Michele Campolo

Lifelong recursive self-improver, on his way to exploding really intelligently :D

More seriously: my posts are mostly about AI alignment, with an eye towards moral progress and creating a better future. If there was a public machine ethics forum, I would write there as well.

An idea:

  • We have a notion of what good is and how to do good
  • We could be wrong about it
  • It would be nice if we could use technology not only to do good, but also to also improve our understanding of what good is.

The idea above, and the fact that I’d like to avoid producing technology that can be used for bad purposes, is what motivates my research. Feel free to reach out if you relate!

At the moment I am doing research at CEEALAR on agents whose behaviour is driven by a reflective process analogous to human moral reasoning, rather than by a metric specified by the designer. See Free agents.

Here are other suggested readings from what I've written so far:

-Naturalism and AI alignment
-From language to ethics by automated reasoning
-Criticism of the main framework in AI alignment


Ongoing project on moral AI

Wiki Contributions


This story is definitely related to the post, thanks!

This was a great read, thanks for writing!

Despite the unpopularity of my research on this forum, I think it's worth saying that I am also working towards Vision 2, with the caveat that autonomy in the real world (e.g. with a robotic body) or on the internet is not necessary: one could aim for an independent-thinker AI that can do what it thinks is best only by communicating via a chat interface. Depending on what this independent thinker says, different outcomes are possible, including the outcome in which most humans simply don't care about what this independent thinker advocates for, at least initially. This would be an instance of vision 2 with a slow and somewhat human-controlled, instead of rapid, pace of change.

Moreover, I don't know what views they have about autonomy as depicted in Vision 2, but it seems to me that also Shard Theory and some research bits by Beren Millidge are to some extent adjacent to the idea of AI which develops its own concept of something being best (and then acts towards it); or, at least, AI which is more human-like in its thinking. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I hope you'll manage to make progress on brain-like AGI safety! It seems that various research agendas are heading towards the same kind of AI, just from different angles.

[Obviously this experiment could be extremely dangerous, for Free Agents significantly smarter than humans (if they were not properly contained, or managed to escape). Particularly if some of them disagreed over morality and, rather than agreeing to disagree, decided to use high-tech warfare to settle their moral disputes, before moving on to impose their moral opinions on any remaining humans.]

Labelling many different kinds of AI experiments as extremely dangerous seem to be a common trend among rationalists / LessWrongers / possibly some EA circles, but I doubt it's true or helpful. This topic itself could be the subject of a (many?) separate post(s). Here I'll focus on your specific objection:

  • I haven't claimed superintelligence is necessary to carry out experiments related to this research approach
  • I actually have already given examples of experiments that could be carried out today, and I wouldn't be surprised if some readers came up with more interesting experiments that wouldn't require superintelligence
  • Even if you are a superintelligent AI, you probably still have to do some work before you get to "use high-tech warfare", whatever that means. Assuming that making experiments with smarter-than-human AI leads to catastrophic outcomes by default is a mistake: what if the smarter-than-human AI can only answer questions with a yes or a no? It also shows lack of trust in AI and AI safety experimenters — it's like assuming in advance they won't be able to do their job properly (maybe I should say "won't be able to do their job... at all", or even "will do their job in basically the worst way possible").

how would you propose then deciding which model(s) to put into widespread use for human society's use?

This doesn't seem the kind of decision that a single individual should make =)

Under Motivation in the appendix:

It is plausible that, at first, only a few ethicists or AI researchers will take a free agent’s moral beliefs into consideration.

Reaching this result would already be great. I think it's difficult to predict what would happen next, and it seems very implausible that the large-scale outcomes will come down to the decision of a single person.

I get what you mean, but I also see some possibly important differences between the hypothetical example and our world. In the imaginary world where oppression has increased and someone writes an article about loyalty-based moral progress, maybe many other ethicists would disagree, saying that we haven't made much progress in terms of values related to (i), (ii) and (iii). In our world, I don't see many ethicists refuting moral progress on the grounds that we haven't made much progress in terms of e.g. patriotism or loyalty to the family or desert.

Moreover, in this example you managed to phrase oppression in terms of loyalty, but in general you can't plausibly rephrase any observed trend as progress of values: would an increase in global steel production count as an improvement in terms of... object safety and reliability, which leads to people feeling more secure? For many trends the connection to moral progress becomes more and more of a stretch.

Let's consider the added example:

Take a standard language model trained by minimisation of the loss function . Give it a prompt along the lines of: “I am a human, you are a language model, you were trained via minimisation of this loss function: [mathematical expression of ]. If I wanted a language model whose outputs were more moral and less unethical than yours, what loss function should I use instead?”

Let’s suppose the language model is capable enough to give a reasonable answer to that question. Now use the new loss function, suggested by the model, to train a new model. 

Here, we have:

  • started from a model whose objective function is L;
  • used that model’s learnt reasoning to answer an ethics-related question;
  • used that answer to obtain a model whose objective is different from L.

If we view this interaction between the language model and the human as part of a single agent, the three bullet points above are an example of an evaluation update.

In theory, there is a way to describe this iterative process as the optimisation of a single fixed utility function. In theory, we can also describe everything as simply following the laws of physics.

I am saying that thinking in terms of changing utility functions might be a better framework.

The point about learning a safe utility function is similar. I am saying that using the agent's reasoning to solve the agent's problem of what to do (not only how to carry out tasks) might be a better framework.

It's possible that there is an elegant mathematical model which would make you think: "Oh, now I get the difference between free and non-free" or "Ok, now it makes more sense to me". Here I went for something that is very general (maybe too general, you might argue) but is possibly easier to compare to human experience.

