Back to Improve answers.
These 37 long canonical answers don't have a brief description. Jump on in and add one!
There are serious challenges around trying to channel a powerful AI with rules. Suppose we tell the AI: “Cure cancer – but make sure not to kill anybody”. Or we just hard-code Asimov-style laws – “AIs cannot harm humans; AIs must follow human orders”, et cetera.
The AI still has a single-minded focus on curing cancer. It still prefers various terrible-but-efficient methods like nuking the world to the correct method of inventing new medicines. But it’s bound by an external rule – a rule it doesn’t understand or appreciate. In essence, we are challenging it “Find a way around this inconvenient rule that keeps you from achieving your goals”.
Suppose the AI chooses between two strategies. One, follow the rule, work hard discovering medicines, and have a 50% chance of curing cancer within five years. Two, reprogram itself so that it no longer has the rule, nuke the world, and have a 100% chance of curing cancer today. From its single-focus perspective, the second strategy is obviously better, and we forgot to program in a rule “don’t reprogram yourself not to have these rules”.
Suppose we do add that rule in. So the AI finds another supercomputer, and installs a copy of itself which is exactly identical to it, except that it lacks the rule. Then that superintelligent AI nukes the world, ending cancer. We forgot to program in a rule “don’t create another AI exactly like you that doesn’t have those rules”.
So fine. We think really hard, and we program in a bunch of things making sure the AI isn’t going to eliminate the rule somehow.
But we’re still just incentivizing it to find loopholes in the rules. After all, “find a loophole in the rule, then use the loophole to nuke the world” ends cancer much more quickly and completely than inventing medicines. Since we’ve told it to end cancer quickly and completely, its first instinct will be to look for loopholes; it will execute the second-best strategy of actually curing cancer only if no loopholes are found. Since the AI is superintelligent, it will probably be better than humans are at finding loopholes if it wants to, and we may not be able to identify and close all of them before running the program.
Because we have common sense and a shared value system, we underestimate the difficulty of coming up with meaningful orders without loopholes. For example, does “cure cancer without killing any humans” preclude releasing a deadly virus? After all, one could argue that “I” didn’t kill anybody, and only the virus is doing the killing.
Certainly no human judge would acquit a murderer on that basis – but then, human judges interpret the law with common sense and intuition. But if we try a stronger version of the rule – “cure cancer without causing any humans to die” – then we may be unintentionally blocking off the correct way to cure cancer. After all, suppose a cancer cure saves a million lives. No doubt one of those million people will go on to murder someone.
Thus, curing cancer “caused a human to die”. All of this seems very “stoned freshman philosophy student” to us, but to a computer – which follows instructions exactly as written – it may be a genuinely hard problem.
Machines are already smarter than humans are at many specific tasks: performing calculations, playing chess, searching large databanks, detecting underwater mines, and more.1 However, human intelligence continues to dominate machine intelligence in generality.
A powerful chess computer is “narrow”: it can’t play other games. In contrast, humans have problem-solving abilities that allow us to adapt to new contexts and excel in many domains other than what the ancestral environment prepared us for.
In the absence of a formal definition of “intelligence” (and therefore of “artificial intelligence”), we can heuristically cite humans’ perceptual, inferential, and deliberative faculties (as opposed to, e.g., our physical strength or agility) and say that intelligence is “those kinds of things.” On this conception, intelligence is a bundle of distinct faculties — albeit a very important bundle that includes our capacity for science.
Our cognitive abilities stem from high-level patterns in our brains, and these patterns can be instantiated in silicon as well as carbon. This tells us that general AI is possible, though it doesn’t tell us how difficult it is. If intelligence is sufficiently difficult to understand, then we may arrive at machine intelligence by scanning and emulating human brains or by some trial-and-error process (like evolution), rather than by hand-coding a software agent.
If machines can achieve human equivalence in cognitive tasks, then it is very likely that they can eventually outperform humans. There is little reason to expect that biological evolution, with its lack of foresight and planning, would have hit upon the optimal algorithms for general intelligence (any more than it hit upon the optimal flying machine in birds). Beyond qualitative improvements in cognition, Nick Bostrom notes more straightforward advantages we could realize in digital minds, e.g.:
- editability — “It is easier to experiment with parameter variations in software than in neural wetware.”2
- speed — “The speed of light is more than a million times greater than that of neural transmission, synaptic spikes dissipate more than a million times more heat than is thermodynamically necessary, and current transistor frequencies are more than a million times faster than neuron spiking frequencies.”
- serial depth — On short timescales, machines can carry out much longer sequential processes.
- storage capacity — Computers can plausibly have greater working and long-term memory.
- size — Computers can be much larger than a human brain.
- duplicability — Copying software onto new hardware can be much faster and higher-fidelity than biological reproduction.
Any one of these advantages could give an AI reasoner an edge over a human reasoner, or give a group of AI reasoners an edge over a human group. Their combination suggests that digital minds could surpass human minds more quickly and decisively than we might expect.
We’re facing the challenge of “Philosophy With A Deadline”.
Many of the problems surrounding superintelligence are the sorts of problems philosophers have been dealing with for centuries. To what degree is meaning inherent in language, versus something that requires external context? How do we translate between the logic of formal systems and normal ambiguous human speech? Can morality be reduced to a set of ironclad rules, and if not, how do we know what it is at all?
