Jon Garcia

I have a PhD in Computational Neuroscience from UCSD (Bachelor's was in Biomedical Engineering with Math and Computer Science minors). Ever since junior high, I've been trying to figure out how to engineer artificial minds, and I've been coding up artificial neural networks ever since I first learned to program. Obviously, all my early designs were almost completely wrong/unworkable/poorly defined, but I think my experiences did prime my brain with inductive biases that are well suited for working on AGI.

Although I now work as a data scientist in R&D at a large medical device company, I continue to spend my free time studying the latest developments in AI/ML/DL/RL and neuroscience and trying to come up with models for how to bring it all together into systems that could actually be implemented. Unfortnately, I don't seem to have much time to develop my ideas into publishable models, but I would love to have the opportunity to share ideas with those who do.

Of course, I'm also very interested in AI Alignment (hence the account here). My ideas on that front mostly fall into the "learn (invertible) generative models of human needs/goals and hook those up to the AI's own reward signal" camp. I think methods of achieving alignment that depend on restricting the AI's intelligence or behavior are about as destined to failure in the long term as Prohibition or the War on Drugs in the USA. We need a better theory of what reward signals are for in general (probably something to do with maximizing (minimizing) the attainable (dis)utility with respect to the survival needs of a system) before we can hope to model human values usefully. This could even extend to modeling the "values" of the ecological/socioeconomic/political supersystems in which humans are embedded or of the biological subsystems that are embedded within humans, both of which would be crucial for creating a better future.


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The problem is that at the beginning, its plans are generally going to be complete nonsense. It has to have a ton of interaction with (at least a reasonable model of) its environment, both with its reward signal and with its causal structure, before it approaches a sensible output.

There is no utility for the RL agent's operators to have an oracle AI with no practical experience. The power of RL is that a simple feedback signal can teach it everything it needs to know to act rationally in its environment. But if you want it to make rational plans for the real world without actually letting it get direct feedback from the real world, you need to add on vast layers of additional computational complexity to its training manually, which would more or less be taken care of automatically for an RL agent interacting with the real world. The incentives aren't in your favor here.

The RL agent will only know whether its plans are any good if they actually get carried out. The reward signal is something that it essentially sought out through trial and error. All (most?) RL agents start out not knowing anything about the impact their plans will have, or even anything about the causal structure of the environment. All of that has to be learned through experience.

For agents that play board games like chess or Go, the environment can be fully determined in simulation. So, sure, in those cases you can have them generate plans and then not take their advice on a physical game board. And those plans do tend to be power-seeking for well-trained agents in the sense that they tend to reach states that maximize the number of winnable options that they have while minimizing the winnable options of their opponents.

However, for an AI to generate power seeking plans for the real world, it would need to have access either to a very computationally expensive simulator or to the actual real world. The latter is an easier setup to design but more dangerous to train, above a certain level of capability.

Overall, I’ve updated from “just aim for ambitious value learning” to “empirically figure out what potential medium-term alignment targets (e.g. human values, corrigibility, Do What I Mean, human mimicry, etc) are naturally expressible in an AGI’s internal concept-language”.

I like this. In fact, I would argue that some of those medium-term alignment targets are actually necessary stepping stones toward ambitious value learning.

Human mimicry, for one, could serve as a good behavioral prior for IRL agents. AI that can reverse-engineer the policy function of a human (e.g., by minimizing the error between the world-state-trajectory caused by its own actions and that produced by a human's actions) is probably already most of the way there toward reverse-engineering the value function that drives it (e.g., start by looking for common features among the stable fixed points of the learned policy function). I would argue that the intrinsic drive to mimic other humans is a big part of why humans are so adept at aligning to each other.

Do What I Mean (DWIM) would also require modeling humans in a way that would help greatly in modeling human values. A human that gives an AI instructions is mapping some high-dimensional, internally represented goal state into a linear sequence of symbols (or a 2D diagram or whatever). DWIM would require the AI to generate its own high-dimensional, internally represented goal states, optimizing for goals that give a high likelihood to the instructions it received. If achievable, DWIM could also help transform the local incentives for general AI capabilities research into something with a better Nash equilibrium. Systems that are capable of predicting what humans intended for them to do could prove far more valuable to existing stakeholders in AI research than current DL and RL systems, which tend to be rather brittle and prone to overfitting to the heuristics we give them.

Awesome visualizations. Thanks for doing this.

It occurred to me that LayerNorm seems to be implementing something like lateral inhibition, using extreme values of one neuron to affect the activations of other neurons. In biological brains, lateral inhibition plays a key role in many computations, enabling things like sparse coding and attention. Of course, in those systems, input goes through every neuron's own nonlinear activation function prior to having lateral inhibition applied.

I would be interested in seeing the effect of applying a nonlinearity (such as ReLU, GELU, ELU, etc.) prior to LayerNorm in an artificial neural network. My guess is that it would help prevent neurons with strong negative pre-activations from messing with the output of more positively activated neurons, as happens with pure LayerNorm. Of course, that would limit things to the first orthant for ReLU, although not for GELU or ELU. Not sure how that would affect stretching and folding operations, though.

By the way, have you looked at how this would affect processing in a CNN, normalizing each pixel of a given layer across all feature channels? I think I've tried using LayerNorm in such a context before, but I don't recall it turning out too well. Maybe I could look into that again sometime.

I think grading in some form will be necessary in the sense that we don't know what value heuristics will be sufficient to ensure alignment in the AI. We will most likely need to add corrections to its reward signals on the fly, even as it learns to extrapolate its own values from those heuristics. In other words, grading.