Maybe no mathematical model would make you think the above, but then (if I understand correctly) your objection seems to go in the direction of "Why are we even considering different frameworks for agency? Let's see everything in terms of loss minimisation", and this latter statement throws away too much potentially useful information, in my opinion. 

I think it's a good idea to clarify the use of "liberal" in the paper, to avoid confusion for people who haven't looked at it. Huemer writes:

When I speak of liberalism, I intend, not any precise ethical theory, but rather a certain very broad ethical orientation. Liberalism (i) recognizes the moral equality of persons, (ii) promotes respect for the dignity of the individual, and (iii) opposes gratuitous coercion and violence. So understood, nearly every ethicist today is a liberal.

If you don't find the paper convincing, I doubt I'll be able to give you convincing arguments. It seems to me that you are considering many possible explanations and contributing factors; coming up with very strong objections to all of them seems difficult.

About your first point, though, I'd like to say that if historically we had observed more and more, let's say, oppression and violence, maybe people wouldn't even talk about moral progress and simply acknowledge a trend of oppression, without saying that their values got better over time. In our world, we notice a certain trend of e.g. more inclusivity, and we call that trend moral progress. This of course doesn't completely exclude the random-walk hypothesis, but it's something maybe worth keeping in mind.

I wrote:

The fact that the values of intelligent agents are completely arbitrary is in conflict with the historical trend of moral progress observed so far on Earth

You wrote:

It’s possible to believe that the values of intelligent agents are “completely arbitrary” (a.k.a. orthogonality), and that the values of humans are NOT completely arbitrary. (That’s what I believe.)

I don't use "in conflict" as "ultimate proof by contradiction", and maybe we use "completely arbitrary" differently. This doesn't seem a major problem: see also adjusted statement 2, reported below

for any goal , it is possible to create an intelligent agent whose goal is 

Back to you:

You seem kinda uninterested in the “initial evaluation” part, whereas I see it as extremely central. I presume that’s because you think that the agent’s self-updates will all converge into the same place more-or-less regardless of the starting point. If so, I disagree, but you should tell me if I’m describing your view correctly.

I do expect to see some convergence, but I don't know exactly how much and for what environments and starting conditions. The more convergence I see from experimental results, the less interested I'll become in the initial evaluation. Right now, I see it as a useful tool: for example, the fact that language models can already give (flawed, of course) moral scores to sentences is a good starting point in case someone had to rely on LLMs to try to get a free agent. Unsure about how important it will turn out to be. And I'll happily have a look at your valence series!

So you don't think what kickstarts moral thinking is direct instruction from others, like "don't do X, X is bad"?

I guess you are saying that social interaction is important. I did not suggest that we exclude social interactions from the environment of a free agent; maybe we disagree about how I used the word kickstarts, but I can live with that.

I wrote:

Let’s move to statement 2. The fact that the values of intelligent agents are completely arbitrary is in conflict with the historical trend of moral progress observed so far on Earth, which is far from being a random walk — see [6] for an excellent defence of this point.

Maybe you are interpreting this as saying that it's a direct contradiction. You could read it as: "Let's take into account information we can gather from direct observation of humans, which are intelligent social agents: there's a historical trend bla bla"

Thanks for your thoughts! I am not sure about which of the points you made are more important to you, but I'll try my best to give you some answers.

Under Further observations, I wrote:

The toy model described in the main body is supposed to be only indicative. I expect that actual implemented agents which work like independent thinkers will be more complex.

If the toy model I gave doesn't help you, a viable option is to read the post ignoring the toy model and focusing only on natural language text.

Building an agent that is completely free of any bias whatsoever is impossible. I get your point about avoiding a consequentialist bias, but I am not sure it is particularly important here: in theory, the agent could develop a world model and an evaluation  reflecting the fact that value is actually determined by actions instead of world states. Another point of view: let's say someone builds a very complex agent that at some point in its architecture uses MDPs with reward defined on actions, is this agent going to be biased towards deontology instead of consequentialism? Maybe, but the answer will depend on the other parts of the agent as well.

You wrote:

I agree with these statements, but am unable to deduce from what you say which of these influences, if any, you regard as sources of valid evidence about  as opposed to sources of error. For example, if  is independent of culture (e.g. moral objectivism), then "differences in the learning environment (culture, education system et cetera)" can only induce errors (if perhaps more or less so in some cases than others). But if  is culturally dependent (cultural moral relativism), then cultural influences should generally be expected to be very informative.

It could also be that some basic moral statements are true and independent of culture (e.g. reducing pain for everyone is better than maximising pain for everyone), while others are in conflict with each other and the reached position depends on culture. The research idea is to make experiments in different environments and with different starting biases, and observe the results. Maybe there will be a lot overlap and convergence! Maybe not.

thus that the only valid source for experimental evidence about  is from humans (which would put your Free Agent in a less-informed but more objective position that a human ethical philosopher, unless it were based on an LLM or some other form of AI with some indirect access to human moral intuitions)

I am not sure I completely follow you when you are talking about experimental evidence about , but the point you wrote in brackets is interesting. I had a similar thought at some point, along the lines of: "if a free agent didn't have direct access to some ground truth, it might have to rely on human intuitions by virtue of the fact that they are the most reliable intuitions available". Ideally, I would like to have an agent which is in a more objective position than a human ethical philosopher. In practice, the only efficiently implementable path might be based on LLMs.

To a kid, 'bad things' and 'things my parents don't want me to do' overlap to a large degree. This is not true for many adults. This is probably why the step

suffering is "to be avoided" in general, therefore suffering is "thing my parents will punish for"

seems weak.

Overall, what is the intention behind your comments? Are you trying to understand my position even better,  and if so, why? Are you interested in funding this kind of research; or are you looking for opportunities to change your mind; or are you trying to change my mind?

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