Fermi-Estimation Competition

Fermi-Estimation Competition

Last updated: 4th October, 2023

Fermi Estimation Competitions can be prepared by choosing a bunch of numerical questions that participants are unlikely to know off the top of their heads and finding the correct answer on the internet.

1. Question sources

  • The Estimation Game by Quantified Intuitions (see games here, info for organizers here)
    • This is an off-the-shelf event for EA group organisers to run. It's a quiz where your group members form teams, answer fun Fermi estimation questions on their phones and compete against EA groups around the world! Games run in the last 7 days of each month, and usually take around 40 minutes. You can check out this spoiler-free demo game.
  • Harvard’s Fermi Estimation Google slides. Some of these questions are out of date and some are American-centric so you might want to change the questions and check the answers. This folder also contains a Google spreadsheet that you can use to score the game if you wish - make a copy to put on your own google drive.
  • EA Cambridge’s Fermi Estimate questions, divided into near-term- and long-term-focused.
  • EA at Georgia Tech’s Kahoot for estimating important numbers about global health and development and about animal welfare, that does not require prior EA knowledge.
  • Mark Xu’s slides with important numbers about the past, present and future state of the world.
  • Examples linked at the end of the LessWrong guide (by Luke Muehlhauser).
  • Make up your own. It would be good to have some EA-related questions. Don’t worry too much about the quality of the questions; it’s probably better to spend time optimising the structure of the event, ensuring that attendees know what is expected of them throughout the event.
  • Another suggestion would be to host an adversarial Fermi estimation game. In this variant, one person in each group gets secretly assigned to mislead the group into getting the wrong answer, making it more difficult (see this thread in the EA Groups Slack).

2. How to run the session

  • Bring pens and paper for participants to use. If possible, have a whiteboard and markers so people can show their reasoning when explaining how they solved the problem. You may also want a projector to show questions and answers.
  • If running the event virtually, having a break-out rooms function is very important if you have more than 4 attendees. Zoom allows you to move participants into break-out rooms to work on the problems in small groups, and then you can bring people back into the main virtual room to discuss questions and answers. More advice on using Zoom.
  • Briefly teach the group what Fermi estimates are. You could use an example like this Passenger Car question (alter to suit your own country), and either get people to share how they would calculate the answer, or demonstrate how you answered the question.
  • Get people to gather in groups of two to four. The collaboration aspect seems very important for making this a fun event.
  • Set the ground rules - using pen, paper, and a calculator app on your phone is okay, but no internet!
  • Present a question, then give people a set amount of time to answer (~ 5 minutes). Encourage people to chat in their groups as they go.
  • Get each group to share their answer (and write or type it up).
  • Then reveal the answer, work out who was closest (and give them a point).
  • Ask the winning team how they worked out their answer.
  • Continue with the next question.