Meet Ben Delo, the billionaire philanthropist who’s trying to stop humanity from destroying itself
Short-termism is endemic in government, industry and philanthropy. Politicians focus on the upcoming election. Corporations are judged by their quarterly results. With few exceptions, charitable giving seeks to address today’s problems.
Ben Delo, Britain’s youngest self-made billionaire, aims to change that, and not in a small way. Shaped by the principles of effective altruism (EA), Delo promises to donate the majority of his wealth to efforts to protect the long-term future of humanity.
“All lives are valuable,” he says, “including those of future generations.”
Delo, 35, who is the co-founder of a Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange called BitMEX, has just signed the Giving Pledge, the initiative created by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet for billionaire philanthropists. He is the first signatory to focus his pledge on making sure that human beings don’t destroy themselves; so, for example, he is supporting research designed to prevent a global pandemic and efforts to manage artificial intelligence. Global pandemics, runaway AI, nuclear war and climate change are among the existential threats to humanity that worry him, Delo says in his Giving Pledge letter.
In his pledge letter, Delo writes:
My ambition now is to do the most good possible with my wealth. To me, this means funding work to safeguard future generations and protect the long-term prospects of humanity. This includes mitigating risks that could spell the end of human endeavour or permanently curtail our potential.
He goes on to say:
While today may be the most prosperous period in our history, it may also be the most dangerous. Our distant ancestors did not possess technology that could cause human extinction. We do. Nuclear security cannot be taken for granted. The prospect of extreme climate change is real. Looking forward, advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology will pose new and complex challenges.
Put simply, we’ve never been in this position before: with the power to destroy the future, but not necessarily the wisdom to wield that power responsibly.
Delo has been inspired by Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, a founder and theorist of the effective altruism movement who he met through a childhood friend. MacAskill introduced him to Effective Giving, a nonprofit consultancy led by Natalie Cargill along with Liv Boeree, a world champion poker player and advocate for EA.
“My mathematical mind was immediately drawn towards applying the scientific method to improving the world, and I’ve been working with Effective Giving for over a year,” Delo told me by email.
Delo also intends to collaborate with the Open Philanthropy Project, which advises Giving Pledge signatories Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, and his wife, Cari Tuna, who are also guided by the EA movement. In the last six months or so, Delo has met with Tuna and Holden Karnofsky, who leads OpenPhil, as well as with leaders of such EA-influenced nonprofits as the Future of Humanity Institute, He met with Rob Wiblin, the host of the podcast, 80,000 Hours, which features long conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how people can use their careers to solve them, and agreed to fund 80,000 Hours.
“It’s obviously great to have another major donor on board,” Wiblin told me by email, when I asked what Delo’s commitment will mean for effective altruists. “Ultimately it should allow us to grow some projects focussed on his interest areas — like building the effective altruism movement or mitigating existential risks — more quickly than we otherwise could.”
Delo, who lives with his wife, Pan Pan Wong, in Hong Kong, graduated from Oxford in 2005 with double first class honors in mathematics and computer science. He worked for IBM and JP Morgan Chase as a software engineer before co-founding BitMEX.
He has already donated to several organisations working to safeguard humanity, including the Center for Human-Compatible AI, a research center at Berkeley dedicated to the design of safe and reliably beneficial AI systems, and a collaboration between Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Future of Humanity Institute on mitigating and preventing of global pandemics. He also donated to a project at Decision Research, a nonprofit founded by psychology professor Paul Slovic, looking at the understanding of potential effects of nuclear weapons.
Delo also provided seed funding for the Forethought Foundation, a new non-profit founded by MacAskill, which aims to promote research within philosophy and the social sciences on how best to positively influence the long-term future.
Via press release, MacAskill said: “Civilisation might continue for millions of years, and almost everyone who will ever live is still yet to come, but almost all academic research and policy advice focuses on near-term issues. With Ben’s support, we’re able to start addressing that gap.”
Not all of Delo’s philanthropy has targeted long-term risks. Last fall, he donated £5m to endow two teaching fellowships at Worcester College at Oxford, where he studied. But Delo’s decision to dedicate most or all of his philanthropy to preventing existential threats to humanity will be controversial, even among effective altruists. It would appear to rely on a set of questionable beliefs: That the lives of people who are yet to be born are as important as those who are alive today; that those vast numbers of people have no voice in decisions made now that could affect them; and that an intervention with even a very, very small chance of enabling them to be born would do more good that an intervention with a much better chance of saving lives or alleviating suffering right now. [For more on these arguments, which can get complicated in a hurry, you can read The Case for Reducing Extinction Risks by Ben Todd, listen to this 80000 Hours podcast with Nick Beckstead of the Open Philanthropy project or read this skeptical take by Dylan Matthews of Vox.] At the very least, some will argue, Delo should donate a portion of his wealth to try to alleviate suffering among people who are alive today.
That said, philanthropists — unlike government or business leaders — have the freedom to take risks and to pursue unpopular or neglected causes. Those who care deeply about today’s global poor may look askance at a cryptocurrency billionaire who frets about runaway AI or evildoers planning to engineer a global pandemic. Ben Delo may be wasting his money. But if the researchers and think tanks he’s backing figure out how to make the world a safer place, future generations will thank him.