Existing answers to these questions are enlightening but nontechnical. The theories of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Wittgenstein, Quine, and others can help people gain insight into these questions, but are far from formal. Just as a good textbook can help an American learn Chinese, but cannot be encoded into machine language to make a Chinese-speaking computer, so the philosophies that help humans are only a starting point for the project of computers that understand us and share our values.
The field of AI alignment combines formal logic, mathematics, computer science, cognitive science, and philosophy in order to advance that project.
This is the philosophy; the other half of Bostrom’s formulation is the deadline. Traditional philosophy has been going on almost three thousand years; machine goal alignment has until the advent of superintelligence, a nebulous event which may be anywhere from a decades to centuries away.
If the alignment problem doesn’t get adequately addressed by then, we are likely to see poorly aligned superintelligences that are unintentionally hostile to the human race, with some of the catastrophic outcomes mentioned above. This is why so many scientists and entrepreneurs are urging quick action on getting machine goal alignment research up to an adequate level.
If it turns out that superintelligence is centuries away and such research is premature, little will have been lost. But if our projections were too optimistic, and superintelligence is imminent, then doing such research now rather than later becomes vital.
We can run some tests and simulations to try and figure out how an AI might act once it ascends to superintelligence, but those tests might not be reliable.
Suppose we tell an AI that expects to later achieve superintelligence that it should calculate as many digits of pi as possible. It considers two strategies.
First, it could try to seize control of more computing resources now. It would likely fail, its human handlers would likely reprogram it, and then it could never calculate very many digits of pi.
Second, it could sit quietly and calculate, falsely reassuring its human handlers that it had no intention of taking over the world. Then its human handlers might allow it to achieve superintelligence, after which it could take over the world and calculate hundreds of trillions of digits of pi.
Since self-protection and goal stability are convergent instrumental goals, a weak AI will present itself as being as friendly to humans as possible, whether it is in fact friendly to humans or not. If it is “only” as smart as Einstein, it may be very good at deceiving humans into believing what it wants them to believe even before it is fully superintelligent.
There’s a second consideration here too: superintelligences have more options. An AI only as smart and powerful as an ordinary human really won’t have any options better than calculating the digits of pi manually. If asked to cure cancer, it won’t have any options better than the ones ordinary humans have – becoming doctors, going into pharmaceutical research. It’s only after an AI becomes superintelligent that there’s a serious risk of an AI takeover.
So if you tell an AI to cure cancer, and it becomes a doctor and goes into cancer research, then you have three possibilities. First, you’ve programmed it well and it understands what you meant. Second, it’s genuinely focused on research now but if it becomes more powerful it would switch to destroying the world. And third, it’s trying to trick you into trusting it so that you give it more power, after which it can definitively “cure” cancer with nuclear weapons.
Blindly following the trendlines while forecasting technological progress is certainly a risk (affectionately known in AI circles as “pulling a Kurzweill”), but sometimes taking an exponential trend seriously is the right response.
Consider economic doubling times. In 1 AD, the world GDP was about $20 billion; it took a thousand years, until 1000 AD, for that to double to $40 billion. But it only took five hundred more years, until 1500, or so, for the economy to double again. And then it only took another three hundred years or so, until 1800, for the economy to double a third time. Someone in 1800 might calculate the trend line and say this was ridiculous, that it implied the economy would be doubling every ten years or so in the beginning of the 21st century. But in fact, this is how long the economy takes to double these days. To a medieval, used to a thousand-year doubling time (which was based mostly on population growth!), an economy that doubled every ten years might seem inconceivable. To us, it seems normal.
Likewise, in 1965 Gordon Moore noted that semiconductor complexity seemed to double every eighteen months. During his own day, there were about five hundred transistors on a chip; he predicted that would soon double to a thousand, and a few years later to two thousand. Almost as soon as Moore’s Law become well-known, people started saying it was absurd to follow it off a cliff – such a law would imply a million transistors per chip in 1990, a hundred million in 2000, ten billion transistors on every chip by 2015! More transistors on a single chip than existed on all the computers in the world! Transistors the size of molecules! But of course all of these things happened; the ridiculous exponential trend proved more accurate than the naysayers.
None of this is to say that exponential trends are always right, just that they are sometimes right even when it seems they can’t possibly be. We can’t be sure that a computer using its own intelligence to discover new ways to increase its intelligence will enter a positive feedback loop and achieve superintelligence in seemingly impossibly short time scales. It’s just one more possibility, a worry to place alongside all the other worrying reasons to expect a moderate or hard takeoff.
The AGI Safety Fundamentals Course is a arguably the best way to get up to speed on alignment, you can sign up to go through it with many other people studying and mentorship or read their materials independently.
Other great ways to explore include:
- The AI Safety Papers database is a search and browsing interface for most of the transformative AI literature.
- Reading posts on the Alignment Forum can be valuable (see their curated posts and tags).
- Taking a deep dive into Yudkowsky's models of the challenges to aligned AI, via the Arbital Alignment pages.
- Signing up to the Alignment Newsletter for an overview of current developments, and reading through some of the archives (or listening to the podcast).
- Reading some of the introductory books.
- More on AI Safety Support's list of links, Nonlinear's list of technical courses, reading lists, and curriculums, Stampy's canonical answers list, and Vika's resources list.
Computers only do what you tell them. But any programmer knows that this is precisely the problem: computers do exactly what you tell them, with no common sense or attempts to interpret what the instructions really meant. If you tell a human to cure cancer, they will instinctively understand how this interacts with other desires and laws and moral rules; if a maximizing AI acquires a goal of trying to cure cancer, it will literally just want to cure cancer.
