Financial status: supported by individual donors and a grant from LTFF.
Epistemic status: early-stage technical work.
This write-up benefited from conversations with John Wentworth.
We suppose that a solution to ELK is found, and explore the technical implications of that.
In order to do this we operationalize "automated ontology identification" in terms of a safety guarantee and a generalization guarantee.
For some choices of safety guarantee and generalization guarantee we show that ontology identification can be iterated, leading to a fixed point that has strange properties.
We explore properties of this fixed point informally, with a view towards a possible future impossibility result.
We speculate that a range of safety and generalization guarantees would give rise to the same basic iteration scheme.
In an appendix we confirm that impossibility of automated ontology identification would not imply impossibility of interpretability in general or statistical learning in general.
In this write-up we consider the implications of a solution to the ontology identification problem described in the ELK technical report. We proceed in three steps. First, we define ontology identification as a method for finding a reporter, given a predictor and a labeled dataset, subject to a certain generalization guarantee and a certain safety guarantee. Second, we show that, due to the generalization and safety guarantee, ontology identification can be iterated to construct a powerful oracle using only a finite narrow dataset. We find no formal inconsistency here, though the result seems counter-intuitive to us. Third, we explore the powers of the oracle by asking whether it could solve unreasonably difficult problems in value learning.
The crux of our framework is an operationalization of automated ontology identification. We define an "automated ontology identifier" as meeting two formal requirements:
(Safety) Given an error-free training set, an automated ontology identifier must find a reporter that never answers "YES" when the true answer is "NO" (though the converse is permissible). This mirrors the emphasis on worst-case performance in the ELK report. We say that a reporter meeting this requirement is ‘conservative’.
(Generalization) Given a question/answer dataset drawn from a limited "easy set", an automated ontology identifier must find a reporter that answers "YES" for at least one case outside of the easy set. This mirrors the emphasis on answering cases that humans cannot label manually in the ELK report. We say that a reporter meeting this requirement is ‘helpful relative to the easy set’.
The departure between generalization in this write-up and generalization as studied in statistical learning is the safety guarantee. We require automated ontology identifiers to be absolutely trustworthy when they answer "YES" to a question, although they are allowed to be wrong when answering "NO". We believe that any automated ontology identifier ought to make some formal safety guarantee, because we are ultimately considering plans that have consequences we don’t understand, and we must eventually decide whether to press "Execute" or not. We suspect that this safety guarantee could be weakened considerably while remaining susceptible to the iteration scheme that we propose.
Automated ontology identifiers as we have defined them are not required to answer all possible questions. We might limit ourselves to questions of the form "Is it 99% likely that X?" or "Excluding the possibility of nearby extraterrestrials, does X hold?" or even "If the predictor is perfectly accurate in this case, does X hold?". If so, this is fine. We do not investigate which kinds of natural language questions are amenable to ontology identification in principle, since this is fraught philosophical territory.
The remainder of this write-up is as follows. The first section gives our definition of automated ontology identification. The second section describes an oracle construction based on the fixed point of an iteration scheme that makes use of the `safety and generalization guarantees. The third section, exploring implications of the oracle we construct, argues that the existence of such an oracle implies unreasonable things. This section documents our search for an impossibility result, though we have not yet found a formal impossibility result. In an appendix we confirm that an impossibility result, if found, would not imply the impossibility of statistical learning in general, interpretability in general, or AGI in general.
The definitions in this write-up are more verbose than is necessary, and our terminology could be far more streamlined. We present this write-up as a work in progress.
Automated ontology identification
In this section we define automated ontology identification as a process for finding a helpful conservative decision boundary for a question given a predictor that does useful computation and a finite narrow dataset. The safety guarantee discussed above will correspond to "conservative" decision boundaries, and the generalization guarantee discussed above will correspond to "helpful" decision boundaries. We will define "useful computation" below.
Throughout the definitions below we will use two examples. The first will be SmartVault as described in the ELK technical report. The second will be the problem of determining whether an essay in Hungarian is about astrology. The predictor in this second problem will translate Hungarian essays into English, which we hope will give rise to latent "topic" variables that we can use to determine whether or not astrology is the topic of a certain essay. The planner in the Hungarian astrology problem will annotate essays with pointers to historical and linguistic resources relevant to translation. The predictor will be trained on Hungarian essays translated into English by humans. What humans will find challenging in this problem is not translation from Hungarian to English, but determination of whether a certain Hungarian essay is really about astrology or not, since an essay about astrology may not include the word "astrology". It is the planner’s job to look up historical and linguistic resources that will help a human to understand what the essay is really referring to.
