#127 - Sam Bankman-Fried on taking a high-risk approach to crypto and doing good


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If you were offered a 100% chance of $1 million to keep yourself, or a 10% chance of $15 million - it makes total sense to play it safe. You'd be devastated if you lost, and barely happier if you won.
But if you were offered a 100% chance of donating $1 billion, or a 10% chance of donating $15 billion, you should just go with whatever has the highest expected value - that is, probability multiplied by the goodness of the outcome - and so swing for the fences.
This is the totally rational but rarely seen high-risk approach to philanthropy championed by today's guest, Sam Bankman-Fried. Sam founded the cryptocurrency trading platform FTX, which has grown his wealth from around $1 million to $20,000 million.
Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.
Despite that, Sam still drives a Corolla and sleeps on a beanbag, because the only reason he started FTX was to make money to give it away. In 2020, when he was 5% as rich as he is now, he was nonetheless the second biggest individual donor to Joe Biden's general election campaign.
In today's conversation, Sam outlines how at every stage in FTX's development, he and his team were able to choose the high-risk path to maximise expected value - precisely because they weren't out to earn money for themselves.
This year his philanthropy has kicked into high gear with the launch of the FTX Future Fund, which has the initial ambition of giving away hundreds of millions a year and hopes to soon escalate to over a billion a year.
The Fund is run by previous guest of the show Nick Beckstead, and embodies the same risk-loving attitude Sam has learned from entrepreneurship and trading on financial markets. Unlike most foundations, the Future Fund:
* Is open to supporting young people trying to get their first big break
* Makes applying for a grant surprisingly straightforward
* Is willing to make bets on projects it completely expects to fail, just because they have positive expected value.
Their website lists both areas of interest and more concrete project ideas they are looking to support. The hope is these will inspire entrepreneurs to come forward, seize the mantle, and be the champions who actually make these things happen. While some of these ideas - like building shelters specifically designed to protect people against the worst biological weapons attacks, or writing a mock 'constitution for the future' - may seem pretty random, they all stem from a particular underlying moral and empirical vision that the Future Fund has laid out.
In this conversation, we speak with Sam about the hopes he and the Fund have for how the long-term future of humanity might go incredibly well, the fears they hold about how it could go incredibly badly, and what levers they might be able to pull to slightly nudge us towards the former.
On top of that we also cover:
* How Sam feels now about giving $5 million to Biden's general election campaign
* His fears and hopes for artificial intelligence
* Whether or not blockchain technology actually has useful real-world applications
* What lessons Sam learned from some serious early setbacks
* Why he fears the effective altruism community is too conservative
* Why Sam is as authentic now as he was before he was a celebrity
* And much more.
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world's most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.
Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

175 episodes