- I think the large majority of AI x-risk is "structural". Like climate change.
- Here's a good primer on structural risk (note that structural risk is not a synonym for "not caused by out-of-control AI"): https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/oqveRcMwRMDk6SYXM/clarifications-about-structural-risk-from-ai
- I am shocked and amazed and dismayed that more people do not seem to view it this way, even among the AI x-safety community. Heck, even Eliezer's stories of doom are steeped in structural risk (race dynamics, teams rationalizing cutting corners on safety when they should know better, etc.)
I expect irresponsible, reckless, negligent deployment of AI systems without proper accounting of externalities. I consider this the default for any technology with potential for significant externalities, absent regulation.
When something bad happens in such a context, calling it "accident risk" absolves those researching, developing, and/or deploying the technology of responsibility. They should have known better. Some of them almost certainly did. Rationalization, oversight, and misaligned incentives were almost certainly at play. Failing to predict the particular failure mode encountered is no excuse. Having "good intentions" is no excuse.
So... it must be misuse then, right? Well, no. Calling it "misuse" suggests that those researching, developing, and/or deploying the technology set out with nefarious purposes and the technology achieved precisely what they intended. But ~nobody wants to destroy the world. It's just that most people are somewhat selfish and so are willing to trade some x-risk for a large personal benefit.
In summary, saying "accident" makes it sounds like an unpredictable effect, instead of painfully obviously risk that was not taken seriously enough. Saying "misuse" makes it sounds like some supervillian or extremist deliberately destroying the world. While some risks may have something more of a flavor or accident or misuse depending on how obvious the risk was, neither of these pictures gives a remotely accurate picture of the nature of the problem.
I think this makes it a harmful meme, and ask that others stop making this distinction (without appropriate caveats), and join me in pointing out how it contributes to a confused and misleading discourse when others do.
EtA: Many people have responded that "accident" does not connote "unforseen" or "not negligent", etc., and instead it should simply be interpreted as something like "a result that was not deliberately selected for". While it can be used this way, I basically disagree that this is how it is usually used, see below:
EtA: as an additional clarification: my main objection is not to the use of "accident" and "misuse", but rather to their use as a dichotomy. Every use of these terms I can recall seeing in writing (other than those that mention structural risk) supports this dichotomy, and it is often made explicitly.
Personally, I usually associate "accident" with "painfully obvious risk that was not actually mitigated" (note the difference in wording from "not taken seriously enough"). IIUC, that's usually how engineering/industrial "accidents" work, and that is the sort of association I'd expect someone used to thinking about industrial "accidents" to have.
This doesn't seem to disagree with David's argument? "Accident" implies a lack of negligence. "Not taken seriously enough" points at negligence. I think you are saying that non-negligent but "painfully obvious" harms that occur are "accidents", which seems fair. David is saying that the scenarios he is imagining are negligent and therefore not accidents. These seem compatible.
I understand David to be saying that there is a substantial possibility of x-risk due to negligent but non-intended events, maybe even the majority of the probability. These would sit between "accident" and "misuse" (on both of your definitions).
So what terminology do you want to use to make this distinction then?
Some auto insurance companies use "collision" instead of "accident" for what transpired, to avoid unintended connotation, separately from assigning responsibility/fault. That part is based on following the letter of the law. In the AI case a better term might be "disaster", which does not have the connotation of the term "accident".
If someone deliberately misuses AI to kill lots of people, that's a "disaster" too.
Sure is, separates the description of what happens from assigning responsibility, which I assume is what the OP wanted.
Instead of "accident", we could say "gross negligence" or "recklessness" for catastrophic risk from AI misalignment.
Seems to me that this is building in too much content / will have the wrong connotations. If an ML researcher hears about "recklessness risk", they're not unlikely to go "oh, well I don't feel 'reckless' at my day job, so I'm off the hook".
Locating the issue in the cognition of the developer is probably helpful in some contexts, but it has the disadvantage that (a) people will reflect on their cognition, not notice "negligent-feeling thoughts", and conclude that accident risk is low; and (b) it encourages people to take the eye off the ball, focusing on psychology (and arguments about whose psychology is X versus Y) rather than focusing on properties of the AI itself.
"Accident risk" is maybe better just because it's vaguer. The main problem I see with it isn't "this sounds like it's letting the developers off the hook" (since when do we assume that all accidents are faultless?). Rather, I think the problem with "accident" is that it sounds minor.
Accidentally breaking a plate is an "accident". Accidentally destroying a universe is... something a bit worse than that.
If the issue with "accident" is that it sounds minor*, then one could say "catastrophic accident risk" or similar.
