TL;DR: In this post, I want to argue why Interpretability & Transparency tools have a defender’s advantage if they are used correctly, i.e. they improve alignment much more than new capabilities and therefore mitigate risks of dual use. I draw parallels from biosecurity researchers who have thought about the risks of dual-use and defender’s advantages in more detail and I think that the AI safety community can learn a lot from them. Lastly, I want to point out that not all interpretability tools have a clear defender’s advantage and some interpretability research might still carry a lot of risks when used incorrectly. 

I’d like to thank Lee Sharkey and Simon Grimm for their feedback on this post.

Introduction

Most technology is dual-use in some way--a knife can be used as a household appliance or as a weapon. However, different technologies have different propensities to be used for good or bad, e.g. more research into walls will likely benefit the defender more than the attacker while more research into the capabilities of viruses benefits attackers more than defenders. 

I feel like we, the AI safety community, have not thought enough about which approaches have a clear defender’s advantage or how we could steer existing approaches to have more of a defender's advantage. To my (very limited) understanding, the biosecurity community has thought a bit more about these kinds of dual-use trade-offs. Therefore, we could probably learn some things from them. 

In this post, I want to briefly look at some of the possible lessons from biosecurity and see if we can translate them to AI safety. Then I want to argue why interpretability is one of the approaches that plausibly has a defender’s advantage. 

I’m certainly not the first person to have come to the conclusion that interpretability is important for alignment. Chris Olah has made the case for interpretability for years. Neel Nanda has provided a long theory of impacts of interpretability research. Quintin Pope has made the case for optimism about interpretability. Evan Hubinger has provided 11 proposals to build safe AI that are all essentially something+interpretability, has developed an interpretability tech tree and summarized transformer circuits. ARC is working on ELK (and related topics) that certainly read to me as if they are intended to prevent deceptive alignment. There are many further good posts on aspects of interpretability (see e.g. hereherehere, or here). 

The reason why I add this post to the long list of posts arguing for the importance of interpretability is that I feel like the “defender’s advantage” framework allows for an easy way to decide which kind of interpretability research will help more with alignment than with capabilities and thus alleviates one major concern that some people have against it (personal conversations, not sure if someone wrote this down). 

Lessons from Biosecurity

Most of the following comes from personal discussions with biosecurity researchers or podcasts like “Hear This Idea”s interview with Kevin Esvelt and Jonas Sandbrink. I’m not a biosecurity researcher myself and the following is likely to lack nuance. 

  1. Gain-of-function(Enhancement of potential pandemic pathogens) = bad: More specifically, approaches that require us to build a new capability in order to learn how to safeguard against it makes offensive scaling easier than defensive scaling, e.g. the new capability enables the attacker to do more new things than the defender. Firstly, you have created a deadly virus with certainty but the development of the vaccine is uncertain--you stacked the odds against you. Secondly, even if your vaccine (or other defense) is successful, it’s likely easy to modify the new deadly virus in ways that circumvent this defense. Additionally, even if a bad actor just uses the exact virus you created, it’s not clear that we’d be able to roll out the new vaccine fast enough. In some sense, the strategy is too specifically tailored to the problem you just created yourself and thus the potential damage is larger than the potential gains. 
  2. Broad spectrum vaccines = good: We might be able to design vaccines against entire families of viruses, e.g. all coronaviruses rather than just Covid19 or a specific wave of Covid19. Broad spectrum vaccines have a favorable risk profile, as they don’t require the identification of highly pathogenic viruses, and secondly, guard against a swath of different viruses within the same group of viruses. Therefore, they guarantee broad defence, without requiring detailed knowledge or experiments that could go wrong or be misused. Thus they have a more robust risk profile (though some defences are even more robust, such as PPE, pandemic shelters, or ventilation.)
  3. Preparation & rapid deployment = good: A rapidly spreading pandemic can realistically infect large parts of the world’s population within 100 days. This is likely not enough time to understand the virus and develop, produce and distribute the vaccine. Therefore, being well-prepared, e.g. with broad spectrum vaccines, large vaccine production facilities, large stockpiles of PPE, etc. likely decreases the damage done by the pandemic. However, all of these techniques are unlikely to increase the spread or enable active misuse of the virus, therefore, they create a defender’s advantage. 

In summary, a) some defensive tools do not require novel capabilities, e.g. broad spectrum vaccines, better PPE or better ventilation, and b) the knowledge of defensive insights can sometimes be used intentionally or accidentally to create more powerful offensive tools. Thus, we should keep the offensive-defensive scaling in mind when creating a new tool. 

I’m probably missing a lot of nuance and some important points but even these fairly general ideas can already be translated to AI safety--at least to some extent.

