Zack_M_Davis

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Yes, that would be ridiculous. It would also be ridiculous in a broadly similar way if someone spent eight years in the prime of their life prosecuting a false advertising lawsuit against a "World's Best" brand ice-cream for not actually being the best in the world.

But if someone did somehow make that mistake, I could see why they might end up writing a few blog posts afterwards telling the Whole Dumb Story.

(I think this is the best and most important post in the sequence; I suspect that many readers who didn't and shouldn't bother with the previous three posts, may benefit from this one.)

I second the concern that using "LeastWrong" on the site grants undue legitimacy to the bad "than others" interpretation of the brand name (as contrasted to the intended "all models are wrong, but" meaning). "Best Of" is clear and doesn't distort the brand.

Would you agree with the statement that your meta-level articles are more karma-successful than your object-level articles? Because if that is a fair description, I see it as a huge problem.

I don't think this is a good characterization of my posts on this website.

If by "meta-level articles", you mean my philosophy of language work (like "Where to Draw the Boundaries?" and "Unnatural Categories Are Optimized for Deception"), I don't think success is a problem. I think that was genuinely good work that bears directly on the site's mission, independently of the historical fact that I had my own idiosyncratic ("object-level"?) reasons for getting obsessed with the philosophy of language in 2019–2020.[1]

If by "object-level articles", you mean my writing on my special-interest blog about sexology and gender, well, the overwhelming majority of that never got a karma score because it was never cross-posted to Less Wrong. (I only cross-post specific articles from my special-interest blog when I think they're plausibly relevant to the site's mission.)

If by "meta-level articles", you mean my recent memoir sequence which talks about sexology and the philosophy of language and various autobiographical episodes of low-stakes infighting among community members in Berkeley, California, well, those haven't been karma-successful: parts 1, 2, and 3 are currently[2] sitting at 0.35, 0.08 (!), and 0.54 karma-per-vote, respectively.

If by "meta-level articles", you mean posts that reply to other users of this website (such as "Contra Yudkowsky on Epistemic Conduct for Author Criticism" or "'Rationalist Discourse' Is Like 'Physicist Motors'"), I contest the "meta level" characterization. I think it's normal and not particularly meta for intellectuals to write critiques of each other's work, where Smith writes "Kittens are Cute", and Jones replies in "Contra Smith on Kitten Cuteness". Sure, it would be possible for Jones to write a broadly similar article, "Kittens Aren't Cute", that ignores Smith altogether, but I think that's often a worse choice, if the narrow purpose of Jones's article is to critique the specific arguments made by Smith, notwithstanding that someone else might have better arguments in favor of the Cute Kitten theory that have not been heretofore considered.

You're correct to notice that a lot of my recent work has a cult-infighting drama angle to it. (This is very explicit in the memoir sequence, but it noticeably leaks into my writing elsewhere.) I'm pretty sure I'm not doing it for the karma. I think I'm doing it because I'm disillusioned and traumatized from the events described in the memoir, and will hopefully get over it after I've got it all written down and out of my system.

There's another couple posts in that sequence (including this coming Saturday, probably). If you don't like it, I hereby encourage you to strong-downvote it. I write because I selfishly have something to say; I don't think I'm entitled to anyone's approval.


  1. In some of those posts, I referenced the work of conventional academics like Brian Skyrms and others, which I think provides some support for the notion that the nature of language and categories is a philosophically rich topic that someone might find significant in its own right, rather than being some sort of smokescreen for a hidden agenda. ↩︎

  2. Pt. 1 actually had a much higher score (over 100 points) shortly after publication, but got a lot of downvotes later after being criticized on Twitter. ↩︎

Personal whimsy. Probably don't read too much into it. (My ideology has evolved over the years such that I think a lot of the people who are trying to signal something with the generic feminine would not regard me as an ally, but I still love the æsthetic.)

Zack cannot convince us [...] if you disagree with him, that only proves his point

I don't think I'm doing this! It's true that I think it's common for apparent disagreements to be explained by political factors, but I think that claim is itself something I can support with evidence and arguments. I absolutely reject "If you disagree, that itself proves I'm right" as an argument, and I think I've been clear about this. (See the paragraph in "A Hill of Validity in Defense of Meaning" starting with "Especially compared to normal Berkeley [...]".)