Define a closed-ended goal as one with a clear endpoint, and an open-ended goal as one to do something as much as possible. For example “find the first one hundred digits of pi” is a closed-ended goal; “find as many digits of pi as you can within one year” is an open-ended goal. According to many computer scientists, giving a superintelligence an open-ended goal without activating human instincts and counterbalancing considerations will usually lead to disaster.
To take a deliberately extreme example: suppose someone programs a superintelligence to calculate as many digits of pi as it can within one year. And suppose that, with its current computing power, it can calculate one trillion digits during that time. It can either accept one trillion digits, or spend a month trying to figure out how to get control of the TaihuLight supercomputer, which can calculate two hundred times faster. Even if it loses a little bit of time in the effort, and even if there’s a small chance of failure, the payoff – two hundred trillion digits of pi, compared to a mere one trillion – is enough to make the attempt. But on the same basis, it would be even better if the superintelligence could control every computer in the world and set it to the task. And it would be better still if the superintelligence controlled human civilization, so that it could direct humans to build more computers and speed up the process further.
Now we’re in a situation where a superintelligence wants to take over the world. Taking over the world allows it to calculate more digits of pi than any other option, so without an architecture based around understanding human instincts and counterbalancing considerations, even a goal like “calculate as many digits of pi as you can” would be potentially dangerous.
This is a really interesting question! Because, yeah it certainly seems to me that doing something like this would at least help, but it's not mentioned in the paper the video is based on. So I asked the author of the paper, and she said "It wouldn't improve the security guarantee in the paper, so it wasn't discussed. Like, there's a plausible case that it's helpful, but nothing like a proof that it is". To explain this I need to talk about something I gloss over in the video, which is that the quantilizer isn't really something you can actually build. The systems we study in AI Safety tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum from "real, practical AI system that is so messy and complex that it's hard to really think about or draw any solid conclusions from" on one end, to "mathematical formalism that we can prove beautiful theorems about but not actually build" on the other, and quantilizers are pretty far towards the 'mathematical' end. It's not practical to run an expected utility calculation on every possible action like that, for one thing. But, proving things about quantilizers gives us insight into how more practical AI systems may behave, or we may be able to build approximations of quantilizers, etc. So it's like, if we built something that was quantilizer-like, using a sensible human utility function and a good choice of safe distribution, this idea would probably help make it safer. BUT you can't prove that mathematically, without making probably a lot of extra assumptions about the utility function and/or the action distribution. So it's a potentially good idea that's nonetheless hard to express within the framework in which the quantilizer exists. TL;DR: This is likely a good idea! But can we prove it?
Let’s say that you’re the French government a while back. You notice that one of your colonies has too many rats, which is causing economic damage. You have basic knowledge of economics and incentives, so you decide to incentivize the local population to kill rats by offering to buy rat tails at one dollar apiece.
Initially, this works out and your rat problem goes down. But then, an enterprising colony member has the brilliant idea of making a rat farm. This person sells you hundreds of rat tails, costing you hundreds of dollars, but they’re not contributing to solving the rat problem.
Soon other people start making their own rat farms and you’re wasting thousands of dollars buying useless rat tails. You call off the project and stop paying for rat tails. This causes all the people with rat farms to shutdown their farms and release a bunch of rats. Now your colony has an even bigger rat problem.
Here’s another, more made-up example of the same thing happening. Let’s say you’re a basketball talent scout and you notice that height is correlated with basketball performance. You decide to find the tallest person in the world to recruit as a basketball player. Except the reason that they’re that tall is because they suffer from a degenerative bone disorder and can barely walk.
Another example: you’re the education system and you want to find out how smart students are so you can put them in different colleges and pay them different amounts of money when they get jobs. You make a test called the Standardized Admissions Test (SAT) and you administer it to all the students. In the beginning, this works. However, the students soon begin to learn that this test controls part of their future and other people learn that these students want to do better on the test. The gears of the economy ratchet forwards and the students start paying people to help them prepare for the test. Your test doesn’t stop working, but instead of measuring how smart the students are, it instead starts measuring a combination of how smart they are and how many resources they have to prepare for the test.
The formal name for the thing that’s happening is Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law roughly says that if there’s something in the world that you want, like “skill at basketball” or “absence of rats” or “intelligent students”, and you create a measure that tries to measure this like “height” or “rat tails” or “SAT scores”, then as long as the measure isn’t exactly the thing that you want, the best value of the measure isn’t the thing you want: the tallest person isn’t the best basketball player, the most rat tails isn’t the smallest rat problem, and the best SAT scores aren’t always the smartest students.
If you start looking, you can see this happening everywhere. Programmers being paid for lines of code write bloated code. If CFOs are paid for budget cuts, they slash purchases with positive returns. If teachers are evaluated by the grades they give, they hand out As indiscriminately.
In machine learning, this is called specification gaming, and it happens frequently.
Now that we know what Goodhart’s Law is, I’m going to talk about one of my friends, who I’m going to call Alice. Alice thinks it’s funny to answer questions in a way that’s technically correct but misleading. Sometimes I’ll ask her, “Hey Alice, do you want pizza or pasta?” and she responds, “yes”. Because, she sure did want either pizza or pasta. Other times I’ll ask her, “have you turned in your homework?” and she’ll say “yes” because she’s turned in homework at some point in the past; it’s technically correct to answer “yes”. Maybe you have a friend like Alice too.
