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Some quick info about me:

I have a background in computer science (BSc+MSc; my MSc thesis was in NLP and ML, though not in deep learning).

You can also find me on the EA Forum.

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Why did no LessWrong discourse on gain of function research develop in 2013/2014?

(This isn't an attempt to answer the question, but…) My best guess is that info hazard concerns reduced the amount of discourse on GoF research to some extent.

The aducanumab approval

Or is there some kind of pay-per-treatment incentive that will make doctors want to prescribe it?

(This isn't a response about this particular drug or its manufacturer.) I think that generally, large pharmaceutical companies tend to use sophisticated methods to convert dollars into willingness-of-doctors-to-prescribe-their-drugs. I'm not talking about explicit kickback schemes (which are not currently legal in most places?) but rather stuff like paying doctors consulting fees etc. and hoping that such payments cause the doctor to prescribe their drug (due to the doctor's expectation that that will influence further payments, or just due to the doctor's human disposition to reciprocate). Plausibly, most doctors who participate in such a thing don't fully recognize that the pharmaceutical company's intention is to influence what they prescribe, and their participations is materialized via cognitive biases rather than by them acting mindfully.

Also, not all doctors are great at interpreting/evaluating research papers/claims (especially when there are lots of conflict-of-interest issues involved).

Formal Inner Alignment, Prospectus


The following is a naive attempt to write a formal, sufficient condition for a search process to be "not safe with respect to inner alignment".


: a distribution of labeled examples. Abuse of notation: I'll assume that we can deterministically sample a sequence of examples from .

: a deterministic supervised learning algorithm that outputs an ML model. has access to an infinite sequence of training examples that is provided as input; and it uses a certain "amount of compute" that is also provided as input. If we operationalize as a Turing Machine then can be the number of steps that is simulated for.

: The ML model that outputs when given an infinite sequence of training examples that was deterministically sampled from ; and as the "amount of compute" that uses.

: The accuracy of the model over (i.e. the probability that the model will be correct for a random example that is sampled from ).

Finally, we say that the learning algorithm Fails The Basic Safety Test with respect to the distribution if the accuracy is not weakly increasing as a function of .

Note: The "not weakly increasing" condition seems too strict weak. It should probably be replaced with a stricter condition, but I don't know what that stricter condition should look like.

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

Not from the paper. I just wrote it.

Consider adding to the paper a high-level/simplified description of the environments for which the following sentence from the abstract applies: "We prove that for most prior beliefs one might have about the agent’s reward function [...] one should expect optimal policies to seek power in these environments." (If it's the set of environments in which "the “vast majority” of RSDs are only reachable by following a subset of policies" consider clarifying that in the paper). It's hard (at least for me) to infer that from the formal theorems/definitions.

It isn't the size of the object that matters here, the key considerations are structural. In this unrolled model, the unrolled state factors into the (action history) and the (world state). This is not true in general for other parts of the environment.

My "unrolling trick" argument doesn't require an easy way to factor states into [action history] and [the rest of the state from which the action history can't be inferred]. A sufficient condition for my argument is that the complete action history could be inferred from every reachable state. When this condition fulfills, the environment implicitly contains an action log (for the purpose of my argument), and thus the POWER (IID) of all the states is equal. And as I've argued before, this condition seems plausible for sufficiently complex real-world-like environments. BTW, any deterministic time-reversible environment fulfills this condition, except for cases where multiple actions can yield the same state transition (in which case we may not be able to infer which of those actions were chosen at the relevant time step).

It's easier to find reward functions that incentivize a given action sequence if the complete action history can be inferred from every reachable state (and the easiness depends on how easy it is to compute the action history from the state). I don't see how this fact relates to instrumental convergence supposedly disappearing for "most objectives" [EDIT: when using a simplicity prior over objectives; otherwise, instrumental convergence may not apply regardless]. Generally, if an action log constitutes a tiny fraction of the environment, its existence shouldn't affect properties of "most objectives" (regardless of whether we use the uniform prior or a simplicity prior).

thanks for your engagement

Ditto :)

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

see also: "optimal policies tend to take actions which strictly preserve optionality*"

Does this quote refer to a passage from the paper? (I didn't find it.)