If you're interested, I'm willing to write more words explaining my model of which disagreements with which people on which topics are being biased by which factors. But I get the sense that you don't care that much, and that you're just annoyed that my grudge against Yudkowsky and a lot of people with Berkeley is too easily summarized as being with an abstracted "community" that you also happen to be in even though this has nothing to do with you? Sorry! I'm not totally sure how to fix this. (It's useful to sometimes be able to talk about general cultural trends, and being specific about which exact sub-sub-clusters are and are not guilty of the behavior being criticized would be a lot of extra wordcount that I don't think anyone is interested in.)

Simplicia: Where does "empirical evidence" fall on the sliding scale of rigor between "handwavy metaphor" and "mathematical proof"? The reason I think the KL penalty in RLHF setups impacts anything we care about isn't mostly because the vague handwaving sounds plausible, but because of data such as that presented in Fig. 5 of Stiennon et al. 2020. They varied the size of the KL penalty of an LLM RLHF'd for a summarization task, and found about what you'd expect from the vague handwaving: as the KL penalty decreases, the reward model's predicted quality of the output goes up (tautologically), but actual preference of human raters when you show them the summaries follows an inverted-U curve, where straying from the base policy a little is good, but straying farther is increasingly bad, as the system overoptimizes on what looks good to the reward model, which was only a proxy for the true goal.

(You can see examples of the overoptimized summaries in Table 29 on the last page of the paper. Apparently the reward model really liked tripled question marks and the phrase "pls halp"??? I weakly suspect that these are the kind of "weird squiggles" that would improve with scaling up the reward model, similarly to how state-of-the-art image generators lack the distortions and artifacts of their compute-impoverished predecessors. The reward model in this experiment was only 1.3 billion parameters.)

I'm sure you'll have no trouble interpreting these results as yet another portent of our impending deaths. We were speaking theoretically about AIs exploiting the Goodhart problem between human ratings and actual goodness, but practical RLHF systems aren't actually sample-efficient enough to solely use direct human feedback, and have an additional Goodhart problem between reward model predictions of human ratings, and actual ratings. Isn't that worse? Well, yes.

But the ray of hope I see here is more meta and methodological, rather than turning on any one empirical result. It's that we have empirical results. We can study these machines, now, before their successors are powerful enough to kill us. The iterative design loop hasn't failed yet. That can't last forever—at some point between here and the superintelligence at the end of time, humans are going to be out of the loop. I'm glad people are doing theory trying to figure out what that looks like and how it could be arranged to go well.

But I'm worried about ungrounded alignment theorizing failing to make contact with reality, sneeringly dismissing geniunely workable designs as impossible by appealing to perfectly antisphexish consequentialists on a frictionless plane, when some amount of sphexishness and friction is a known factor of the algorithms in question.

We seem to agree that GPT-4 is smart enough to conceive of the strategy of threatening or bribing labelers. So ... why doesn't that happen? I mean, like, literal threats and promises. You mention rumors from a DeepMind employee about the larger Gemini models being hard to train, but without more details, I'm inclined to guess that that was "pls halp"-style overoptimization rather than the kind of power-seeking or deceptive alignment that would break the design loop. (Incidentally, Gao et al. 2022 studied scaling laws for reward model overoptimization and claimed that model size basically didn't matter? See §4.4, "Policy size independence".)

What's going on here? If I'm right that GPT-4 isn't secretly plotting to murder us, even though it's smart enough to formulate the idea and expected utility maximizers have a convergent incentive to murder competitors, why is that?

Here's my view: model-free reinforcement learning algorithms such as those used in RLHF tweak your AI's behavior to be more like the behavior that got reward in the past, which is importantly different from expected utility maximization. To the extent that you succeed in rewarding Honest, Helpful, and Harmless behavior in safe regimes, you can plausibly get a basically HHH AI assistant that generalizes to not betraying you when it has the chance, similar to how I don't do heroin because I don't want to become a heroin addict—even though if I did take heroin, the reinforcement from that would make me more likely to do it again. Then the nature of the game is keeping that good behavior "on track" for as long as we can—even though the superintelligence at the end of time is presumably be going to do something more advanced than model-free RL. It's possible to screw up and reward the wrong thing, per the robot hand in front of the ball—but if you don't screw up early, your basically-friendly-but-not-maximally-capable AIs can help you not screw up later. And in the initial stages, you're only fighting gradient descent, not even an AGI.