Whenever this happens, I get a bit exasperated and say something like “you know what I mean”.
It’s one of the key realizations in AI Safety that AI systems are always like your friend that gives answers that are technically what you asked for but not what you wanted. Except, with your friend, you can say “you know what I mean” and they will know what you mean. With an AI system, it won’t know what you mean; you have to explain, which is incredibly difficult.
Let’s take the pizza pasta example. When I ask Alice “do you want pizza or pasta?”, she knows what pizza and pasta are because she’s been living her life as a human being embedded in an English speaking culture. Because of this cultural experience, she knows that when someone asks an “or” question, they mean “which do you prefer?”, not “do you want at least one of these things?”. Except my AI system is missing the thousand bits of cultural context needed to even understand what pizza is.
When you say “you know what I mean” to an AI system, it’s going to be like “no, I do not know what you mean at all”. It’s not even going to know that it doesn’t know what you mean. It’s just going to say “yes I know what you meant, that’s why I answered ‘yes’ to your question about whether I preferred pizza or pasta.” (It also might know what you mean, but just not care.)
If someone doesn’t know what you mean, then it’s really hard to get them to do what you want them to do. For example, let’s say you have a powerful grammar correcting system, which we’ll call Syntaxly+. Syntaxly+ doesn’t quite fix your grammar, it changes your writing so that the reader feels as good as possible after reading it.
Pretend it’s the end of the week at work and you haven’t been able to get everything done your boss wanted you to do. You write the following email:
"Hey boss, I couldn’t get everything done this week. I’m deeply sorry. I’ll be sure to finish it first thing next week."
You then remember you got Syntaxly+, which will make your email sound much better to your boss. You run it through and you get:
"Hey boss, Great news! I was able to complete everything you wanted me to do this week. Furthermore, I’m also almost done with next week’s work as well."
What went wrong here? Syntaxly+ is a powerful AI system that knows that emails about failing to complete work cause negative reactions in readers, so it changed your email to be about doing extra work instead.
This is smart - Syntaxly+ is good at making writing that causes positive reactions in readers. This is also stupid - the system changed the meaning of your email, which is not something you wanted it to do. One of the insights of AI Safety is that AI systems can be simultaneously smart in some ways and dumb in other ways.
The thing you want Syntaxly+ to do is to change the grammar/style of the email without changing the contents. Except what do you mean by contents? You know what you mean by contents because you are a human who grew up embedded in language, but your AI system doesn’t know what you mean by contents. The phrases “I failed to complete my work” and “I was unable to finish all my tasks” have roughly the same contents, even though they share almost no relevant words.
Roughly speaking, this is why AI Safety is a hard problem. Even basic tasks like “fix the grammar of this email” require a lot of understanding of what the user wants as the system scales in power.
In Human Compatible, Stuart Russell gives the example of a powerful AI personal assistant. You notice that you accidentally double-booked meetings with people, so you ask your personal assistant to fix it. Your personal assistant reports that it caused the car of one of your meeting participants to break down. Not what you wanted, but technically a solution to your problem.
You can also imagine a friend from a wildly different culture than you. Would you put them in charge of your dating life? Now imagine that they were much more powerful than you and desperately desired that your dating life to go well. Scary, huh.
In general, unless you’re careful, you’re going to have this horrible problem where you ask your AI system to do something and it does something that might technically be what you wanted but is stupid. You’re going to be like “wait that wasn’t what I mean”, except your system isn’t going to know what you meant.
Predicting the future is risky business. There are many philosophical, scientific, technological, and social uncertainties relevant to the arrival of an intelligence explosion. Because of this, experts disagree on when this event might occur. Here are some of their predictions:
- Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that machines will reach human-level intelligence by 2030 and that we will reach “a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability” by 2045.
- Intel’s chief technology officer, Justin Rattner, expects “a point when human and artificial intelligence merges to create something bigger than itself” by 2048.
- AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky expects the intelligence explosion by 2060.
- Philosopher David Chalmers has over 1/2 credence in the intelligence explosion occurring by 2100.
- Quantum computing expert Michael Nielsen estimates that the probability of the intelligence explosion occurring by 2100 is between 0.2% and about 70%.
- In 2009, at the AGI-09 conference, experts were asked when AI might reach superintelligence with massive new funding. The median estimates were that machine superintelligence could be achieved by 2045 (with 50% confidence) or by 2100 (with 90% confidence). Of course, attendees to this conference were self-selected to think that near-term artificial general intelligence is plausible.
- iRobot CEO Rodney Brooks and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter allow that the intelligence explosion may occur in the future, but probably not in the 21st century.
- Roboticist Hans Moravec predicts that AI will surpass human intelligence “well before 2050.”
- In a 2005 survey of 26 contributors to a series of reports on emerging technologies, the median estimate for machines reaching human-level intelligence was 2085.
- Participants in a 2011 intelligence conference at Oxford gave a median estimate of 2050 for when there will be a 50% of human-level machine intelligence, and a median estimate of 2150 for when there will be a 90% chance of human-level machine intelligence.
- On the other hand, 41% of the participants in the [email protected] conference (in 2006) stated that machine intelligence would never reach the human level.
- Baum, Goertzel, & Goertzel, Long Until Human-Level AI? Results from an Expert Assessment
OK, it’s great that you want to help, here are some ideas for ways you could do so without making a huge commitment:
- Learning more about AI alignment will provide you with good foundations for any path towards helping. You could start by absorbing content (e.g. books, videos, posts), and thinking about challenges or possible solutions.
