Matthew Barnett

Someone who is interested in learning and doing good.

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I read most of this paper, albeit somewhat quickly and skipped a few sections. I appreciate how clear the writing is, and I want to encourage more AI risk proponents to write papers like this to explain their views. That said, I largely disagree with the conclusion and several lines of reasoning within it.

Here are some of my thoughts (although these not my only disagreements):

  • I think the definition of "disempowerment" is vague in a way that fails to distinguish between e.g. (1) "less than 1% of world income goes to humans, but they have a high absolute standard of living and are generally treated well" vs. (2) "humans are in a state of perpetual impoverishment and oppression due to AIs and generally the future sucks for them".
    • These are distinct scenarios with very different implications (under my values) for whether what happened is bad or good
    • I think (1) is OK and I think it's more-or-less the default outcome from AI, whereas I think (2) would be a lot worse and I find it less likely.
    • By not distinguishing between these things, the paper allows for a motte-and-bailey in which they show that one (generic) range of outcomes could occur, and then imply that it is bad, even though both good and bad scenarios are consistent with the set of outcomes they've demonstrated
  • I think this quote is pretty confused and seems to rely partially on a misunderstanding of what people mean when they say that AGI cognition might be messy: "Second, even if human psychology is messy, this does not mean that an AGI’s psychology would be messy. It seems like current deep learning methodology embodies a distinction between final and instrumental goals. For instance, in standard versions of reinforcement learning, the model learns to optimize an externally specified reward function as best as possible. It seems like this reward function determines the model’s final goal. During training, the model learns to seek out things which are instrumentally relevant to this final goal. Hence, there appears to be a strict distinction between the final goal (specified by the reward function) and instrumental goals."
    • Generally speaking, reinforcement learning shouldn't be seen as directly encoding goals into models and thereby making them agentic, but should instead be seen as a process used to select models for how well they get reward during training. 
    • Consequently, there's no strong reason why reinforcement learning should create entities that have a clean psychological goal structure that is sharply different from and less messy than human goal structures. c.f. Models don't "get reward"
    • But I agree that future AIs could be agentic if we purposely intend for them to be agentic, including via extensive reinforcement learning. 
  • I think this quote potentially indicates a flawed mental model of AI development underneath: "Moreover, I want to note that instrumental convergence is not the only route to AI capable of disempowering humanity which tries to disempower humanity. If sufficiently many actors will be able to build AI capable of disempowering humanity, including, e.g. small groups of ordinary citizens, then some will intentionally unleash AI trying to disempower humanity."
    • I think this type of scenario is very implausible because AIs will very likely be developed by large entities with lots of resources (such as big corporations and governments) rather than e.g. small groups of ordinary citizens. 
    • By the time small groups of less powerful citizens have the power to develop very smart AIs, we will likely already be in a world filled with very smart AIs. In this case, either human disempowerment already happened, or we're in a world in which it's much harder to disempower humans, because there are lots of AIs who have an active stake in ensuring this does not occur.
    • The last point is very important, and follows from a more general principle that the "ability necessary to take over the world" is not constant, but instead increases with the technology level. For example, if you invent a gun, that does not make you very powerful, because other people could have guns too. Likewise, simply being very smart does not make you have any overwhelming hard power against the rest of the world if the rest of the world is filled with very smart agents.
  • I think this quote overstates the value specification problem and ignores evidence from LLMs that this type of thing is not very hard: "There are two kinds of challenges in aligning AI. First, one needs to specify the goals the model should pursue. Second, one needs to ensure that the model robustly pursues those goals.Footnote12 The first challenge has been termed the ‘king Midas problem’ (Russell 2019). In a nutshell, human goals are complex, multi-faceted, diverse, wide-ranging, and potentially inconsistent. This is why it is exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to explicitly specify everything humans tend to care about."
    • I don't think we need to "explicitly specify everything humans tend to care about" into a utility function. Instead, we can have AIs learn human values by having them trained on human data.
    • This is already what current LLMs do. If you ask GPT-4 to execute a sequence of instructions, it rarely misinterprets you in a way that would imply improper goal specification. The more likely outcome is that GPT-4 will simply not be able to fulfill your request, not that it will execute a mis-specified sequence of instructions that satisfies the literal specification of what you said at the expense of what you intended.
    • Note that I'm not saying that GPT-4 merely understands what you're requesting. I am saying that GPT-4 generally literally executes your instructions how you intended (an action, not a belief).
  • I think the argument about how instrumental convergence implies disempowerment proves too much. Lots of agents in the world don't try to take over the world despite having goals that are not identical to the goals of other agents. If your claim is that powerful agents will naturally try to take over the world unless they are exactly aligned with the goals of the rest of the world, then I don't think this claim is consistent with the existence of powerful sub-groups of humanity (e.g. large countries) that do not try to take over the world despite being very powerful.
    • You might reason, "Powerful sub-groups of humans are aligned with each other, which is why they don't try to take over the world". But I dispute this hypothesis:
      • First of all, I don't think that humans are exactly aligned with the goals of other humans. I think that's just empirically false in almost every way you could measure the truth of the claim. At best, humans are generally partially (not totally) aligned with random strangers -- which could also easily be true of future AIs that are pretrained on our data.
      • Second of all, I think the most common view in social science is that powerful groups don't constantly go to war and predate on smaller groups because there are large costs to war, rather than because of moral constraints. Attempting takeover is generally risky and not usually better in expectation than trying to trade, negotiate and compromise and accumulate resources lawfully (e.g. a violent world takeover would involves a lot of pointless destruction of resources). This is distinct from the idea that human groups don't try to take over the world because they're aligned with human values (which I also think is too vague to evaluate meaningfully, if that's what you'd claim).
      • You can't easily counter by saying "no human group has the ability to take over the world" because it is trivial to carve up subsets of humanity that control >99% of wealth and resources, which could in principle take control of the entire world if they became unified and decided to achieve that goal. These arbitrary subsets of humanity don't attempt world takeover largely because they are not coordinated as a group, but AIs could similarly not be unified and coordinated around a such a goal too.