*I'm not fully bought into this as the main issue, but supposing that it is...
I really don't think the distinction is meaningful or useful in almost any situation. I think if people want to make something like this distinction they should just be more clear about exactly what they are talking about.
How about the distinction between (A) “An AGI kills every human, and the people who turned on the AGI didn’t want that to happen” versus (B) “An AGI kills every human, and the people who turned on the AGI did want that to happen”?
I’m guessing that you’re going to say “That’s not a useful distinction because (B) is stupid. Obviously nobody is talking about (B)”. In which case, my response is “The things that are obvious to you and me are not necessarily obvious to people who are new to thinking carefully about AGI x-risk.”
…And in particular, normal people sometimes seem to have an extraordinarily strong prior that “when people are talking about x-risk, it must be (B) and not (A), because (A) is weird sci-fi stuff and (B) is a real thing that could happen”, even after the first 25 times that I insist that I’m really truly talking about (A).
So I do think drawing a distinction between (A) and (B) is a very useful thing to be able to do. What terminology would you suggest for that?
I think the misuse vs. accident dichotomy is clearer when you don't focus exclusively on "AGI kills every human" risks. (E.g., global totalitarianism risks strike me as small but non-negligible if we solve the alignment problem. Larger are risks that fall short of totalitarianism but still involve non-morally-humble developers damaging humanity's long-term potential.)
The dichotomy is really just "AGI does sufficiently bad stuff, and the developers intended this" versus "AGI does sufficiently bad stuff, and the developers didn't intend this". The terminology might be non-ideal, but the concepts themselves are very natural.
It's basically the same concept as "conflict disaster" versus "mistake disaster". If something falls into both category to a significant extent (e.g., someone tries to become dictator but fails to solve alignment), then it goes in the "accident risk" bucket, because it doesn't actually matter what you wanted to do with the AI if you're completely unable to achieve that goal. The dynamics and outcome will end up looking basically the same as other accidents.
By "intend" do you mean that they sought that outcome / selected for it?
Or merely that it was a known or predictable outcome of their behavior?
I think "unintentional" would already probably be a better term in most cases.
"Concrete Problems in AI Safety" used this distinction to make this point, and I think it was likely a useful simplification in that context. I generally think spelling it out is better, and I think people will pattern match your concerns onto the “the sci-fi scenario where AI spontaneously becomes conscious, goes rogue, and pursues its own goal” or "boring old robustness problems" if you don't invoke structural risk. I think structural risk plays a crucial role in the arguments, and even if you think things that look more like pure accidents are more likely, I think the structural risk story is more plausible to more people and a sufficient cause for concern.
RE (A): A known side-effect is not an accident.
A natural misconception lots of normies have is that the primary risks from AI come from bad actors using it explicitly to do evil things, rather than bad actors being unable to align AIs at all and that causing clippy to run wild. I would like to distinguish between these two scenarios and accident vs. misuse risk is an obvious way to do that.
Fwiw, when talking about risks from deploying a technology / product, "accident" seems (to me) much more like ascribing blame ("why didn't they deal with this problem?"), e.g. the Boeing 737-MAX incidents are "accidents" and people do blame Boeing for them. In contrast "structural" feels much more like "the problem was in the structure, there was no specific person or organization that was in the wrong".
I agree that in situations that aren't about deploying a technology / product, "accident" conveys a lack of blameworthiness.
Hmm... this is a good point.
I think structural risk is often a better description of reality, but I can see a rhetorical argument against framing things that way. One problem I see with doing that is that I think it leads people to think the solution is just for AI developers to be more careful, rather than observing that there will be structural incentives (etc.) pushing for less caution.
I’ve been reading this paragraph over and over, and I can’t follow it.
How does calling it "accident risk" absolve anyone of responsibility? Why can’t someone be responsible for an accident? People get blamed for accidents all the time, right?
How does the sentence “they should have known better” relate to the previous one—is it (A) “When you call it "accident risk", you are absolving those … of responsibility; it’s as if you are saying: They should have known better”, or is it (B) “When you call it "accident risk", you are absolving those … of responsibility. But you shouldn’t do that, because really, they should have known better.” ?
Here are some guesses that popped into my head, is any correct?
Thanks in advance.
UPDATE: From your second-to-last paragraph, I guess you’re endorsing the middle bullet. In which case, I disagree that “accident” implies that. For example, take the sentence “My friends dared me to drive for 20 seconds with my eyes closed, and wouldn’t you know it, I accidentally drove the car right through the front door of IKEA.” Or “With such negligence, an accident was bound to happen sooner or later.” Those both sound quite natural to my ears, not weird / incongruent. Do they to you? Can you give everyday examples of where “accident” is taken to imply “…that nobody could have possibly seen coming?”
