Superintelligence 10: Instrumentally convergent goals

by KatjaGrace 5 min read18th Nov 201431 comments


This is part of a weekly reading group on Nick Bostrom's book, Superintelligence. For more information about the group, and an index of posts so far see the announcement post. For the schedule of future topics, see MIRI's reading guide.

Welcome. This week we discuss the tenth section in the reading guide: Instrumentally convergent goals. This corresponds to the second part of Chapter 7.

This post summarizes the section, and offers a few relevant notes, and ideas for further investigation. Some of my own thoughts and questions for discussion are in the comments.

There is no need to proceed in order through this post, or to look at everything. Feel free to jump straight to the discussion. And if you are behind on the book, don't let it put you off discussing. Where applicable and I remember, page numbers indicate the rough part of the chapter that is most related (not necessarily that the chapter is being cited for the specific claim).

ReadingInstrumental convergence from Chapter 7 (p109-114)


  1. The instrumental convergence thesis: we can identify 'convergent instrumental values' (henceforth CIVs). That is, subgoals that are useful for a wide range of more fundamental goals, and in a wide range of situations. (p109)
  2. Even if we know nothing about an agent's goals, CIVs let us predict some of the agent's behavior (p109)
  3. Some CIVs:
    1. Self-preservation: because you are an excellent person to ensure your own goals are pursued in future.
    2. Goal-content integrity (i.e. not changing your own goals): because if you don't have your goals any more, you can't pursue them.
    3. Cognitive enhancement: because making better decisions helps with any goals.
    4. Technological perfection: because technology lets you have more useful resources.
    5. Resource acquisition: because a broad range of resources can support a broad range of goals.
  4. For each CIV, there are plausible combinations of final goals and scenarios under which an agent would not pursue that CIV. (p109-114)


1. Why do we care about CIVs?
CIVs to acquire resources and to preserve oneself and one's values play important roles in the argument for AI risk. The desired conclusions are that we can already predict that an AI would compete strongly with humans for resources, and also than an AI once turned on will go to great lengths to stay on and intact.

2. Related work
Steve Omohundro wrote the seminal paper on this topic. The LessWrong wiki links to all of the related papers I know of. Omohundro's list of CIVs (or as he calls them, 'basic AI drives') is a bit different from Bostrom's:

  1. Self-improvement
  2. Rationality
  3. Preservation of utility functions
  4. Avoiding counterfeit utility
  5. Self-protection
  6. Acquisition and efficient use of resources

3. Convergence for values and situations
It seems potentially helpful to distinguish convergence over situations and convergence over values. That is, to think of instrumental goals on two axes - one of how universally agents with different values would want the thing, and one of how large a range of situations it is useful in. A warehouse full of corn is useful for almost any goals, but only in the narrow range of situations where you are a corn-eating organism who fears an apocalypse (or you can trade it). A world of resources converted into computing hardware is extremely valuable in a wide range of scenarios, but much more so if you don't especially value preserving the natural environment. Many things that are CIVs for humans don't make it onto Bostrom's list, I presume because he expects the scenario for AI to be different enough. For instance, procuring social status is useful for all kinds of human goals. For an AI in the situation of a human, it would appear to also be useful. For an AI more powerful than the rest of the world combined, social status is less helpful.

4. What sort of things are CIVs?
Arguably all CIVs mentioned above could be clustered under 'cause your goals to control more resources'. This implies causing more agents to have your values (e.g. protecting your values in yourself), causing those agents to have resources (e.g. getting resources and transforming them into better resources) and getting the agents to control the resources effectively as well as nominally (e.g. cognitive enhancement, rationality). It also suggests convergent values we haven't mentioned. To cause more agents to have one's values, one might create or protect other agents with your values, or spread your values to existing other agents. To improve the resources held by those with one's values, a very convergent goal in human society is to trade. This leads to a convergent goal of creating or acquiring resources which are highly valued by others, even if not by you. Money and social influence are particularly widely redeemable 'resources'. Trade also causes others to act like they have your values when they don't, which is a way of spreading one's values. 

As I mentioned above, my guess is that these are left out of Superintelligence because they involve social interactions. I think Bostrom expects a powerful singleton, to whom other agents will be irrelevant. If you are not confident of the singleton scenario, these CIVs might be more interesting.

5. Another discussion
John Danaher discusses this section of Superintelligence, but not disagreeably enough to read as 'another view'. 

Another view

I don't know of any strong criticism of the instrumental convergence thesis, so I will play devil's advocate.

The concept of a sub-goal that is useful for many final goals is unobjectionable. However the instrumental convergence thesis claims more than this, and this stronger claim is important for the desired argument for AI doom. The further claims are also on less solid ground, as we shall see.

According to the instrumental convergence thesis, convergent instrumental goals not only exist, but can at least sometimes be identified by us. This is needed for arguing that we can foresee that AI will prioritize grabbing resources, and that it will be very hard to control. That we can identify convergent instrumental goals may seem clear - after all, we just did: self-preservation, intelligence enhancement and the like. However to say anything interesting, our claim must not only be that these values are better than not, but that they will be prioritized by the kinds of AI that will exist, in a substantial range of circumstances that will arise. This is far from clear, for several reasons.

Firstly, to know what the AI would prioritize we need to know something about its alternatives, and we can be much less confident that we have thought of all of the alternative instrumental values an AI might have. For instance, in the abstract intelligence enhancement may seem convergently valuable, but in practice adult humans devote little effort to it. This is because investments in intelligence are rarely competitive with other endeavors.

Secondly, we haven't said anything quantitative about how general or strong our proposed convergent instrumental values are likely to be, or how we are weighting the space of possible AI values. Without even any guesses, it is hard to know what to make of resulting predictions. The qualitativeness of the discussion also raises the concern that thinking on the problem has not been very concrete, and so may not be engaged with what is likely in practice.

Thirdly, we have arrived at these convergent instrumental goals by theoretical arguments about what we think of as default rational agents and 'normal' circumstances. These may be very different distributions of agents and scenarios from those produced by our engineering efforts. For instance, perhaps almost all conceivable sets of values - in whatever sense - would favor accruing resources ruthlessly. It would still not be that surprising if an agent somehow created noisily from human values cared about only acquiring resources by certain means or had blanket ill-feelings about greed.

In sum, it is unclear that we can identify important convergent instrumental values, and consequently unclear that such considerations can strongly help predict the behavior of real future AI agents.

In-depth investigations

If you are particularly interested in these topics, and want to do further research, these are a few plausible directions, some inspired by Luke Muehlhauser's list, which contains many suggestions related to parts of Superintelligence. These projects could be attempted at various levels of depth.


  1. Do approximately all final goals make an optimizer want to expand beyond the cosmological horizon?
  2. Can we say anything more quantitative about the strength or prevalence of these convergent instrumental values?
  3. Can we say more about values that are likely to be convergently instrumental just across AIs that are likely to be developed, and situations they are likely to find themselves in?


If you are interested in anything like this, you might want to mention it in the comments, and see whether other people have useful thoughts.

How to proceed

This has been a collection of notes on the chapter.  The most important part of the reading group though is discussion, which is in the comments section. I pose some questions for you there, and I invite you to add your own. Please remember that this group contains a variety of levels of expertise: if a line of discussion seems too basic or too incomprehensible, look around for one that suits you better!

Next week, we will talk about the treacherous turn. To prepare, read “Existential catastrophe…” and “The treacherous turn” from Chapter 8The discussion will go live at 6pm Pacific time next Monday 24th November. Sign up to be notified here.