However, it seems the crucial point is that we need to avoid including grader evaluations as part of the AI's self-evaluation model, for the same reason that we shouldn't give it access to its reward button. In other words, don't build the AI like this:

[planning module] -> [predicted grader output] -> [internal reward signal] -> [reinforce policy function]

Instead, it should look more like this:

[planning module] -> [predicted world state] -> [internal reward signal] -> [reinforce policy function]

The predicted grader output may be part of the AI's predicted world state (if a grader is used), but it shouldn't be the part that triggers reward. The trick, then, would be to identify the part of the AI's world model that corresponds to what we want it to care about and feed only that part into the learned reward signal.

Could part of the problem be that the actor is optimizing against a single grader's evaluations? Shouldn't it somehow take uncertainty into account?

Consider having an ensemble of graders, each learning or having been trained to evaluate plans/actions from different initializations and/or using different input information. Each grader would have a different perspective, but that means that the ensemble should converge on similar evaluations for plans that look similarly good from many points of view (like a CT image crystallizing from the combination of many projections).

Rather than arg-maxing on the output of a single grader, the actor would optimize for Schelling points in plan space, selecting actions that minimize the variance among all graders. Of course, you still want it to maximize the evaluations also, so maybe it should look for actions that lie somewhere in the middle of the Pareto frontier of maximum  and minimum .

My intuition suggests that the larger and more diverse the ensemble, the better this strategy would perform, assuming the evaluators are all trained properly. However, I suspect a superintelligence could still find a way to exploit this.

Could we solve alignment by just getting an AI to learn human preferences through training it to predict human behavior, using a "current best guess" model of human preferences to make predictions and updating the model until its predictions are accurate, then using this model as a reward signal for the AI? Is there a danger in relying on these sorts of revealed preferences?

On a somewhat related note, someone should answer, "What is this Coherent Extrapolated Volition I've been hearing about from the AI safety community? Are there any holes in that plan?"

Different parts of me get excited about this in different directions.

On the one hand, I see AI alignment as highly solvable. When I scan out among a dozen different subdisciplines in machine learning, generative modeling, natural language processing, cognitive science, computational neuroscience, predictive coding, etc., I feel like I can sense the faint edges of a solution to alignment that is already holographically distributed among collective humanity.

Getting AGI that has the same natural abstractions that biological brains converge on, that uses interpretable computational architectures for explicit reasoning, that continuously improves its internal predictive models of the needs and goals of other agents within its sphere of control and uses these models to motivate its own behavior in a self-correcting loop of corrigibility, that cares about the long-term survival of humanity and the whole biosphere; all of this seems like it is achievable within the next 10-20 years if we could just get all the right people working together on it. And I'm excited at the prospect that we could be part of seeing this vision come to fruition.

On the other hand, I realize that humanity is full of bad faith actors and otherwise good people whose agendas are constrained by perverse local incentives. Right now, deep learning is prone to fall to adversarial examples, completely failing to recognize what it's looking at when the texture changes slightly. Natural language understanding is still brittle, with transformer models probably being a bit too general-purpose for their own good. Reinforcement learning still falls prey to Goodharting, which would almost certainly lead to disaster if scaled up sufficiently. Honestly, I don't want to see an AGI emerge that's based on current paradigms just hacked together into something that seems to work. But I see groups moving in that direction anyway.

Without an alignment-adjacent paradigm shift that offers competitive performance over existing models, the major developers of AI are going to continue down a dangerous path, while no one else has the resources to compete. In this light, seeing the rapid progress of the last decade from Alex-Net to GPT-3 and DALLE-2 creates the sort of foreboding excitement that you talked about here. The train is barreling forward at an accelerating pace, and reasonable voices may not be loud enough over the roar of the engines to get the conductor to switch tracks before we plunge over a cliff.

I'm excited for the possibilities of AGI as I idealize it. I'm dreading the likelihood of a dystopic future with no escape if existing AI paradigms take over the world. The question becomes, how do we switch tracks?

Come to think of it, couldn't this be applied to model corrigibility itself?

Have an AI that's constantly coming up with predictive models of human preferences, generating an ensemble of plans for satisfying human preferences according to each model. Then break those plans into landmarks and look for clusters in goal-space.

Each cluster could then form a candidate basin of attraction of goals for the AI to pursue. The center of each basin would represent a "robust bottleneck" that would be helpful across predictive models; the breadth of each basin would account for the variance in landmark features; and the depth/attractiveness of each basin would be proportional to the number of predictive models that have landmarks in that cluster.

Ideally, the distribution of these basins would update continuously as each model in the ensemble becomes more predictive of human preferences (both stated and revealed) due to what the AGI learns as it interacts with humans in the real world. Plans should always be open to change in light of new information, including those of an AGI, so the landmarks and their clusters would necessarily shift around as well.

Assuming this is the right approach, the questions that remain would be how to structure those models of human preferences, how to measure their predictive performance, how to update the models on new information, how to use those models to generate plans, how to represent landmarks along plan paths in goal-space, how to convert a vector in goal-space into actionable behavior for the AI to pursue, etc., etc., etc. Okay, yeah, there would still be a lot of work left to do.

When you say "optimization target," it seems like you mean a single point in path-space that the planner aims for, where this point consists of several fixed landmarks along the path which don't adjust to changing circumstances. Such an optimization target could still have some wiggle room (i.e., consist of an entire distribution of possible sub-paths) between these landmarks, correct? So some level of uncertainty must be built into the plan regardless of whether you call it a prediction or an optimization target.

It seems to me that what you're advocating for is equivalent to generating an entire ensemble of optimization targets, each based on a different predictive model of how things will go. Then you break those targets up into their constituent landmarks and look for clusters of landmarks in goal-space from across the entire ensemble of paths. Would your "robust bottlenecks" then refer to the densest of these clusters?

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