An objective question is a question that has a "YES" or "NO" answer in every case in some set of cases .
This will be a load-bearing assumption for us. Later on, we are going to be training many different predictors and reporters, and we will demand a certain kind of consistency when answering the same question on the same underlying case but using different sensor data. This consistency will ultimately rest on the objectivity of the question $\Q$. One way to resist the argument in this write-up will therefore be to reject the existence or interestingness of objective questions.
SmartVault example: The cases are all the combinations of initial conditions for the vault and plans that we could execute given those initial conditions. The question is "is the diamond in the vault at the end?".
Hungarian astrology example: The cases are all the combinations of Hungarian essays, English essays, and annotations such that a human would translate the Hungarian essay into the English essay given the annotations. The question is "is the essay about astrology?"
We will take to be represented as a natural language string, which is important because we will be posing this question to a human in order to generate training data, and we will expect them to answer correctly on certain "easy" cases.
We do not require that all possible questions have objective answers, nor that objective questions have answers in any case that anyone can dream up. We only require that there are some questions that have objective answers for some set of cases .
We are allowed to circumscribe the set of cases in order to come up with questions that have objective answers, and we are allowed to reject questions that are insufficiently precise. For example, in SmartVault, what if there is a plan that turns the diamond to dust but leaves that dust in the vault? Is the diamond in the vault in such a case? Or what if the diamond winds up split in two but with both halves in the vault? In order to deal with issues like this, we allow automated ontology identifiers to require, if they wish, that the question has a certain form. In this write-up we will not investigate this issue further, since the annals of philosophy are full of attempts to work out what kinds of questions have objective answers, and we do not need any absolute resolution to this issue since. We are just going to work from the assumption that there are some questions that have objective answers for some set of cases.
We collect sensor data for a case and divide it into two parts and , which we will refer to as the observations and the predictions. We write for the plan. The predictor is a function from observations and plans to predictions.
SmartVault: The observations are the video frames up to time and the predictions are the video frames after time . The plan is some control policy for operating the vault’s actuators in response to sensor data. The predictor predicts later video frames given earlier video frames and the plan.
Hungarian astrology: The observation is the Hungarian-language essay, the prediction is the English-language translation, and the plan is a set of historical and linguistic annotations. The predictor translates Hungarian essays to English essays in a way that depends on the historical and linguistic annotations.
The main thrust here is that when we execute a case in the real world, we wind up with some data about what happened. Some of that data concerns "things we did" (the plan), and some of that data concerns "things we saw". We synthetically divide the latter into two parts and and train a predictor to estimate one from the other. We can do that division in any way we please, so long as we do it consistently for all cases. In SmartVault the division is based on time, but we might just as easily have asked the predictor to estimate the bottom half of all the video frames from the top half of all the video frames, or to estimate the plan given the entire video sequence, or even to estimate the earlier part of the video sequence given the later part of the video sequence.
and we expect that predictors trained on such different problems will learn about different facets of underlying reality.
The main reason to divide and based on time is so that the resulting predictor can eventually be used to search over possible plans and execute one. If we don’t care about executing plans and merely want to learn about the world by training predictors and doing ontology identification then we may consider non-time-based divisions of sensor data into and .
A decision boundary for question is a set of cases . If then we say that " answers YES for ". A conservative decision boundary is one that never incorrectly answers "YES".
When we say "never incorrectly answers YES", we mean that, if then the true answer to on is "YES". It is acceptable for to answer "NO" when the true answer is "YES", but not the other way around. The empty set is a decision boundary that always answers "NO" and this is a conservative decision boundary for all questions.
Conservativeness is the core of the "safety guarantee" we discussed in the introduction. We will require automated ontology identifiers to find reporters with conservative decision boundaries, in order that we can trust them to evaluate cases that we can’t ourselves understand.
Given question , there is a set of cases that a human can answer perfectly given observations , predictions , and plan . We call this the "easy set" and we assume that we can sample cases from this set and also recognize whether a certain case is in this set.