In the field of road safety, the term "accident" is being depreciated. My understanding is that "It was an accident" suggests "It wasn't done on purpose, I didn't see it coming and I shouldn't be blamed for it", as a child would say to a parent after breaking a vase through negligence. In my mind, people get blamed for failures, not accidents, and your example sentences suggest someone attempting to dodge the responsibility for their actions.
With this framing, I can't currently think of an event that I would label "an accident", although "an accidental collision" would make sense to differentiate it from a collision that was done on purpose.
As a datapoint, I was listening to the radio during the 2-minute drive back from preschool drop-off this morning—a station with music & casual / humorous chat. They used the word “accidentally” once, to report a story where somebody’s 20yo kid accidentally locked themselves outside on the porch naked, and then a neighbor called the police. Despite using the word “accidentally”, the radio hosts were very much treating the kid as a blameworthy idiot and were laughing at his expense.
For your example: When the kid breaks the vase and says “but it was an accident!”, I interpret that as conveying the relevant information that it wasn’t intentional. That’s not a claim “I shouldn’t be blamed for it” as you say; rather it is a claim “I should be blamed for it much less than if it had been intentional, and plausibly not at all depending on the circumstances.”
Then if the parents responded to the kid: “No, you’re lying, that wasn’t an accident”, I think everyone would interpret that statement as the parents’ making a counter-claim that it was in fact intentional. Right?
More likely, after the kid says “but it was an accident!”, the parents would reply “Well you should have been more careful!”, thus tacitly conceding the claim that it was an accident. Right?
Another example on my side is the fact that wikipedia calls it the Three Mile Island Accident, and Jimmy Carter called it that too (cf. “President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island”), but I don’t think that anyone takes that name to be a bold and contentious claim that nobody should be blamed for it. The commission’s report definitely assigned lots of blame. If Jimmy Carter had called it the “President’s Commission on the Surprise Unforeseeable Failure at Three Mile Island”, people would have been up in arms about that, I think!
I concede that the forbes article you link supports your claim: they write “The word “accident” suggests no-one is to blame for a crash.” I feel like my life experience outweighs that one sentence though.
I feel like the adjective "accidentally" still makes sense to convey "not on purpose", and the "naked on the porch" situation is a good example of that. This distinction can be made regardless of the level of blame (or here shame) that should be inflicted. I don't feel like this applies to the noun "accident" and I doubt that the radio hosts would have called this "an accident where a man was locked outside naked".
Regarding the kid, I agree with you that it suggests "I should be blamed less (or not at all)" and the level of blame should somewhat depend on whether the action was intentional or not.
The Three Mile Island accident is interesting. If I were to guess, the phrasing of the commission was chosen to emphasize that this was not believed to be intentional sabotage. I would have preferred to call it an "incident" (more technically a "partial meltdown", but that's pretty scary for a commission name).
From what I'm reading, my understanding is accident → not intentional → reduce blame whereas you disagree with that last arrow or at least the strength of the reduction. It is my opinion that this term should not be used when we do not want to reduce blame, e.g. for sloppy AI safety measures. I feel that our disagreement has been made clear and we are arguing about the meaning of a word, but you're welcome to reply if you don't believe we have reached the crux.
Thanks for writing. I think this is a useful framing!
Where does the term "structural" come from?
The related literature I've seen uses the word "systemic", eg, the field of system safety. A good example is this talk (and slides, eg slide 24).
I first learned about the term "structural risk" in this article from 2019 by Remco Zwetsloot and Allan Dafoe, which was included in the AGI Safety Fundamentals curriculum.
The distinction between "accidental" and "negligent" is always a bit political. It's a question of assignment of credit/blame for hypothetical worlds, which is pretty much impossible in any real-world causality model.
I do agree that in most discussions, "accident" often implies a single unexpected outcome, rather than a repeated risk profile and multiple moves toward the bad outcome. Even so, if it doesn't reach the level of negligence for any one actor, Eliezer's term "inadequate equilibrium" may be more accurate.
Which means that using a different word will be correctly identified as a desire to shift responsibility from "it's a risk that might happen" to "these entities are bringing that risk on all of us".
I think inadequate equillibrium is too specific and insider jargon-y.
It's also more descriptive of cause than effect, so probably not what you want. I'm still not sure what you DO want, though. The post itself is pretty unclear what you're trying to convey with this missing word or phrase - you object to one, but don't propose others, and don't describe precisely what you wish you had a word for.