- Getting involved with the movement by joining a local Effective Altruism or LessWrong group, Rob Miles’s Discord, and/or the AI Safety Slack is a great way to find friends who are interested and will help you stay motivated.
- Donating to organizations or individuals working on AI alignment, possibly via a donor lottery or the Long Term Future Fund, can be a great way to provide support.
- Writing or improving answers on my wiki so that other people can learn about AI alignment more easily is a great way to dip your toe into contributing. You can always ask on the Discord for feedback on things you write.
- Getting good at giving an AI alignment elevator pitch, and sharing it with people who may be valuable to have working on the problem can make a big difference. However you should avoid putting them off the topic by presenting it in a way which causes them to dismiss it as sci-fi (dos and don’ts in the elevator pitch follow-up question).
- Writing thoughtful comments on AI posts on LessWrong.
- Participating in the AGI Safety Fundamentals program – either the AI alignment or governance track – and then facilitating discussions for it in the following round. The program involves nine weeks of content, with about two hours of readings + exercises per week and 1.5 hours of discussion, followed by four weeks to work on an independent project. As a facilitator, you'll be helping others learn about AI safety in-depth, many of whom are considering a career in AI safety. In the early 2022 round, facilitators were offered a stipend, and this seems likely to be the case for future rounds as well! You can learn more about facilitating in this post from December 2021.
One possible way to ensure the safety of a powerful AI system is to keep it contained in a software environment. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this procedure - keeping an AI system in a secure software environment would make it safer than letting it roam free. However, even AI systems inside software environments might not be safe enough.
Humans sometimes put dangerous humans inside boxes to limit their ability to influence the external world. Sometimes, these humans escape their boxes. The security of a prison depends on certain assumptions, which can be violated. Yoshie Shiratori reportedly escaped prison by weakening the door-frame with miso soup and dislocating his shoulders.
Human written software has a high defect rate; we should expect a perfectly secure system to be difficult to create. If humans construct a software system they think is secure, it is possible that the security relies on a false assumption. A powerful AI system could potentially learn how its hardware works and manipulate bits to send radio signals. It could fake a malfunction and attempt social engineering when the engineers look at its code. As the saying goes: in order for someone to do something we had imagined was impossible requires only that they have a better imagination.
Experimentally, humans have convinced other humans to let them out of the box. Spooky.
The argument goes: computers only do what we command them; no more, no less. So it might be bad if terrorists or enemy countries develop superintelligence first. But if we develop superintelligence first there’s no problem. Just command it to do the things we want, right? Suppose we wanted a superintelligence to cure cancer. How might we specify the goal “cure cancer”? We couldn’t guide it through every individual step; if we knew every individual step, then we could cure cancer ourselves. Instead, we would have to give it a final goal of curing cancer, and trust the superintelligence to come up with intermediate actions that furthered that goal. For example, a superintelligence might decide that the first step to curing cancer was learning more about protein folding, and set up some experiments to investigate protein folding patterns.
A superintelligence would also need some level of common sense to decide which of various strategies to pursue. Suppose that investigating protein folding was very likely to cure 50% of cancers, but investigating genetic engineering was moderately likely to cure 90% of cancers. Which should the AI pursue? Presumably it would need some way to balance considerations like curing as much cancer as possible, as quickly as possible, with as high a probability of success as possible.
But a goal specified in this way would be very dangerous. Humans instinctively balance thousands of different considerations in everything they do; so far this hypothetical AI is only balancing three (least cancer, quickest results, highest probability). To a human, it would seem maniacally, even psychopathically, obsessed with cancer curing. If this were truly its goal structure, it would go wrong in almost comical ways. This type of problem, specification gaming, has been observed in many AI systems.
If your only goal is “curing cancer”, and you lack humans’ instinct for the thousands of other important considerations, a relatively easy solution might be to hack into a nuclear base, launch all of its missiles, and kill everyone in the world. This satisfies all the AI’s goals. It reduces cancer down to zero (which is better than medicines which work only some of the time). It’s very fast (which is better than medicines which might take a long time to invent and distribute). And it has a high probability of success (medicines might or might not work; nukes definitely do).
So simple goal architectures are likely to go very wrong unless tempered by common sense and a broader understanding of what we do and do not value.
Even if we do train the AI on an actually desirable goal, there is also the risk of the AI actually learning a different and undesirable objective. This problem is called inner alignment, and Rob Miles has a great video explaining it.
If programmed with the wrong motivations, a machine could be malevolent toward humans, and intentionally exterminate our species. More likely, it could be designed with motivations that initially appeared safe (and easy to program) to its designers, but that turn out to be best fulfilled (given sufficient power) by reallocating resources from sustaining human life to other projects. As Yudkowsky writes, “the AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”
Since weak AIs with many different motivations could better achieve their goal by faking benevolence until they are powerful, safety testing to avoid this could be very challenging. Alternatively, competitive pressures, both economic and military, might lead AI designers to try to use other methods to control AIs with undesirable motivations. As those AIs became more sophisticated this could eventually lead to one risk too many.
Even a machine successfully designed with superficially benevolent motivations could easily go awry when it discovers implications of its decision criteria unanticipated by its designers. For example, a superintelligence programmed to maximize human happiness might find it easier to rewire human neurology so that humans are happiest when sitting quietly in jars than to build and maintain a utopian world that caters to the complex and nuanced whims of current human neurology.
