Research Agenda
photo_camera Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Calves In A Sale Yard

Last updated April 18, 2022.

Table of contents

Table of contents

Introduction

In-progress research projects

Academic discussion of the moral consideration of artificial entities case study

Animals, Food, and Technology (AFT) survey

Artificial sentience cause profile

Artificial Intelligence, Morality, and Sentience (AIMS) survey

Autonomy and sentience of AIs experiment

Existential pragmatism book chapter

Experiment on individuation of animals

Effects of welfare reforms information on attitudes experiment

Experiments and surveys on “substratism” analogous to the psychology of “speciesism”

Features of artificial entities and moral consideration experiment

Follow-up experiments on AFT and AIMS surveys

Perspective-taking experiment

Potential research projects

Cultured meat moral messaging experiment

Dietary asks and cognitive dissonance RCT

Environmentalism case study

Experiment on construal level theory, moral consideration, and threat

Experiment on individuation of AIs

Experiment on perception of emotions in AI

Humane myth persistence attribution study

Possible effects of future technologies and social transformations on human values

Possible medium-term futures of AI sentience and consciousness

Possible value reflection AI processes

Reform messaging and counter-messaging effects study

Support for bans on producing vs. consuming meat survey

Varied victim experiences messaging RCT

Voter turnout literature review

Other research ideas

Case studies

Social movements

Other

Experimental studies

Expert interviews

Literature reviews

Surveys

Other

Introduction

As an effective altruism organization, we select research projects based on their expected impact. We are primarily interested in the nature of long-term moral progress. To date most of our research has been on factory farming, but in 2021 we added a second research area of artificial intelligence, such as: What Features of AIs Indicate Sentience and Moral Relevance? and What Do People Think about the Moral and Social Inclusion of AI?. This research agenda contains specific in-progress projects we are working on, priority projects we are not yet working on but consider of particular interest, and a range of other research ideas. We are eager for funding to complete more of this research, and we are eager to provide support for external researchers interested in these projects.

In-progress research projects

Academic discussion of the moral consideration of artificial entities case study

We are using archival and interview data to document and analyze the history of academic discussion of the moral consideration of artificial entities, a field which we reviewed quantitatively in our 2021 Science and Engineering Ethics paper, “The Moral Consideration of Artificial Entities: A Literature Review.”

Animals, Food, and Technology (AFT) survey

We are collecting longitudinal data on attitudes towards animal farming and animal product alternatives in the US. Since our 2017 survey, we have also collected data in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and we are in the process of publishing an analysis and discussion of the longitudinal results.

Artificial sentience cause profile

We are writing a series of blog posts on artificial sentience that we hope to culminate in a cause profile of the issue. As of November 2021, we have published The Importance of Artificial Sentience, Psychological Perspectives Relevant to Artificial Sentience, Prioritization Questions for Artificial Sentience, and The Terminology of Artificial Sentience.

Artificial Intelligence, Morality, and Sentience (AIMS) survey

Since 2017, we have run the first detailed, longitudinal, US nationally representative survey on farmed animals, the Animals, Food, and Technology (AFT) survey. Beginning in 2021, we are collecting and analyzing data for a similar survey on Artificial Intelligence, Morality, and Sentience (AIMS).

Autonomy and sentience of AIs experiment

We are designing an experiment to analyze the relationship between perceived autonomy and sentience in AIs, particularly in relation to moral consideration and perceptions of threat.

Existential pragmatism book chapter

We are planning to have a book chapter in an upcoming anthology on the future of design and human civilization. The chapter will discuss existential threats and the importance of approaching our radical future with existential pragmatism, carefully evaluating our impacts on humans and nonhumans alike with a particular focus on reducing suffering risks in which we cause astronomical amounts of harm. Rather than simply ensuring our species’ survival and expansion, we must ensure that, if we survive, the universe is better for it.

Experiment on individuation of animals

How do humans perceive nonhuman animals who may be homogeneous in appearance or behavior as individuals rather than as a group or an exemplar of a group? What effect does individuation have on the moral consideration of a specific individual? What effect does individuation have on the moral consideration of the whole species or group?

Effects of welfare reforms information on attitudes experiment

There is limited research on the effects of welfare reforms, such as transitions from caged to cage-free eggs, on attitudes toward animal farming. We are conducting an experiment to test this effect, which can provide evidence on the prioritization of welfare reforms in the farmed animal movement.

Experiments and surveys on “substratism” analogous to the psychology of “speciesism”

Recent social psychology research has developed a rich conceptualization and contextualization of “speciesism,” the discrimination against certain species as originally developed in the philosophical literature. Similarly, humans can discriminate on the basis of substrate, such as against digital entities implemented on computer hardware instead of biological nervous systems. This project would seek to understand substratism comparable to the five studies conducted by Caviola, Everett, and Faber (2019) on, “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism.”

Features of artificial entities and moral consideration experiment

Artificial entities can be designed with a range of features, such as a humanlike appearance, language abilities, or emotional expression. This study uses conjoint analysis to estimate the effects of a range of features on the moral consideration of artificial entities?

Follow-up experiments on AFT and AIMS surveys

We are conducting a series of experiments to gain a deeper understanding of the AFT and AIMS survey results. What are the contextual factors affecting support for policies affecting animals and artificial entities? How supportive are people of actual policy changes?