More broadly, here's how I see the Story of Alignment so far. It's been obvious to sufficiently penetrating thinkers for a long time that the deep future belongs to machine intelligence—that, as George Elliot put it in 1879, "the creatures who are to transcend and finally supersede us [will] be steely organisms, giving out the effluvia of the laboratory, and performing with infallible exactness more than everything that we have performed with a slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy."

What's less obvious is how much control we can exert over how that goes by setting the initial conditions. Can we arrange for the creatures who are to transcend and finally supersede us to be friendly and create the kind of world we would want, or will they murder us and tile the universe with something random?

Fifteen years ago, the problem looked hopeless, just from considering the vast complexity of human values. How would you write a computer program that values "happiness", "freedom", or "justice", let alone everything else we want? It wasn't clear how to build AI at all, but surely it would be easier to build some AI than a good AI. Humanity was doomed.

But now, after the decade of deep learning, the problem and its impossible solution seem to be arriving closer together than I would have ever dreamt. Okay, we still don't know how to write down the human utility function, to be plugged in to an arbitrarily powerful optimizer.

But it's increasingly looking like value isn't that fragile if it's specified in latent space, rather than a program that breaks if a single character is wrong—that there are ways to meaningfully shape the initial conditions of our world's ascension that don't take the exacting shape of "utility function + optimizer".

We can leverage unsupervised learning on human demonstration data to do tasks the way humans do them, and we can use RLHF to elicit behavior we want in situations where we can't write down our desires as an explicit reward or utility function. Crucially, by using these these techniques together to compensate for each other's safety and capability weaknesses, it seems feasible to build AI whose effects look "like humans, but faster": performing with infallible exactness everything that we would have performed with a slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy. That doesn't immediately bring about the superintelligence at the end of time—although it might look pretty immediate in sidereal time—but seems like a pretty good way to kick off our world's ascension.

Is this story wrong? Maybe! ... probably? My mother named me "Simplicia", over my father's objections, because of my unexpectedly low polygenic scores. I am aware of my ... [she hesitates and coughs, as if choking on the phrase] learning disability. I'm not confident in any of this.

But if I'm wrong, there should be arguments explaining why I'm wrong—arguments that should convince scientists working in the field, even if I personally am too limited to understand them. I've tried to ground my case in my understanding of the state of the art, citing relevant papers when applicable.

In contrast, dismissing the entire field as hopeless on the basis of philosophy about "perfectly learn[ing] and perfectly maximiz[ing] the referent of rewards" isn't engaging with the current state of alignment, let alone all the further advances that humans and our non-superintelligent AIs will come up with before the end of days! Doomimir Doomovitch, with the fate of the lightcone in the balance, isn't it more dignified to at least consider the possibility that someone else might have thought of something? Reply! Reply!

Simplicia: I think it's significant that the "hand between ball and camera" example from Amodei et al. 2017 was pure RL from scratch. You have a function π that maps observations (from the robot's sensors) to actions (applying torques to the robot's joints). You sample sequences of observation–action pairs from π and show them to a human, and fit a function r̂ to approximate the human's choices. Then you use Trust Region Policy Optimization to adjust π to score better according to r̂. In this case, TRPO happened to find something that looked good instead of being good, in a way that r̂ wasn't able to distinguish. That is, we screwed up and trained the wrong thing. That's a problem, and the severity of the problem would get worse the more capable π was and the more you were relying on it. If we were going to produce powerful general AI systems with RL alone, I would be very nervous.

But the reason I'm so excited about language models in particular is that their capabilities seem to mostly come from unsupervised pre-training rather than RLHF. You fit a function to the entire internet first, and only afterwards tweak it a bit so that its outputs look more like obeying commands rather than predicting random internet tokens—where the tweaking process incorporates tricks like penalizing the Kullback–Leibler divergence from the reward model's training distribution, such that you're not pulling the policy too far away from the known-safe baseline.