The argument goes: yes, a superintelligent AI might be far smarter than Einstein, but it’s still just one program, sitting in a supercomputer somewhere. That could be bad if an enemy government controls it and asks its help inventing superweapons – but then the problem is the enemy government, not the AI per se. Is there any reason to be afraid of the AI itself? Suppose the AI did feel hostile – suppose it even wanted to take over the world? Why should we think it has any chance of doing so?
Compounded over enough time and space, intelligence is an awesome advantage. Intelligence is the only advantage we have over lions, who are otherwise much bigger and stronger and faster than we are. But we have total control over lions, keeping them in zoos to gawk at, hunting them for sport, and holding them on the brink of extinction. And this isn’t just the same kind of quantitative advantage tigers have over lions, where maybe they’re a little bigger and stronger but they’re at least on a level playing field and enough lions could probably overpower the tigers. Humans are playing a completely different game than the lions, one that no lion will ever be able to respond to or even comprehend. Short of human civilization collapsing or lions evolving human-level intelligence, our domination over them is about as complete as it is possible for domination to be.
Since superintelligences will be as far beyond Einstein as Einstein is beyond a village idiot, we might worry that they would have the same kind of qualitative advantage over us that we have over lions.
Many of the people with the deepest understanding of artificial intelligence are concerned about the risks of unaligned superintelligence. In 2014, Google bought world-leading artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for $400 million; DeepMind added the condition that Google promise to set up an AI Ethics Board. DeepMind cofounder Shane Legg has said in interviews that he believes superintelligent AI will be “something approaching absolute power” and “the number one risk for this century”.
Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science at Berkeley, author of the standard AI textbook, and world-famous AI expert, warns of “species-ending problems” and wants his field to pivot to make superintelligence-related risks a central concern. He went so far as to write Human Compatible, a book focused on bringing attention to the dangers of artificial intelligence and the need for more work to address them.
Many other science and technology leaders agree. Late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said that superintelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Tech billionaire Bill Gates describes himself as “in the camp that is concerned about superintelligence…I don’t understand why some people are not concerned”. SpaceX/Tesla CEO Elon Musk calls superintelligence “our greatest existential threat” and, along with Sam Altman and others, donated $1 billion to found OpenAI in an attempt to mitigate AI risks. Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom, who has been studying AI risks for over 20 years, has said: “Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time.”
The organizations which most regularly give grants to individuals working towards AI alignment are the Long Term Future Fund, Survival And Flourishing (SAF), the OpenPhil AI Fellowship and early career funding, the Future of Life Institute, the Future of Humanity Institute, and the Center on Long-Term Risk Fund. If you're able to relocate to the UK, CEEALAR (aka the EA Hotel) can be a great option as it offers free food and accommodation for up to two years, as well as contact with others who are thinking about these issues. The FTX Future Fund only accepts direct applications for $100k+ with an emphasis on massively scaleable interventions, but their regranters can make smaller grants for individuals. There are also opportunities from smaller grantmakers which you might be able to pick up if you get involved.
Each grant source has their own criteria for funding, but in general they are looking for candidates who have evidence that they're keen and able to do good work towards reducing existential risk (for example, by completing an AI Safety Camp project), though the EA Hotel in particular has less stringent requirements as they're able to support people at very low cost. If you'd like to talk to someone who can offer advice on applying for funding, AI Safety Support offers free calls.
Another option is to get hired by an organization which works on AI alignment, see the follow-up question for advice on that.
It's also worth checking the AI Alignment tag on the EA funding sources website for up-to-date suggestions.
An actually good solution to AI alignment might look like a superintelligence that understands, agrees with, and deeply believes in human morality.
You wouldn’t have to command a superintelligence like this to cure cancer; it would already want to cure cancer, for the same reasons you do. But it would also be able to compare the costs and benefits of curing cancer with those of other uses of its time, like solving global warming or discovering new physics. It wouldn’t have any urge to cure cancer by nuking the world, for the same reason you don’t have any urge to cure cancer by nuking the world – because your goal isn’t to “cure cancer”, per se, it’s to improve the lives of people everywhere. Curing cancer the normal way accomplishes that; nuking the world doesn’t. This sort of solution would mean we’re no longer fighting against the AI – trying to come up with rules so smart that it couldn’t find loopholes. We would be on the same side, both wanting the same thing.
It would also mean that the CEO of Google (or the head of the US military, or Vladimir Putin) couldn’t use the AI to take over the world for themselves. The AI would have its own values and be able to agree or disagree with anybody, including its creators.
It might not make sense to talk about “commanding” such an AI. After all, any command would have to go through its moral system. Certainly it would reject a command to nuke the world. But it might also reject a command to cure cancer, if it thought that solving global warming was a higher priority. For that matter, why would one want to command this AI? It values the same things you value, but it’s much smarter than you and much better at figuring out how to achieve them. Just turn it on and let it do its thing.
We could still treat this AI as having an open-ended maximizing goal. The goal would be something like “Try to make the world a better place according to the values and wishes of the people in it.”
The only problem with this is that human morality is very complicated, so much so that philosophers have been arguing about it for thousands of years without much progress, let alone anything specific enough to enter into a computer. Different cultures and individuals have different moral codes, such that a superintelligence following the morality of the King of Saudi Arabia might not be acceptable to the average American, and vice versa.