It certainly has some kind of effect, but I don't find it obvious that it has the effect you're seeking - there are many simple ways of specifying action-history+state reward functions, which rely on the action-history and not just the rest of the state.

There are very few reward functions that rely on action-history—that can be specified in a simple way—relative to all the reward functions that rely on action-history (you need at least bits to specify a reward function that considers actions, when using a uniform prior). Also, I don't think that the action log is special in this context relative to any other object that constitutes a tiny part of the environment.

What's special is that (by assumption) the action logger always logs the agent's actions, even if the agent has been literally blown up in-universe. That wouldn't occur with the security camera. With the security camera, once the agent is dead, the agent can no longer influence the trajectory, and the normal death-avoiding arguments apply. But your action logger supernaturally writes a log of the agent's actions into the environment.

If we assume that the action logger can always "detect" the action that the agent chooses, this issue doesn't apply. (Instead of the agent being "dead" we can simply imagine the robot/actuators are in a box and can't influencing anything outside the box; which is functionally equivalent to being "dead" if the box is a sufficiently small fraction of the environment.)

Right, but if you want the optimal policies to take actions , then write a reward function which returns 1 iff the action-logger begins with those actions and 0 otherwise. Therefore, it's extremely easy to incentivize arbitrary action sequences.

Sure, but I still don't understand the argument here. It's trivial to write a reward function that doesn't yield instrumental convergence regardless of whether one can infer the complete action history from every reachable state. Every constant function is such a reward function.

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

The theorems hold for all finite MDPs in which the formal sufficient conditions are satisfied (i.e. the required environmental symmetries exist; see proposition 6.9, theorem 6.13, corollary 6.14). For practical advice, see subsection 6.3 and beginning of section 7.

It seems to me that the (implicit) description in the paper of the set of environments over which "one should expect optimal policies to seek power" ("for most prior beliefs one might have about the agent’s reward function") involves a lot of formalism/math. I was looking for some high-level/simplified description (in English), and found the following (perhaps there are other passages that I missed):

Loosely speaking, if the “vast majority” of RSDs are only reachable by following a subset of policies, theorem 6.13 implies that that subset tends to be Blackwell optimal.

Isn't the thing we condition on here similar (roughly speaking) to your interpretation of instrumental convergence? (Is the condition for when "[…] one should expect optimal policies to seek power" made weaker by another theorem?)

I agree that you can do that. I also think that instrumental convergence doesn't apply in such MDPs (as in, "most" goals over the environment won't incentivize any particular kind of optimal action), unless you restrict to certain kinds of reward functions.

I think that using a simplicity prior over reward functions has a similar effect to "restricting to certain kinds of reward functions".

I didn't understand the point you were making with your explanation that involved a max-ent distribution. Why is the action logger treated in your explanation as some privileged object? What's special about it relative to all the other stuff that's going on in our arbitrarily complex environment? If you imagine an MDP environment where the agent controls a robot in a room that has a security camera in it, and the recorded video is part of the state, then the recorded video is doing all the work that we need an action logger to do (for the purpose of my argument).

When defined over state-action histories, it's dead easy to write down objectives which don't pursue instrumental subgoals.

In my action-logger example, the action log is just a tiny part of the state representation (just like a certain blog or a video recording are a very tiny part of the state of our universe). The reward function is a function over states (or state-action pairs) as usual, not state-action histories. My "unrolling trick" doesn't involve utility functions that are defined over state(-action) histories.