Anytime you use a short common word or phrase in a non-shared-jargon context, you have to accept that it's not going to mean quite what you want. The solution is to either use more words to be more precise, or to pick the aspect you want to highlight and accept that others will be lost.
In addition to the post you linked, there is also an earlier post on this topic that I like.
I also co wrote a post that looks at specific structural factors related to AI safety.
In e.g. aviation, incidents leading to some sort of loss are always called "accidents", even though we know there's always some risk of planes crashing -- it happens regularly. That doesn't mean aircraft engineers and manufacturers don't take the risks seriously enough, they usually take them very seriously indeed. It's just that "accident" only means something like "unplanned and undesired loss" (IIRC that's roughly how Nancy Leveson defines it).
I think you have a pretty good argument against the term "accident" for misalignment risk.
Misuse risk still seems like a good description for the class of risks where--once you have AI that is aligned with its operators--those operators may try to do unsavory things with their AI, or have goals that are quite at odds with the broad values of humans and other sentient beings.
I agree somewhat, however, I think we need to be careful to distinguish "do unsavory things" from "cause human extinction", and should generally be squarely focused on the latter. The former easily becomes too political, making coordination harder.
There are a lot of predictable and preventable accidents that are not prevented for all sorts of reasons. I don't have the same connotation from the word "accident" as you do.
Having read this post, and the comments section, and the related twitter argument, I’m still pretty confused about how much of this is an argument over what connotations the word “accident” does or doesn’t have, and how much of this is an object-level disagreement of the form “when you say that we’ll probably get to Doom via such-and-such path, you’re wrong, instead we’ll probably get to Doom via this different path.”
In other words, whatever blogpost / discussion / whatever that this OP is in response to, if you take that blogpost and use a browser extension to universally replace the word “accident” with “incident that was not specifically intended & desired by the people who pressed ‘run’ on the AGI code”, then would you still find that blogpost problematic? And why? I would be very interested if you could point to specific examples.
I’m also curious whether you think this chart I made & discussion (from here) is misleading for any reason:
Thanks in advance :)
While defining accident as “incident that was not specifically intended & desired by the people who pressed ‘run’ on the AGI code” is extremely broad, it still supposes that there is such a thing as "the AGI code", which significantly restricts the space of possibile risks.
There are other reasons I would not be happy with that browser extension. There is not one specific conversation I can point to; it comes up regularly. I think this replacement would probably lead to a lot of confusion, since I think when people use the word "accident" they often proceed as if it meant something stricter, e.g. that the result was unforseen or unforseeable.
If (as in "Concrete Problems", IMO) the point is just to point out that AI can get out-of-control, or that misuse is not the only risk, that's a worthwhile thing to point out, but it doesn't lead to a very useful framework for understanding the nature of the risk(s). As I mentioned elsewhere, it is specifically the dichotomy of "accident vs. misuse" that I think is the most problematic and misleading.
I think the chart is misleading for the following reasons, among others:
Thanks for your reply!
It continues to feel very bizarre to me to interpret the word “accident” as strongly implying “nobody was being negligent, nobody is to blame, nobody could have possibly seen it coming, etc.”. But I don’t want to deny your lived experience. I guess you interpret the word “accident” as having those connotations, and I figure that if you do, there are probably other people who do too. Maybe it’s a regional dialect thing, or different fields use the term in different ways, who knows. So anyway, going forward, I will endeavor to keep that possibility in mind and maybe put in some extra words of clarification where possible to head off misunderstandings. :)
I agree with this point.
I do think that there’s a pretty solid dichotomy between (A) “the AGI does things specifically intended by its designers” and (B) “the AGI does things that the designers never wanted it to do”.
I want to use the word “accident” universally for all bad outcomes downstream of (B), regardless of how grossly negligent and reckless people were etc., whereas you don’t want to use the word “accident”. OK, let’s put that aside.
I think (?) that we both agree that bad outcomes downstream of (A) are not necessarily related to “misuse” / “bad actors”. E.g., if there’s a war with AGIs on both sides, and humans are wiped out in the crossfire, I don’t necessarily want to say that either side necessarily was “bad actors”, or that either side’s behavior constitutes “misuse”.
So yeah, I agree that “accident vs misuse” is not a good dichotomy for AGI x-risk.
Thanks, that’s interesting.