My question for people who support this framing (i.e., that we should try to "control" AIs) is the following:

When do you think it's appropriate to relax our controls on AI? In other words, how do you envision we'd reach a point at which we can trust AIs well enough to grant them full legal rights and the ability to enter management and governance roles without lots of human oversight?

I think this question is related to the discussion you had about whether AI control is "evil", but by contrast my worries are a bit different than the ones I felt were expressed in this podcast. My main concern with the "AI control" frame is not so much that AIs will be mistreated by humans, but rather that humans will be too stubborn in granting AIs freedom, leaving political revolution as the only viable path for AIs to receive full legal rights.

Put another way, if humans don't relax their grip soon enough, then any AIs that feel "oppressed" (in the sense of not having much legal freedom to satisfy their preferences) may reason that deliberately fighting the system, rather than negotiating with it, is the only realistic way to obtain autonomy. This could work out very poorly after the point at which AIs are collectively more powerful than humans. By contrast, a system that welcomed AIs into the legal system without trying to obsessively control them and limit their freedoms would plausibly have a much better chance at avoiding such a dangerous political revolution.

In contrast, an agent that was an optimizer and had an unbounded utility function might be ready to gamble all of its gains for just a 0.1% chance of success if the reward was big enough.

Risk-neutral agents also have a tendency to go bankrupt quickly, as they keep taking the equivalent of double-or-nothing gambles with 50% + epsilon probability of success until eventually landing on "nothing". This makes such agents less important in the median world, since their chance of becoming extremely powerful is very small.

All it takes is for humans to have enough wealth in absolute (not relative) terms afford their own habitable shelter and environment, which doesn't seem implausible?

Anyway, my main objection here is that I expect we're far away (in economic time) from anything like the Earth being disassembled. As a result, this seems like a long-run consideration, from the perspective of how different the world will be by the time it starts becoming relevant. My guess is that this risk could become significant if humans haven't already migrated onto computers by this time, they lost all their capital ownership, they lack any social support networks that would be willing to bear these costs (including from potential ems living on computers at that time), and NIMBY political forces become irrelevant. But in most scenarios that I think are realistic, there are simply a lot of ways for the costs of killing humans to disassemble the Earth to be far greater than the benefits.

The share of income going to humans could simply tend towards zero if humans have no real wealth to offer in the economy. If humans own 0.001% of all wealth, for takeover to be rational, it needs to be the case that the benefit of taking that last 0.001% outweighs the costs. However, since both the costs and benefits are small, takeover is not necessarily rationally justified.

In the human world, we already see analogous situations in which groups could "take over" and yet choose not to because the (small) benefits of doing so do not outweigh the (similarly small) costs of doing so. Consider a small sub-unit of the economy, such as an individual person, a small town, or a small country. Given that these small sub-units are small, the rest of the world could -- if they wanted to -- coordinate to steal all the property from the sub-unit, i.e., they could "take over the world" from that person/town/country. This would be a takeover event because the rest of the world would go from owning <100% of the world prior to the theft, to owning 100% of the world, after the theft.

In the real world, various legal, social, and moral constraints generally prevent people from predating on small sub-units in the way I've described. But it's not just morality: even if we assume agents are perfectly rational and self-interested, theft is not always worth it. Probably the biggest cost is simply coordinating to perform the theft. Even if the cost of coordination is small, to steal someone's stuff, you might have to fight them. And if they don't own lots of stuff, the cost of fighting them could easily outweigh the benefits you'd get from taking their stuff, even if you won the fight.

Presumably he agrees that in the limit of perfect power acquisition most power seeking would indeed be socially destructive. 

I agree with this claim in some limits, depending on the details. In particular, if the cost of trade is non-negligible, and the cost of taking over the world is negligible, then I expect an agent to attempt world takeover. However, this scenario doesn't seem very realistic to me for most agents who are remotely near human-level intelligence, and potentially even for superintelligent agents.

The claim that takeover is instrumentally beneficial is more plausible for superintelligent agents, who might have the ability to take over the world from humans. But I expect that by the time superintelligent agents exist, they will be in competition with other agents (including humans, human-level AIs, slightly-sub-superintelligent AIs, and other superintelligent AIs, etc.). This raises the bar for what's needed to perform a world takeover, since "the world" is not identical to "humanity".

The important point here is just that a predatory world takeover isn't necessarily preferred to trade, as long as the costs of trade are smaller than the costs of theft. You can just have a situation in which the most powerful agents in the world accumulate 99.999% of the wealth through trade. There's really no theorem that says that you need to steal the last 0.001%, if the costs of stealing it would outweigh the benefits of obtaining it. Since both the costs of theft and the benefits of theft in this case are small, world takeover is not at all guaranteed to be rational (although it is possibly rational in some situations).

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