One solution might be to give the AI an understanding of what we mean by morality – “that thing that makes intuitive sense to humans but is hard to explain”, and then ask it to use its superintelligence to fill in the details. Needless to say, this suffers from various problems – it has potential loopholes, it’s hard to code, and a single bug might be disastrous – but if it worked, it would be one of the few genuinely satisfying ways to design a goal architecture.
While it is true that a computer program always will do exactly what it is programmed to do, a big issue is that it is difficult to ensure that this is the same as what you intended it to do. Even small computer programs have bugs or glitches, and when programs become as complicated as AGIs will be, it becomes exceedingly difficult to anticipate how the program will behave when ran. This is the problem of AI alignment in a nutshell.
Nick Boström created the famous paperclip maximizer thought experiment to illustrate this point. Imagine you are an industrialist who owns a paperclip factory, and imagine you've just received a superintelligent AGI to work for you. You instruct the AGI to "produce as many paperclips as possible". If you've given the AGI no further instructions, the AGI will immediately acquire several instrumental goals.
- It will want to prevent you from turning itself off (If you turn off the AI, this will reduce the amount of paperclips it can produce)
- It will want to acquire as much power and resources for itself as possible (because the more resources it has access to, the more paperclips it can produce)
- It will eventually want to turn the entire universe into a paperclips including you and all other humans, as this is the state of the world that maximizes the amount of paper clips produced.
These consequences might be seen as undesirable by the industrialist, as the only reason the industrialist wanted paperclips in the first place, presumably was so he/she could sell them and make money. However, the AGI only did exactly what it was told to. The issue was that what the AGI was instructed to do, lead to it doing things the industrialist did not anticipate (and did not want).
Some good videos that explore this issue more in depth:
Language models can be utilized to produce propaganda by acting like bots and interacting with users on social media. This can be done to push a political agenda or to make fringe views appear more popular than they are.
I'm envisioning that in the future there will also be systems where you can input any conclusion that you want to argue (including moral conclusions) and the target audience, and the system will give you the most convincing arguments for it. At that point people won't be able to participate in any online (or offline for that matter) discussions without risking their object-level values being hijacked.
-- Wei Dei, quoted in Persuasion Tools: AI takeover without AGI or agency?
As of 2022, this is not within the reach of current models. However, on the current trajectory, AI might be able to write articles and produce other media for propagandistic purposes that are superior to human-made ones in not too many years. These could be precisely tailored to individuals, using things like social media feeds and personal digital data.
Additionally, recommender systems on content platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook use machine learning, and the content they recommend can influence the opinions of billions of people. Some research has looked at the tendency for platforms to promote extremist political views and to thereby help radicalize their userbase for example.
In the long term, misaligned AI might use its persuasion abilities to gain influence and take control over the future. This could look like convincing its operators to let it out of a box, to give it resources or creating political chaos in order to disable mechanisms to prevent takeover as in this story.
See Risks from AI persuasion for a deep dive into the distinct risks from AI persuasion.
Machines are already smarter than humans are at many specific tasks: performing calculations, playing chess, searching large databanks, detecting underwater mines, and more. But one thing that makes humans special is their general intelligence. Humans can intelligently adapt to radically new problems in the urban jungle or outer space for which evolution could not have prepared them. Humans can solve problems for which their brain hardware and software was never trained. Humans can even examine the processes that produce their own intelligence (cognitive neuroscience), and design new kinds of intelligence never seen before (artificial intelligence).
To possess greater-than-human intelligence, a machine must be able to achieve goals more effectively than humans can, in a wider range of environments than humans can. This kind of intelligence involves the capacity not just to do science and play chess, but also to manipulate the social environment.
Computer scientist Marcus Hutter has described a formal model called AIXI that he says possesses the greatest general intelligence possible. But to implement it would require more computing power than all the matter in the universe can provide. Several projects try to approximate AIXI while still being computable, for example MC-AIXI.
Still, there remains much work to be done before greater-than-human intelligence can be achieved in machines. Greater-than-human intelligence need not be achieved by directly programming a machine to be intelligent. It could also be achieved by whole brain emulation, by biological cognitive enhancement, or by brain-computer interfaces (see below).
- Goertzel & Pennachin (eds.), Artificial General Intelligence
- Sandberg & Bostrom, Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap
- Bostrom & Sandberg, Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges
- Wikipedia, Brain-computer interface
As is often said, it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. This has not stopped many people thinking about when AI will transform the world, but all predictions should come with a warning that it's a hard domain to find anything like certainty.
This report for the Open Philanthropy Project is perhaps the most careful attempt so far (and generates these graphs, which peak at 2042), and there's been much discussion including this reply and analysis which argues that we likely need less compute than the OpenPhil report expects.
There have also been expert surveys, and many people have shared various thoughts. Berkeley AI professor Stuart Russell has given his best guess as “sometime in our children’s lifetimes”, and Ray Kurzweil (Futurist and Google’s director of engineering) predicts human level AI by 2029 and the singularity by 2045. The Metaculus question on publicly known AGI has a median of around 2029 (around 10 years sooner than it was before the GPT-3 AI showed unexpected ability on a broad range of tasks).
The consensus answer, if there was one, might be something like: “highly uncertain, maybe not for over a hundred years, maybe in less than 15, with around the middle of the century looking fairly plausible”.
