Against utility functions

by Qiaochu_Yuan 5y19th Jun 201487 comments

43


I think we should stop talking about utility functions.

In the context of ethics for humans, anyway. In practice I find utility functions to be, at best, an occasionally useful metaphor for discussions about ethics but, at worst, an idea that some people start taking too seriously and which actively makes them worse at reasoning about ethics. To the extent that we care about causing people to become better at reasoning about ethics, it seems like we ought to be able to do better than this.

The funny part is that the failure mode I worry the most about is already an entrenched part of the Sequences: it's fake utility functions. The soft failure is people who think they know what their utility function is and say bizarre things about what this implies that they, or perhaps all people, ought to do. The hard failure is people who think they know what their utility function is and then do bizarre things. I hope the hard failure is not very common. 

It seems worth reflecting on the fact that the point of the foundational LW material discussing utility functions was to make people better at reasoning about AI behavior and not about human behavior.