Perspective-taking experiment

Taking the perspective of another sentient being is an important social phenomenon. In this study, we explore the relationship between perspective taking, moral consideration, and the moral circle. How does the effect of perspective taking on moral consideration change if beings are more psychologically distant?

Potential research projects

We are not currently working on these projects, but please contact us if you would like to discuss collaboration or your own work on them.

Cultured meat moral messaging experiment

How does telling people that cultured meat is morally driven vs. not morally driven affect its favorability? How does knowledge of a moral opposition to it affect this?

Dietary asks and cognitive dissonance RCT

How strong of a “denial of mind” effect do eggs, milk, and cheese or other derivative products have compared to meat? This study may be accompanied by other explorations of the degree to which vegetarianism captures the speciesism-mitigation value of veganism.

Environmentalism case study

Animal Charity Evaluators conducted a partial case study of the environmentalist movement looking at the book Silent Spring, the event Earth Day, and some recycling campaigns. The results were useful, such as the potential impact of well-timed book launches and large public events. Given environmentalism’s significantly shared interests with farmed animal advocacy and the significant overlap between the two communities, we expect more research could be fruitful. Due to the scope of environmentalism, this project would probably focus on a particular relevant submovement, such as climate change, anti-pollution, or wildlife preservation.

Experiment on construal level theory, moral consideration, and threat

Psychological research has shown that humans can think at different levels of abstraction that shape their psychological distance to entities like AIs and farmed animals. These levels of abstraction, known as construal level, can shift between concrete (detailed, local, close) and abstract (general, global, distant) ways of thinking. How does thinking in concrete and close or abstract and distant ways shape the perception that AIs who exist now are threatening to humans? What about AIs who exist in the future? What are the effects of concrete and abstract ways of thinking on the moral consideration of AIs?

Experiment on individuation of AIs

How do humans perceive nonhuman AIs who may be homogeneous in appearance or behavior as individuals rather than as a group or an exemplar of a group? What effect does individuation have on the moral consideration of a specific individual? What effect does individuation have on the moral consideration of the whole species or group? (This project idea is analogous to an in-progress project on the individuation of animals.)

Experiment on perception of emotions in AI

Recognizing emotions from facial expressions facilitates human interpersonal interactions and face perception differs for human ingroups and outgroups. The faces of AIs embodied in robots have been shown to be important for human-AI interactions. How AIs see and process human faces to recognize human emotions has also been important for developing computer vision. Less work has investigated how humans perceive and recognize the facial expressions of AIs embodied in robots. Do humans perceive emotions differently in the faces of AIs compared to humans? How similar is emotion recognition for human-like robot faces and human faces?

Humane myth persistence attribution study

Around half of people think farmed animals are treated well. Is this because of a knowledge deficit, or denial/cognitive dissonance? (E.g. have they not seen investigations, or do they dismiss investigation coverage as being of bad apples?)

Possible effects of future technologies and social transformations on human values

There are a number of technologies and social transformations that could have important, substantial effects on human values. For example, if moral progress occurs largely due to people with old moral values passing away and young people with new views coming into social power, would human life extension slow down moral progress? Other changes of interest include cryonics, blockchain, nuclear fusion, surveillance and smart cities, various forms of transformative AI, climate change, and the reduction of poverty and global increase in GDP.

Possible medium-term futures of AI sentience and consciousness

We analyze the plausible ways in which AIs could become sentient or conscious: their likelihood, defining features, and implications. For example, is it more likely that sentience will emerge in language models, robots, game-playing reinforcement learners, or ensemble models? How will humans react to the emergence of sentience in each context?

Possible value reflection AI processes

Many discussions of “safe” or “aligned” AI futures involve different value reflection processes, such as coherent extrapolated volition, debate, indirect normativity, iterated amplification, or a period of long reflection. What will happen to values during such reflection processes? In particular, how much do the inputs of this process (i.e., the state of human values at the beginning) matter for the outputs?

Reform messaging and counter-messaging effects study

How do reform campaign messaging and industry counter-messaging (e.g. “Chicken Check-In,” humanewashing labels) affect consumer understanding of animal farming, attitudes towards animal farming, and/or willingness to pay or use alternatives?

Support for bans on producing vs. consuming meat survey

How does support for a ban on meat vary between the framings of a ban on production/selling vs. a ban on consumption/purchasing? They theoretically have the same end, but their efficacy in reaching that end may vary.

Varied victim experiences messaging RCT

How does discomfort with, concern about, or opposition to egg farming compare across external framings of battery cage conditions, free range conditions, pasture conditions, and internal framings of hen health conditions with and without mention of external conditions? This study aims to test which animal welfare harms are most compelling.

Voter turnout literature review

There have been few if any formal literature reviews done in the effective animal advocacy community, which attempt to aggregate existing evidence in a different advocacy field and draw any conclusions possible for helping animals in particular. The literature on increasing voter turnout, such as through mail and door-to-door canvassing, is particularly robust, so we plan to work on this as an exploration of the value of literature reviews.

Other research ideas

The following potential projects are described in less detail, but please still feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss collaboration or your own work on them.

Case studies

Social movements

We are also interested in the aggregation and analysis of existing case studies, given there have now been several published.

Other

Experimental studies

Expert interviews

Literature reviews

Surveys

Other


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