History and origins of the Alert project

ALERT was originally conceptualized and conceived by Jan Kulveit and Gavin Leech. They tried to set up a prestigious and capital intensive version, but failed. You can read about their updates here: 1, 2, 3.

I had read the original proposal and had participated in the Epidemic Forecasting project that inspired it, and the idea seemed very much worth pursuing to me. Since then, I had a few experiences which reinforced this impression:

  • Together with Misha Yagudin, I was able to see the Russian invasion of Ukraine coming about two weeks beforehand. We capitalized on this to make ~$19k on prediction markets. But we were also disappointed: we weren’t able to e.g., help enough people get out of Ukraine, affect the outcome, or prepare for it.
  • I became more pessimistic about using forecasting to make sense of AI. To be clear, I still think that forecasting might be a better tool than other approaches, particularly hedgehog-style thinking. But at the same time, forecasting suffers when you don’t know what the right question to ask is, and works much better with short time horizons. I also developed some skepticism about AI doom: I am confident that AI will eventually be a big deal, but the specific shape seems way more uncertain.
  • Overall, this made me update upwards on unknown unknowns, black swans. You might not be able to conceptualize the specific shape of threats coming years from now (…or, can you), but you might be able to see threats coming weeks to months beforehand.
  • My forecasting group’s nuclear risk probabilities were well received. People reported finding them useful for making decisions, and they spread a bit in the media. This might be an early proof of concept.

These impressions led me to propose picking up the idea, but in a cheaper, more casual and smaller shape rather than as a more expensive, ambitious and institutional version. I raised some initial funding from Manifund, from Joel Becker, Isaak Freeman and Gavin Leech; having funding made the project more real. I also committed some of my own funding from my very profitable niche estimation & evaluation consultancy. Quinn Dougherty, and later also Nathaniel Cooke, also pushed for ALERT not to stand for “Active Longtermist Emergency Response Team”, since the “longtermist” concept was imperfect, so instead of “ALERT” the project de-acronymized itself and became just “Alert”.

The handoff from the original project was partial. The original project committed some funding, which might yet be used as Alert expands. But this version of ALERT has various differences in emphasis. It might be better conceived as “inspired by” the original vision. In addition, we didn’t get the original list of people interested in being reservists, because of privacy concerns. Rather, the old project contacted the original list of potential reservists and pointed them to new signup form, and we lost a supermajority in the transition.

As we transitioned, we had some meetings with old and new people interested in helping. These led to a collaboration with Nathaniel Cooke, where I edited and published A Gentle Introduction to Risk Frameworks Beyond Forecasting. I remain skeptical yet still intrigued about these other methods. Due to some deep disaggrements about the shape of the project and its decision-making methods, Nathaniel parted ways from Alert; for instance, he was more insistent in making decisions democratically, but I found rapid delegation much more meaningful.

In parallel, I set up the foresight team and the emergency reserve team. Setting up the foresight team went smoothly: I recruited the forecasters, ran the team for a few weeks, and then handed it off to themselves, so that each week one forecaster leads it. I also wrote some tech infrastructure that continuously searches news for a series of keywords, feeds them to an LLM model, and email forecasters if they are deemed to be sufficiently urgent. However, this nascent infrastructure is relatively ad-hoc and underbaked, and could still be much improved.

The emergency response team went more slowly, but it is now up to eight people I believe to be highly capable. We are still recruiting; you can express your interest in our contact page. The emergency response team was partially convened during and after the Iranian strikes on Israel; this was useful in terms of learning how to convene the team faster for the next time, but it didn’t result in actions taken. But we did get advance warning, both a week before and the day before.

As Alert was being set up, we sent weekly minutes and project updates to a group of early supporters, which provided feedback and kept us accountable. But as the project has matured, we are now sharing outputs more widely in this website.

This, reader, brings you up to speed on the history and state of Alert.

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