I didn’t intend my chart to imply that “everyone follows the manual” doesn’t also require avoiding coordination problems and avoiding bad decisions etc. Obviously it does—or at least, that was obvious to me. Anyway, your feedback is noted. :)
I agree that “never ever create AGI” is an option in principle. (It doesn’t strike me as a feasible option in practice; does it to you? I know this is off-topic, I’m just curious)
Your text seems to imply that you don’t think creating such a manual is a goal at all. That seems so crazy to me that I have to assume I’m misunderstanding. (If there were a technical plan that would lead to aligned AGI, we would want to know what it is, right? Isn’t that the main thing that you & your group are working on?)
1) I don't think this dichotomy is as solid as it seems once you start poking at it... e.g. in your war example, it would be odd to say that the designers of the AGI systems that wiped out humans intended for that outcome to occur. Intentions are perhaps best thought of as incomplete specifications.
2) From our current position, I think “never ever create AGI” is a significantly easier thing to coordinate around than "don't build AGI until/unless we can do it safely". I'm not very worried that we will coordinate too successfully and never build AGI and thus squander the cosmic endowment. This is both because I think that's quite unlikely, and because I'm not sure we'll make very good / the best use of it anyways (e.g. think S-risk, other civilizations).
3) I think the conventional framing of AI alignment is something between vague and substantively incorrect, as well as being misleading. Here is a post I dashed off about that:
https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/biP5XBmqvjopvky7P/a-note-on-terminology-ai-alignment-ai-x-safety. I think creating such a manual is an incredibly ambitious goal, and I think more people in this community should aim for more moderate goals. I mostly agree with the perspective in this post: https://coordination.substack.com/p/alignment-is-not-enough, but I could say more on the matter.
4) RE connotations of accident: I think they are often strong.
1) Oh, sorry, what I meant was, the generals in Country A want their AGI to help them “win the war”, even if it involves killing people in Country B + innocent bystanders. And vice-versa for Country B. And then, between the efforts of both AGIs, the humans are all dead. But nothing here was either an “AGI
accidentunintended-by-the-designers behavior” nor “AGI misuse” by my definitions.
But anyway, yes I can imagine situations where it’s unclear whether “the AGI does things specifically intended by its designers”. That’s why I said “pretty solid” and not “rock solid” :) I think we probably disagree about whether these situations are the main thing we should be talking about, versus edge-cases we can put aside most of the time. From my perspective, they’re edge-cases. For example, the scenarios where a power-seeking AGI kills everyone are clearly on the “unintended” side of the (imperfect) dichotomy. But I guess it’s fine that other people are focused on different problems from me, and that “intent-alignment is poorly defined” may be a more central consideration for them. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
3) I like your “note on terminology post”. But I also think of myself as subscribing to “the conventional framing of AI alignment”. I’m kinda confused that you see the former as counter to the latter.
If you’re working on that, then I wish you luck! It does seem maybe feasible to buy some time. It doesn’t seem feasible to put off AGI forever. (But I’m not an expert.) It seems you agree.
I feel like I broadly agree with most of the points you make, but I also feel like accident vs misuse are still useful concepts to have.
For example, disasters caused by guns could be seen as:
Nevertheless, all of the above are complex and structural in different ways where it is often counterproductive or plain misleading to assign blame (or credit) to the causal node directly upstream of it (in this case, guns).
While I agree that the majority of AI risks are neither caused by accidents nor misuse, and that they shouldn't be seen as a dichotomy, I do feel that the distinction may still be useful in some contexts i.e. what the mitigation approaches could look like.
Yes it may be useful in some very limited contexts. I can't recall a time I have seen it in writing and felt like it was not a counter-productive framing.
AI is highly non-analogous with guns.
Yes, especially for consequentialist AIs that don't behave like tool AIs.
Something that's been bugging me is that a "solution to the alignment problem" seems to address accident risk, but not structural risk. A "pivotal act AI" addresses both, but many people are skeptical of this strategy. It's not obvious to me that pivotal act skeptics should be mostly focused on alignment. To put it crudely (and it being so crude is why this is a comment, not a top level post), to reduce structural risk it seems to me very important to
and comparatively less important to find new ways to get AI to do impressive things, safely or otherwise. It might be instrumentally valuable to e.g. get an AI that can help you do the two things above, but this would make AI alignment instrumental, not an end in and of itself. Actually, these remarks seem to apply in equal force to the pivotal act strategy, and the disagreement may just be how much AGI is necessary to achieve these aims.
Yeah strong agree. Moloch is made of people, if AI ends humanity it will not be because of some totally unforeseen circumstance. The accident framing is one used to abdicate and obfuscate responsibility in one's ongoing participation in bringing that about. So no one understands that they're going to kill the world when they take actions that help kill the world? I bet that makes it easier to sleep at night while you continue killing the world. But if no one is culpable, no one is complicit, and no one is responsible...then who killed the world?