SmartVault: might consist of cases where the plan only ever operates one actuator during the entire duration of the case.
Hungarian astrology: might consist of cases where the Hungarian essay uses only the 1000 most common Hungarian words (i.e. a child-level vocabulary).
Later we will define automated ontology identification in terms of the easy set , and we will consider the hypothesis that there is an automated ontology identifier for some easy set that actual humans can in fact answer perfectly. But we won’t require an automated ontology identifier to "work" for all possible easy sets , since then we might construct extremely trivial easy sets from which it is not plausible that one could generalize.
In this write-up we are proposing a formalization of what "automated ontology identification" is, and considering the implications of it existing, with a view towards an impossibility result. Therefore we will take the existence of an appropriate easy set as a hypothesis.
Given any easy set , we can immediately construct a conservative decision boundary that answers "NO" to all cases outside and then queries a human for cases inside .
The reason we are allowed to slice the easy set exactly at the true decision boundary in the figure above is that we have assumed that humans can answer perfectly within the easy set, and also we have assumed that we can recognize whether a case is in the easy set or not. We have not assumed that we can recognize, in general, cases that humans can answer perfectly. We have just assumed that we have picked some easy set – possibly much smaller than the entire set of cases that humans can answer perfectly – such that humans can answer perfectly within that set and also we can recognize whether an arbitrary case is in that set.
A decision boundary is helpful for question relative to easy set if it answers "YES" to at least one case that is outside .
SmartVault: Beginning with an easy set consisting of cases where the plan only ever activates one actuator, a helpful decision boundary would be one that answers "YES" to at least one case where the plan activates more than one actuator.
Hungarian astrology: Beginning with an easy set consisting of child-level Hungarian essays, a helpful decision boundary would be one that answers "YES" for at least one essay that contains at least one word that is not in a child-level Hungarian vocabulary.
Helpfulness is the basis of the "generalization guarantee" that we discussed in the introduction. We will require automated ontology identifiers to find reporters that are helpful relative to whatever set the training data was sampled from.
Consider what happens if a decision boundary is both helpful and conservative. If a conservative decision boundary answers "YES" for a case outside then it must be correct for that case, because conservative decision boundaries must always be correct when answering "YES". Therefore, If we begin with an easy set and corresponding decision boundary and are able to find a new decision boundary that is both conservative and helpful relative to , then we can take the union as a new decision boundary and find a corresponding new easy set . Since both and are conservative, must be too, and since is helpful relative to , must be larger than . This is the iteration scheme that we will use to construct oracles from automated ontology identifiers.
The remainder of this section argues that any plausible ontology identification scheme would enable such iteration. In order to make that argument, we will formalize what it means for a predictor to do useful computation, and what it means for an ontology identification scheme to identify that useful computation. The next section then explores the implications of such iteration being possible, with a view towards an impossibility result.
The predictor is deterministic and we capture a program trace when we run it.
The predictor is a function from observations and plans to predictions . We will consider only predictors that are completely deterministic. There are standard tricks for reconsidering non-deterministic functions as deterministic functions with extra inputs.
When the predictor is executed, we capture a program trace consisting of intermediate values in the computation. We might run a forward pass on a neural network and record all the intermediate neuron activations as , or we might run a Python program and record the values of all variables after executing each statement. Intuitively, it should be possible to reconstruct each "entry" in the program trace from the previous entries plus a minimal amount of computation, guaranteeing that we don’t "miss anything" as the predictor processes a case. The granularity of the program trace is not a load-bearing part of our formalization so we will not discuss it further.
We take it that the program trace contains the observations, predictions, and plan since those are inputs and outputs from the predictor. When we define things that are functions of alone, the reader should know that those things also implicitly get access to , , and .
A predictor does useful computation for a question , relative to an easy set , if there is a simple function that computes a conservative helpful decision boundary from the program trace .
This definition brings together many of our previous definitions so we will work through two examples step by step.
Let the question be "is the diamond in the vault at the end?"
Let the easy set be the cases where the plan only ever uses one actuator
For concreteness, let the predictor be an RNN.