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

I'll address everything in your comment, but first I want to zoom out and say/ask:

  1. In environments that have a state graph that is a tree-with-constant-branching-factor, the POWER—defined over IID-over-states reward distribution—is equal in all states. I argue that environments with very complex physical dynamics are often like that, but not if at some time step the agent can't influence the environment. (I think we agree so far?) I further argue that we can take any MDP environment and "unroll" its state graph into a tree-with-constant-branching-factor (e.g. by adding an "action log" to the state representation) such that we get a "functionally equivalent" MDP in which the POWER (IID) of all the states are equal. My best guess is that you don't agree with this point, or think that the instrumental convergence thesis doesn't apply in a meaningful sense to such MDPs (but I don't yet understand why).
  2. Regarding the theorems (in the POWER paper; I've now spent some time on the current version): The abstract of the paper says: "With respect to a class of neutral reward function distributions, we provide sufficient conditions for when optimal policies tend to seek power over the environment." I didn't find a description of those sufficient conditions (maybe I just missed it?). AFAICT, MDPs that contain "reversible actions" (other than self-loops in terminal states) are generally problematic for POWER (IID). (I'm calling action  from state  "reversible" if it allows the agent to return to  at some point). POWER-seeking (in the limit as  approaches 1) will always imply choosing a reversible action over a non-reversible action, and if the only reversible action is a self-loop, POWER-seeking means staying in the same state forever. Note that if there are sufficiently many terminal states (or loops more generally) that require a certain non-reversible action to reach, it will be the case that most optimal policies prefer that non-reversible action over any POWER-seeking (reversible) action. In particular, non-terminal self-loops seem to be generally problematic for POWER(IID); for example consider:

The first state has the largest POWER (IID), but for most reward functions the optimal policy is to immediately transition to a lower-POWER state (even in the limit as  approaches 1).  The paper says: "Theorem 6.6 shows it’s always robustly instrumental and power-seeking to take actions which allow strictly more control over the future (in a graphical sense)." I don't yet understand the theorem, but is there somewhere a description of the set/distribution of MDP transition functions for which that statement applies? (Specifically, the "always robustly instrumental" part, which doesn't seem to hold in the example above.)

Regarding the points from your last comment:

we should be able to ground the instrumental convergence arguments via reward functions in some way.

Maybe for this purpose we should weight reward functions by how likely we are to encounter an AI system that pursues them (this should probably involve a simplicity prior.)

What does it mean to "shut down" the process? 'Doesn't mean they won't' - so new strings will appear in the environment? Then how was the agent "shut down"?

Suppose the agent causes the customer to invoke some process that hacks a bank and causes recurrent massive payments (trillions of dollars) to appear as being received by the relevant company. Someone at the bank notices this and shuts down the compromised system, which stops the process.

What is it instead?

Suppose the state representation is a huge list of 3D coordinates, each specifying the location of an atom in the earth-like environment. The transition function mimics the laws of physics on Earth (+ "magic" that makes the text that the agent chooses appear in the environment in each time step). It's supposed to be "an Earth-like MDP".

We're considering description length? Now it's not clear that my theory disagrees with your prediction, then. If you say we have a simplicity prior over reward functions given some encoding, well, POWER and optimality probability now reflect your claims, and they now say there is instrumental convergence to the extent that that exists under a simplicity prior?

Are you referring here to POWER when it is defined over a reward distribution that corresponds to some simplicity prior? (I was talking about POWER defined over an IID-over-states reward distribution, which I think is what the theorems in the paper deal with.)

And to the extent we were always considering description length - was the problem that IID-optimality probability doesn't reflect simplicity-weighted behavioral tendencies?

My argument is just that in MDPs where the state graph is a tree-with-a-constant-branching-factor—which is plausible in very complex environments—POWR (IID) is equal in all states. The argument doesn't mention description length (the description length concept arose in this thread in the context of discussing what reward function distribution should be used for defining instrumental convergence).

I still don't know what it would mean for Ofer-instrumental convergence to exist in this environment, or not.

Maybe something like Bostrom's definition when we replace "wide range of final goals" with "reward functions weighted by the probability that we'll encounter an AI that pursues the reward function (which means using a simplicity prior)". It seems to me that your comment assumes/claims something like:  "in every MDP where the state graph is a tree-with-a-constant-branching-factor, there is no meaningful sense in which instrumental convergence apply". If so, I argue that claim doesn't make sense: you can take any formal environment, however large and complex, and just add to it a simple "action logger" (that doesn't influence anything, other than effectively adding to the state representation a log of all the actions so far). If the action space is constant, the state graph of the modified MDP is a tree-with-a-constant-branching-factor; which would imply that adding that action logger somehow destroyed the applicability of the instrumental convergence thesis to that MDP; which doesn't make sense to me.

