On the purposes of decision theory research

by Wei Dai1 min read25th Jul 20194 comments

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Decision TheoryMeta-Philosophy
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Following the examples of Rob Bensinger and Rohin Shah, this post will try to clarify the aims of part of my research interests, and disclaim some possible misunderstandings about it. (I'm obviously only speaking for myself and not for anyone else doing decision theory research.)

I think decision theory research is useful for:

  1. Gaining information about the nature of rationality (e.g., is “realism about rationality” true?) and the nature of philosophy (e.g., is it possible to make real progress in decision theory, and if so what cognitive processes are we using to do that?), and helping to solve the problems of normativity, meta-ethics, and metaphilosophy.
  2. Better understanding potential AI safety failure modes that are due to flawed decision procedures implemented in or by AI.
  3. Making progress on various seemingly important intellectual puzzles that seem directly related to decision theory, such as free will, anthropic reasoning, logical uncertainty, Rob's examples of counterfactuals, updatelessness, and coordination, and more.
  4. Firming up the foundations of human rationality.

To me, decision theory research is not meant to:

  1. Provide a correct or normative decision theory that will be used as a specification or approximation target for programming or training a potentially superintelligent AI.
  2. Help create "safety arguments" that aim to show that a proposed or already existing AI is free from decision theoretic flaws.

To help explain 5 and 6, here's what I wrote in a previous comment (slightly edited):

One meta level above what even UDT tries to be is decision theory (as a philosophical subject) and one level above that is metaphilosophy, and my current thinking is that it seems bad (potentially dangerous or regretful) to put any significant (i.e., superhuman) amount of computation into anything except doing philosophy.

To put it another way, any decision theory that we come up with might have some kind of flaw that other agents can exploit, or just a flaw in general, such as in how well it cooperates or negotiates with or exploits other agents (which might include how quickly/cleverly it can make the necessary commitments). Wouldn’t it be better to put computation into trying to find and fix such flaws (in other words, coming up with better decision theories) than into any particular object-level decision theory, at least until the superhuman philosophical computation itself decides to start doing the latter?

Comparing my current post to Rob's post on the same general topic, my mentions of 1, 2, and 4 above seem to be new, and he didn't seem to share (or didn't choose to emphasize) my concern that decision theory research (as done by humans in the foreseeable future) can't solve decision theory in a definitive enough way that would obviate the need to make sure that any potentially superintelligent AI can find and fix decision theoretic flaws in itself.

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my concern that decision theory research (as done by humans in the foreseeable future) can't solve decision theory in a definitive enough way that would obviate the need to make sure that any potentially superintelligent AI can find and fix decision theoretic flaws in itself

So you're saying we need to solve decision theory at the meta-level, instead of the object-level. But can't we view any meta-level solution as also (trivially) an object level solution?

In other words, "[making] sure that any potentially superintelligent AI can find and fix decision theoretic flaws in itself" sounds like a special case of "[solving] decision theory in a definitive enough way".

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I'm starting with the objective of objecting to your (6): this seems like an important goal, in my mind. And if we *aren't* able to verify that an AI is free from decision theoretic flaws, then how can we trust it to self-modify to be free of such flaws?

Your perspective still make sense to me if you say: "this AI (soit ALICE) is exploitable, but it'll fix that within 100 years, so if it doesn't get exploited in the meanwhile, then we'll be OK". And OFC in principle, making an agent that will have no flaws within X years of when it is created is easier than the special case of X=0.

In reality, it seems plausible to me that we can build an agent like ALICE and have a decent change that ALICE won't get exploited within 100 years.

But I still don't see why you dismiss the goal of (6); I don't think we have anything like definitive evidence that it is an (effectively) impossible goal.

But can’t we view any meta-level solution as also (trivially) an object level solution?

Sure, I'm saying that it seems easier to reach the object level solution by working on the meta level (except in so far as working on the object level helps with meta-level understanding). As an analogy, if you need to factor a large number, it's much easier to try to find an algorithm for doing so than to try to factor the number yourself.

And if we aren’t able to verify that an AI is free from decision theoretic flaws, then how can we trust it to self-modify to be free of such flaws?

How do we verify that an AI is free from decision theoretic flaws, given that we don't have a formal definition of what counts as a "decision theoretic flaw"? (If we did have such a formal definition, the definition itself might have a flaw.) It seems like the only way to do that is to spend a lot of researcher hours searching the AI (or the formal definition) for flaws (or what humans would recognize as a flaw), but no matter how much time we spend, it seems like we can't definitively rule out the possibility that there might still be some flaws left that we haven't found. (See Philosophy as interminable debate.)

One might ask why the same concern doesn't apply to metaphilosophy. Well, I'm guessing that "correct metaphilosophy" might have a bigger basin of attraction around itself than "correct decision theory" so not being able to be sure that we've found and fixed all flaws might be less crucial. As evidence for this, it seems clear that humans don't have (i.e., aren't already using) a decision theory that is in the basin of attraction around "correct decision theory", but we do plausibly have a metaphilosophy that is in the basin of attraction around "correct metaphilosophy".

What's the best description of what you mean by "metaphilosophy" you can point me to? I think I have a pretty good sense of it, but it seems worthwhile to be as rigorous / formal / descriptive / etc. as possible.

This description from Three Approaches to "Friendliness" perhaps gives the best idea of what I mean by "metaphilosophy":

Black-Box Metaphilosophical AI - Program the AI to use the minds of one or more human philosophers as a black box to help it solve philosophical problems, without the AI builders understanding what "doing philosophy" actually is.

White-Box Metaphilosophical AI - Understand the nature of philosophy well enough to specify "doing philosophy" as an algorithm and code it into the AI.

(One could also imagine approaches that are somewhere in between these two, where for example AI designers have some partial understanding of what "doing philosophy" is, and programs the AI to learn from human philosophers based on this partial understanding.)

For more of my thoughts on this topic, see Some Thoughts on Metaphilosophy and the posts that it links to.