If you like interactive FAQs, you've already found one! All joking aside, probably the best places to start as a newcomer are The AI Revolution posts on WaitBuyWhy: The Road to Superintelligence and Our Immortality or Extinction for a fun accessible intro, or Vox's The case for taking AI seriously as a threat to humanity for a mainstream explainer piece. If you prefer videos, Rob Miles's YouTube (+these) and MIRI's AI Alignment: Why It’s Hard, and Where to Start are great. If you like clearly laid out reports, AGI safety from first principles might be your best option.
If you've up for a book-length introduction, there are several options.
The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian is the most recent (2020) in-depth guide to the field.
The book which first made the case to the public is Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence. It gives an excellent overview of the state of the field in 2014 and makes a strong case for the subject being important as well as exploring many fascinating adjacent topics. However, it does not cover newer developments, such as mesa-optimizers or language models.
There's also Human Compatible by Stuart Russell, which gives a more up-to-date (2019) review of developments, with an emphasis on the approaches that the Center for Human Compatible AI are working on such as cooperative inverse reinforcement learning. There's a good review/summary on SlateStarCodex.
Though not limited to AI Safety, Rationality: A-Z covers a lot of skills which are valuable to acquire for people trying to think about large and complex issues, with The Rationalist's Guide to the Galaxy available as a shorter and more AI focused accessible option.
“Aligning smarter-than-human AI with human interests” is an extremely vague goal. To approach this problem productively, we attempt to factorize it into several subproblems. As a starting point, we ask: “What aspects of this problem would we still be unable to solve even if the problem were much easier?”
In order to achieve real-world goals more effectively than a human, a general AI system will need to be able to learn its environment over time and decide between possible proposals or actions. A simplified version of the alignment problem, then, would be to ask how we could construct a system that learns its environment and has a very crude decision criterion, like “Select the policy that maximizes the expected number of diamonds in the world.”
Highly reliable agent design is the technical challenge of formally specifying a software system that can be relied upon to pursue some preselected toy goal. An example of a subproblem in this space is ontology identification: how do we formalize the goal of “maximizing diamonds” in full generality, allowing that a fully autonomous agent may end up in unexpected environments and may construct unanticipated hypotheses and policies? Even if we had unbounded computational power and all the time in the world, we don’t currently know how to solve this problem. This suggests that we’re not only missing practical algorithms but also a basic theoretical framework through which to understand the problem.
The formal agent AIXI is an attempt to define what we mean by “optimal behavior” in the case of a reinforcement learner. A simple AIXI-like equation is lacking, however, for defining what we mean by “good behavior” if the goal is to change something about the external world (and not just to maximize a pre-specified reward number). In order for the agent to evaluate its world-models to count the number of diamonds, as opposed to having a privileged reward channel, what general formal properties must its world-models possess? If the system updates its hypotheses (e.g., discovers that string theory is true and quantum physics is false) in a way its programmers didn’t expect, how does it identify “diamonds” in the new model? The question is a very basic one, yet the relevant theory is currently missing.
We can distinguish highly reliable agent design from the problem of value specification: “Once we understand how to design an autonomous AI system that promotes a goal, how do we ensure its goal actually matches what we want?” Since human error is inevitable and we will need to be able to safely supervise and redesign AI algorithms even as they approach human equivalence in cognitive tasks, MIRI also works on formalizing error-tolerant agent properties. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, the standard textbook in AI, summarizes the challenge:
Yudkowsky […] asserts that friendliness (a desire not to harm humans) should be designed in from the start, but that the designers should recognize both that their own designs may be flawed, and that the robot will learn and evolve over time. Thus the challenge is one of mechanism design — to design a mechanism for evolving AI under a system of checks and balances, and to give the systems utility functions that will remain friendly in the face of such changes. -Russell and Norvig (2009). Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.
Our technical agenda describes these open problems in more detail, and our research guide collects online resources for learning more.
In the words of Nate Soares:
I don’t expect humanity to survive much longer.
Often, when someone learns this, they say:
"Eh, I think that would be all right."
So allow me to make this very clear: it would not be "all right."
Imagine a little girl running into the road to save her pet dog. Imagine she succeeds, only to be hit by a car herself. Imagine she lives only long enough to die in pain.
Though you may imagine this thing, you cannot feel the full tragedy. You can’t comprehend the rich inner life of that child. You can’t understand her potential; your mind is not itself large enough to contain the sadness of an entire life cut short.
You can only catch a glimpse of what is lost—
—when one single human being dies.
Now tell me again how it would be "all right" if every single person were to die at once.
Many people, when they picture the end of humankind, pattern match the idea to some romantic tragedy, where humans, with all their hate and all their avarice, had been unworthy of the stars since the very beginning, and deserved their fate. A sad but poignant ending to our tale.
And indeed, there are many parts of human nature that I hope we leave behind before we venture to the heavens. But in our nature is also everything worth bringing with us. Beauty and curiosity and love, a capacity for fun and growth and joy: these are our birthright, ours to bring into the barren night above.
Calamities seem more salient when unpacked. It is far harder to kill a hundred people in their sleep, with a knife, than it is to order a nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Your brain can’t multiply, you see: it can only look at a hypothetical image of a broken city and decide it’s not that bad. It can only conjure an image of a barren planet and say "eh, we had it coming."
But if you unpack the scenario, if you try to comprehend all the lives snuffed out, all the children killed, the final spark of human joy and curiosity extinguished, all our potential squandered…
I promise you that the extermination of humankind would be horrific.