generous support from Open Philanthropy, Jaan Tallinn, and others has allowed us to experiment with several models of impact. At the end of 2019 we decided to shift our focus entirely towards our university collaborations program, a decision accompanied by a reduction in staffing and overhead spending. With this new focus, and a goal to expand to new collaborations over the next few years, we feel our plan has become stable and legible enough that it makes sense to do some public fundraising. We like the idea of BERI being a way for the public to influence what kinds of projects universities should prioritize. If you want universities to carry out projects that will benefit humanity’s long-term survival and flourishing, donating to BERI helps to exert this kind of influence.
If you want to help improve human civilization’s long-term prospects for survival and flourishing, donate to the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative. Your donation acts as a multiplier on the impact of x-risk researchers across the world, and enables the quick and efficient pursuit of projects crucial for humanity’s future.
For more information on what BERI does and why, see our FAQ.