The Defender’s Advantage of Interpretability

For the following section, I will use Interpretability in a very broad sense, i.e. including mechanistic interpretability but also more high-level approaches that aim to understand NNs (sometimes called “Science of DL”).

My reasons to think that interpretability has a defenders advantage include

  1. New interpretability tools improve most alignment research but not most capabilities: If someone develops a tool that makes interpreting the neural network really easy, this would immediately, without further work, improve alignment because we could directly act on new information, e.g. turn off dangerous AIs (if this is still possible). While some of this information could be used to improve the capabilities of the AI, it requires further work to do that (i.e. you still have to develop the capability improvements). Due to interpretability tools, this work might be easier but it is still more costly than the immediate insights for alignment. 
    However, it is important to point out that this advantage differs between interpretability applications. Understanding one specific phenomenon really well might have nearly no defender’s advantage while very general interpretability methods like circuits have a clearer defender’s advantage.
  2. Does not require new capabilities: Interpretability tools can usually be applied to all levels of capabilities (might not hold true for highly capable AIs if they want to hide information), e.g. we can use them on small MLPs, and large LLMs. Other alignment approaches sometimes require a specific level of capabilities to work such as OpenAI’s approach to automate alignment research or the translator head in ELK
  3. Does not require deployment: Interpretability tools can be used during training, e.g. to monitor the emergence of dangerous behavior. We might also be able to run only subparts of the network to understand them which removes the risk of running the entire network or deploying it to detect a specific capability. 
  4. Is fairly general: In theory, we should be able to develop interpretability tools for all kinds of DL systems and learnings from one likely translate to others, e.g. the idea of circuits translated from CNNs to LLMs. 
  5. Preparation & rapid deployment: Interpretability tools don’t have a strong preparation advantage because you need to have a network to interpret it. However, if we are ever able to scale and automate interpretability tools to a level that you can very quickly interpret networks then rapid deployment of interpretability tools might be possible. If the deployment is rapid enough, we could use interpretability tools during training to monitor and react to the formation of potentially dangerous circuits. I’m uncertain though if this will be realistic in the near future. 
  6. Level of necessity: In general, I feel like interpretability is approximately necessary for alignment but not for capabilities (echoing the sentiment of Evan Hubinger). With capabilities, you can try new things and see if they improve your desired metric. Understanding the network better might help you to come up with an idea to improve the metric but it is by no means necessary. With alignment, on the other hand, I don’t really see how we get around “understanding the system in great detail” in the long run. We might be able to align a network with adversarial training but we would still “want to double-check” if it actually learned the right concept. Furthermore, if we think that deceptive alignment is where the big risks come from, interpretability (or related ways to understand the network such as ELK) are the most straightforward way to defend. 

Conclusion

I argue that many forms of interpretability and transparency have a defender’s advantage, i.e. that they are more likely to help with alignment than with developing new capabilities. However, results from interpretability investigations should still be handled with care. Specific use cases and types of interpretability can still carry substantial risk of increasing capabilities without meaningfully increasing alignment. For example, I think there is some chance that Neel Nanda’s mechanistic analysis of grokking will lead to capability improvements in the long run. I still think it was correct to publish these results on balance but one should think about possible harms beforehand (and I expect Neel to have done that). I expect the situations where the defender's advantage doesn’t hold anymore to be “we understood the system well enough to make it better but not really why it got better” similar to how our current understanding of scaling laws allows us to build more capable models but we don’t really understand why. 

To offer a simple solution, there is always the option to share results only with a select group of people rather than publishing them or doing research that is private by default

Furthermore, I want to encourage other AI safety researchers to apply the defender’s advantage framework more generally and pursue research that has a high chance to help with alignment while not increasing capabilities unnecessarily.


 

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For example, I think there is some chance that Neel Nanda’s mechanistic analysis of grokking will lead to capability improvements in the long run.

I'm curious if you have a particular concern in mind here?

My personal take is that this is the kind of interpretability work where I'm least concerned about it leading to capabilities improvements, since it's very specific to toy models and analysing deep learning puzzles, and pretty far from the state of the art frontier.

In a world where it does lead to advancements, my best guess is that it follows a pretty indirect and diffuse trajectory (eg, furthers science of deep learning studies which lead to new insights that let us build better models, or get more people excited about interpretability which leads to more research and some of that advances capabilities), which seems extremely hard to model. I'd guess the alignment benefits of the work are minor to moderate (definitely not the interpretability work I think is most relevant to pushing on reducing x-risk, but likely somewhat useful), and strongly outweigh this kind of concern about diffuse and hard-to-predict effects