Superintelligence 20: The value-loading problem

by KatjaGrace 6 min read27th Jan 201521 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 twentieth section in the reading guide: the value-loading problem

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. 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).

Reading: “The value-loading problem” through “Motivational scaffolding” from Chapter 12


  1. Capability control is a short-term measure: at some point, we will want to select the motivations of AIs. (p185)
  2. The value loading problem: how do you cause an AI to pursue your goals? (p185)
  3. Some ways to instill values into an AI:
    1. Explicit representation: Hand-code desirable values (185-7)
    2. Evolutionary selection: Humans evolved to have values that are desirable to humans—maybe it wouldn't be too hard to artificially select digital agents with desirable values. (p187-8)
    3. Reinforcement learning: In general, a machine receives reward signal as it interacts with the environment, and tries to maximize the reward signal. Perhaps we could reward a reinforcement learner for aligning with our values, and it could learn them. (p188-9)
    4. Associative value accretion: Have the AI acquire values in the way that humans appear to—starting out with some machinery for synthesizing appropriate new values as we interact with our environments. (p189-190)
    5. Motivational scaffolding: start the machine off with some values, so that it can run and thus improve and learn about the world, then swap them out for the values you want once the machine has sophisticated enough concepts to understand your values. (191-192)
    6. To be continued...

Another view

Ernest Davis, on a 'serious flaw' in Superintelligence

The unwarranted belief that, though achieving intelligence is more or less easy, giving a computer an ethical point of view is really hard.

Bostrom writes about the problem of instilling ethics in computers in a language reminiscent of 1960’s era arguments against machine intelligence; how are you going to get something as complicated as intelligence, when all you can do is manipulate registers?

The definition [of moral terms] must bottom out in the AI’s programming language and ultimately in primitives such as machine operators and addresses pointing to the contents of individual memory registers. When one considers the problem from this perspective, one can begin to appreciate the difficulty of the programmer’s task.

In the following paragraph he goes on to argue from the complexity of computer vision that instilling ethics is almost hopelessly difficult, without, apparently, noticing that computer vision itself is a central AI problem, which he is assuming is going to be solved. He considers that the problems of instilling ethics into an AI system is “a research challenge worthy of some of the next generation’s best mathematical talent”.

It seems to me, on the contrary, that developing an understanding of ethics as contemporary humans understand it is actually one of the easier problems facing AI. Moreover, it would be a necessary part, both of aspects of human cognition, such as narrative understanding, and of characteristics that Bostrom attributes to the superintelligent AI. For instance, Bostrom refers to the AI’s “social manipulation superpowers”. But if an AI is to be a master manipulator, it will need a good understanding of what people consider moral; if it comes across as completely amoral, it will be at a very great disadvantage in manipulating people. There is actually some truth to the idea, central to The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, that in dealing with people, failing to understand their moral standards is a strategic gap. If the AI can understand human morality, it is hard to see what is the technical difficulty in getting it to follow that morality.

Let me suggest the following approach to giving the superintelligent AI an operationally useful definition of minimal standards of ethics that it should follow. You specify a collection of admirable people, now dead. (Dead, because otherwise Bostrom will predict that the AI will manipulate the preferences of the living people.) The AI, of course knows all about them because it has read all their biographies on the web. You then instruct the AI, “Don’t do anything that these people would have mostly seriously disapproved of.”

This has the following advantages:

  • It parallels one of the ways in which people gain a moral sense.
  • It is comparatively solidly grounded, and therefore unlikely to have an counterintuitive fixed point.
  • It is easily explained to people.

Of course, it is completely impossible until we have an AI with a very powerful understanding; but that is true of all Bostrom’s solutions as well. To be clear: I am not proposing that this criterion 3should be used as the ethical component of every day decisions; and I am not in the least claiming that this idea is any kind of contribution to the philosophy of ethics. The proposal is that this criterion would work well enough as a minimal standard of ethics; if the AI adheres to it, it will not exterminate us, enslave us, etc.

This may not seem adequate to Bostrom, because he is not content with human morality in its current state; he thinks it is important for the AI to use its superintelligence to find a more ultimate morality. That seems to me both unnecessary and very dangerous. It is unnecessary because, as long as the AI follows our morality, it will at least avoid getting horribly out of whack, ethically; it will not exterminate us or enslave us. It is dangerous because it is hard to be sure that it will not lead to consequences that we would reasonably object to. The superintelligence might rationally decide, like the King of Brobdingnag, that we humans are “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth,” and that it would do well to exterminate us and replace us with some much more worthy species. However wise this decision, and however strongly dictated by the ultimate true theory of morality, I think we are entitled to object to it, and to do our best to prevent it. I feel safer in the hands of a superintelligence who is guided by 2014 morality, or for that matter by 1700 morality, than in the hands of one that decides to consider the question for itself.


1. At the start of the chapter, Bostrom says ‘while the agent is unintelligent, it might lack the capability to understand or even represent any humanly meaningful value. Yet if we delay the procedure until the agent is superintelligent, it may be able to resist our attempt to meddle with its motivation system.' Since presumably the AI only resists being given motivations once it is turned on and using some other motivations, you might wonder why we wouldn't just wait until we had built an AI smart enough to understand or represent human values, before we turned it on. I believe the thought here is that the AI will come to understand the world and have the concepts required to represent human values by interacting with the world for a time. So it is not so much that the AI will need to be turned on to become fundamentally smarter, but that it will need to be turned on to become more knowledgeable.

2. A discussion of Davis' response to Bostrom just started over at the Effective Altruism forum.

3. Stuart Russell thinks of value loading as an intrinsic part of AI research, in the same way that nuclear containment is an intrinsic part of modern nuclear fusion research.

4. Kaj Sotala has written about how to get an AI to learn concepts similar to those of humans, for the purpose of making safe AI which can reason about our concepts. If you had an oracle which understood human concepts, you could basically turn it into an AI which plans according to arbitrary goals you can specify in human language, because you can say 'which thing should I do to best forward [goal]?' (This is not necessarily particularly safe as it stands, but is a basic scheme for turning conceptual understanding and a motivation to answer questions into any motivation).

5. Inverse reinforcement learning and goal inference are approaches to having machines discover goals by observing actions—these could be useful instilling our own goals into machines (as has been observed before).

6. If you are interested in whether values are really so complex, Eliezer has written about it. Toby Ord responds critically to the general view around the LessWrong community that value is extremely likely to be complex, pointing out that this thesis is closely related to anti-realism—a relatively unpopular view among academic philosophers—and so that overall people shouldn't be that confident. Lots of debate ensues.

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. How can we efficiently formally specify human values? This includes for instance how to efficiently collect data on human values and how to translate it into a precise specification (and at the meta-level, how to be confident that it is correct).
  2. Are there other plausible approaches to instil desirable values into a machine, beyond those listed in this chapter?
  3. Investigate further the feasibility of particular approaches suggested in this chapter.
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 how an AI might learn about values. To prepare, read “Value learning” from Chapter 12. The discussion will go live at 6pm Pacific time next Monday 2 February. Sign up to be notified here.