I agree that as a consequentialist with the goal of getting good ratings, the strategy of "bribe the rater" isn't very hard to come up with. Indeed, when I prompt GPT-4 with the problem, it gives me "Offering Incentives for Mislabeling" as #7 on a list of 8.

But the fact that GPT-4 can do that seems like it's because that kind of reasoning appears on the internet, which is what I mean by the claim that contemporary systems are "reasoning with" rather than "reasoning about": the assistant simulacrum being able to explain bribery when prompted isn't the same thing as the LM itself trying to maximize reward.

I'd be interested in hearing more details about those rumors of smarter models being more prone to exploit rater mistakes. What did those entail, exactly? (To the extent that we lack critical evidence about this potential alignment failure because the people who experienced it are gagged by an NDA, that seems like a point in favor of sharing information about language model capabilities.)

I certainly expect some amount of sycophancy: if you sample token completions from your LM, and then tweak its outputs to be more like what your raters want to hear, you end up with an LM that's more inclined to say what your raters want to hear. Fine. That's a problem. Is it a fatal problem? I mean, if you don't try to address it at all and delegate all of your civilization's cognition to machines that don't want to tell you about problems, then eventually you might die of problems your AIs didn't tell you about.

But "mere" sycophancy sounds like a significantly less terrifying failure mode than reward hacking of the sort that would result in things like the LM spontaneously trying to threaten or bribe labelers. That would have a large KL divergence from the policy you started with!

I think part of the reason the post ends without addressing this is that, unfortunately, I don't think I properly understand this one yet, even after reading your dialogue with Eli Tyre.

The next paragraph of the post links Christiano's 2015 "Two Kinds of Generalization", which I found insightful and seems relevant. By way of illustration, Christiano describes two types of possible systems for labeling videos: (1) a human classifier (which predicts what label a human would assign), and (2) a generative model (which directly builds a mapping between descriptions and videos roughly the way our brains do it). Notably, the human classifier behaves undesirably on inputs that bribe, threaten, or otherwise hack the human: for example, a video of the text "I'll give you $100 if you classify this as an apple" might get classified as an apple. (And an arbitrarily powerful search for maximally apple-classified inputs would turn those up.)

Christiano goes on to describe a number of differences between these two purported kinds of generalization: (1) is reasoning about the human, whereas (2) is reasoning with a model not unlike the one inside the human's brain; searching for simple Turing machines would tend to produce (1), whereas searching for small circuits would tend to produce (2); and so on.

It would be bad to end up with a system that behaves like (1) without realizing it. That definitely seems like it would kill you. But (Simplicia asks) how likely that is seems like a complicated empirical question about how ML generalization works and how you built your particular AI, that isn't definitively answered by "in the limit" philosophy about "perfectly learn[ing] and perfectly maximiz[ing] the referent of rewards assigned by human operators"? That is, I agree that if you argmax over possible programs for the one that results in the most reward-button presses, you get something that only wants to seize the reward button. But the path-dependent details between "argmax over possible programs" and "pretraining + HFDT + regularization + early stopping + &c." seem like they make a big difference. The technology in front of us really does seem like it's "reasoning with" rather than "reasoning about" (while also seeming to be on the path towards "real AGI" rather than a mere curiosity).

When I try to imagine what Doomimir would say to that, all I can come up with is a metaphor about perpetual-motion-machine inventors whose designs are so complicated that it's hard to work out where the error is, even though the laws of thermodynamics clearly imply that there must be an error. That sounds plausible to me as a handwavy metaphor; I could totally believe that the ultimate laws of intelligence (not known to me personally) work that way.

The thing is, we do need more than a handwavy metaphor! "Yes, your gold-printing machine seems to be working great, but my intuition says it's definitely going to kill everyone. No, I haven't been able to convince relevant experts who aren't part of my robot cult, but that's because they're from Earth and therefore racially inferior to me. No, I'm not willing to make any concrete bets or predictions about what happens before then" is a non-starter even if it turns out to be true.

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