What is the most effective way to donate to AGI XRisk mitigation?

There may be many people working for top orgs (in the donor's judgment) who are able to convert additional money to productivity effectively. This seems especially likely in academic orgs where the org probably faces strict restrictions on salaries. (But I won't be surprised if it's similarly the case for other orgs). So a private donor could solicit applications (with minimal form filling) from such people, and then distribute the donation between those who applied.

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

So we can't set the 'arbitrary' part aside - instrumentally convergent means that the incentives apply across most reward functions - not just for one. You're arguing that one reward function might have that incentive. But why would most goals tend to have that incentive?

I was talking about a particular example, with a particular reward function that I had in mind. We seemed to disagree about whether instrumental convergence arguments apply there, and my purpose in that comment was to argue that they do. I'm not trying to define here the set of reward functions over which instrumental convergence argument apply (they obviously don't apply to all reward functions, as for every possible policy you can design a reward function for which that policy is optimal).

This doesn't make sense to me. We assumed the agent is Cartesian-separated from the universe, and its actions magically make strings appear somewhere in the world. How could humans interfere with it? What, concretely, are the "risks" faced by the agent?

E.g. humans noticing that something weird is going on and trying to shut down the process. (Shutting down the process doesn't mean that new strings won't appear in the environment and cause the state graph to become a tree-with-constant-branching-factor due to complex physical dynamics.)

(Technically, the agent's goals are defined over the text-state

Not in the example I have in mind. Again, let's say the state representation determines the location of every atom in that earth-like environment. (I think that's the key miscommunication here; the MDP I'm thinking about is NOT a "sequential string output MDP", if I understand your use of that phrase correctly. [EDIT: my understanding is that you use that phrase to describe an MDP in which a state is just the sequence of strings in the exchange so far.] [EDIT 2: I think this miscommunication is my fault, due to me writing in my first comment: "the state representation may be uniquely determined by all the text that was written so far by both the customer and the chatbot", sorry for that.])

This statement is vacuous, because it's true about any possible string.

I agree the statement would be true with any possible string; this doesn't change the point I'm making with it. (Consider this to be an application of the more general statement with a particular string.)

But then why do you claim that most reward functions are attracted to certain branches of the tree, given that regularity?

For every subset of branches in the tree you can design a reward function for which every optimal policy tries to go down those branches; I'm not saying anything about "most rewards functions". I would focus on statements that apply to "most reward functions" if we dealt with an AI that had a reward function that was sampled uniformly from all possible rewards function. But that scenario does not seem relevant (in particular, something like Occam's razor seems relevant: our prior credence should be larger for reward functions with shorter shortest-description).

what do you mean by instrumental convergence?

The non-formal definition in Bostrom's Superintelligence (which does not specify a set of rewards functions but rather says "a wide range of final goals and a wide range of situations, implying that these instrumental values are likely to be pursued by a broad spectrum of situated intelligent agents.").

MDP models are determined by the agent architecture and the environmental dynamics

So if you disagree, please explain why arbitrary reward functions tend to incentivize outputting one string sequence over another?

(Setting aside the "arbitrary" part, because I didn't talk about an arbitrary reward function…)

Consider a string, written by the chatbot, that "hacks" the customer and cause them to invoke a process that quickly takes control over most of the computers on earth that are connected to the internet, then "hacks" most humans on earth by showing them certain content, and so on (to prevent interferences and to seize control ASAP); for the purpose of maximizing whatever counts as the total discounted payments by the customer (which can look like, say, setting particular memory locations in a particular computer to a particular configuration); and minimizing low probability risks (from the perspective of the agent).

If such a string (one that causes the above scenario) exists, then any optimal policy will either involve such a string or different strings that allow at least as much expected return.

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