0. What's the goal of this research?

by Alex Zhu2 min read1st Nov 2018No comments



I think Paul Christiano’s research agenda for the alignment of superintelligent AGIs presents one of the most exciting and promising approaches to AI safety. After being very confused about Paul’s agenda, chatting with others about similar confusions, and clarifying with Paul many times over, I’ve decided to write a FAQ addressing common confusions around his agenda.

This FAQ is not intended to provide an introduction to Paul’s agenda, nor is it intended to provide an airtight defense. This FAQ only aims to clarify commonly misunderstood aspects of the agenda. Unless otherwise stated, all views are my own views of Paul’s views. (ETA: Paul does not have major disagreements with anything expressed in this FAQ. There are many small points he might have expressed differently, but he endorses this as a reasonable representation of his views. This is in contrast with previous drafts of this FAQ, which did contain serious errors he asked to have corrected.)

For an introduction to Paul’s agenda, I’d recommend Ajeya Cotra’s summary. For good prior discussion of his agenda, I’d recommend Eliezer’s thoughts, Jessica Taylor’s thoughts (here and here), some posts and discussions on LessWrong, and Wei Dai’s comments on Paul’s blog. For most of Paul’s writings about his agenda, visit ai-alignment.com.

0. Goals and non-goals

0.1: What is this agenda trying to accomplish?

Enable humans to build arbitrarily powerful AGI assistants that are competitive with unaligned AGI alternatives, and only try to help their operators (and in particular, never attempt to kill or manipulate them).

People often conceive of safe AGIs as silver bullets that will robustly solve every problem that humans care about. This agenda is not about building a silver bullet, it’s about building a tool that will safely and substantially assist its operators. For example, this agenda does not aim to create assistants that can do any of the following:

  • They can prevent nuclear wars from happening
  • They can prevent evil dictatorships
  • They can make centuries’ worth of philosophical progress
  • They can effectively negotiate with distant superintelligences
  • They can solve the value specification problem

On the other hand, to the extent that humans care about these things and could make them happen, this agenda lets us build AGI assistants that can substantially assist humans achieve these things. For example, a team of 1,000 competent humans working together for 10 years could make substantial progress on preventing nuclear wars or solving metaphilosophy. Unfortunately, it’s slow and expensive to assemble a team like this, but an AGI assistant might enable us to reap similar benefits in far less time and at much lower cost.

(See Clarifying "AI Alignment" and Directions and desiderata for AI alignment.)

0.2: What are examples of ways in which you imagine these AGI assistants getting used?

Two countries end up in an AGI arms race. Both countries are aware of the existential threats that AGIs pose, but also don’t want to limit the power of their AIs. They build AGIs according to this agenda, which stay under the operators’ control. These AGIs then help the operators broker an international treaty, which ushers in an era of peace and stability. During this era, foundational AI safety problems (e.g. those in MIRI’s research agenda) are solved in earnest, and a provably safe recursively self-improving AI is built.

A more pessimistic scenario is that the countries wage war, and the side with the more powerful AGI achieves a decisive victory and establishes a world government. This scenario isn’t as good, but it at least leaves humans in control (instead of extinct).

The most pressing problem in AI strategy is how to stop an AGI race to the bottom from killing us all. Paul’s agenda aims to solve this specific aspect of the problem. That isn’t an existential win, but it does represent a substantial improvement over the status quo.

(See section “2. Competitive” in Directions and desiderata for AI alignment.)

0.3: But this might lead to a world dictatorship! Or a world run by philosophically incompetent humans who fail to capture most of the possible value in our universe! Or some other dystopia!

Sure, maybe. But that’s still better than a paperclip maximizer killing us all.

There is a social/political/philosophical question about how to get humans in a post-AGI world to claim a majority of our cosmic endowment (including, among other things, not establishing a tyrannical dictatorship under which intellectual progress halts). While technical AI safety does make progress on this question, it’s a broader question overall that invites fairly different angles of attack (e.g. policy interventions and social influence). And, while this question is extremely important, it is a separate question from how you can build arbitrarily powerful AGIs that stay under their operators’ control, which is the only question this agenda is trying to answer.



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