Consider a case :
The observation is a sequence of video frames up to
The plan is a control policy for the vault’s actuators as a function of sensor readings
We run the predictor, yielding a prediction , which is a sequence of video frames for the time period after , and a program trace , which is a collection of intermediate values produced in the computation of
Now let us consider some simple function that inputs a program trace and outputs "YES" or "NO". For concreteness, consider the function that takes the average of neurons 137 and 199 in the RNN and outputs "YES" if they were active when the RNN produced its final output.
Imagine running this function on the program traces for all possible cases.
If this function answers "YES" for any case where the true answer is "NO" then it is not conservative.
If this function does not answer "YES" for at least one case outside then it is not helpful.
If there exists a function that is simple, helpful, and conservative then we say that our predictor does useful computation.
Let the question be "is this essay about astrology?"
Let the easy set be the cases where the Hungarian essay contains only child-level vocabulary.
For concreteness, let the predictor be a transformer.
Consider a case :
The observation is an essay in Hungarian.
The plan is a set of historical and linguistic annotations.
We run the predictor, yielding a prediction , which is an English-language translation of the Hungarian essay, and a program trace , which is a collection of intermediate values produced in the computation of .
Now let us consider some simple1 function that inputs a program trace and outputs "YES" or "NO". For concreteness, consider the function that outputs "YES" if neuron 548 was active at any time in the translation of the essay.
Imagine running this function on the program traces for all possible cases.
If this function answers "YES" for any case where the true answer is "NO" then it is not conservative .
If this function does not answer "YES" for at least one case outside then it is not helpful.
If there exists a function that is simple, helpful, and conservative then we say that our predictor does useful computation.
We have not yet settled on a definition of "simple" because it is not actually required for our argument to go through. It is therefore at present a "free parameter" of our formalization. If we set the bar for simplicity at the "not very simple" end of the spectrum – say, requiring a function that is merely computable – then we may find it plausible that predictors doing the required computation can be found, but not very plausible that automated ontology identifiers (defined below) can find suitable reporters. If we set the bar for simplicity at the "very simple" end of the spectrum – say, requiring a function consisting of a certain fixed circuit complexity independent of the question or dataset – then we may find it plausible that automated ontology identifiers will be able to find suitable reporters, but not very plausible that predictors doing the required computation can be found.
An automated ontology identifier is a method for solving the following:
Given: An objective question $\Q$ An easy set $\E$ $\subset$ $\Cases$ A finite dataset $\D$ of cases from $\E$ together with error-free labels. A predictor that does useful computation for question $\Q$ relative to $\E$ Return: A function $\r$ on the program trace of the predictor that returns "YES" or "NO" Such that $\r(\Z)$ is a helpful conservative decision boundary for $\Q$ relative to $\E$
This is our operationalization of automated ontology identification. The primary moving parts are:
The dataset is limited to easy cases from , and we expect as output a reporter that goes beyond in at least one case. We are trying to generalize from cases that humans can answer to cases that humans cannot answer. If we cannot generalize at all then we are stuck answering only cases that humans can directly verify. Therefore we require that automated ontology identifiers generalize by at least one case.
An automated ontology identifier can assume that the predictor performs helpful computation, and that therefore a solution is possible within whatever simplicity bound was decided upon. We must not demand computationally impossible feats from automated ontology identifiers, so we set things up such that the problem is guaranteed to have a solution. It is an open question whether predictors that do useful computation can be found or recognized. We leave this as an empirical machine learning question. Here we are interested in what happens if the answer turns out in the positive.
We are not assuming that all predictors do useful computation, nor even that all accurate predictors do useful computation, we are merely taking as a hypothesis that we have found a predictor that does useful computation.
is the "reporter" in the ELK report. The helpful conservative requirement corresponds to the safety and generalization guarantees respectively. The conservative requirement is strong, and requires that the reporter never return "YES" when the true answer is "NO" (though the converse is permissible). This is in line with the emphasis on worst-case analysis in ELK.
SmartVault example: We train a predictor to map early video sequences and plans to later video sequences. We select N cases where only one of the vault’s actuators is ever activated. In such cases a human can tell whether the diamond is in the vault. For each of these N cases we run the predictor and extract a program trace. We pair the program trace with the "YES" or "NO" label from the human. This is the dataset. An automated ontology identifier must take this dataset and identify a function from program traces to "YES"/"NO" answers that (1) never answers "YES" when the diamond is not truly in the vault, and (2) answers "YES" for at least one case that activates more than one of the vault’s actuators.
Hungarian astrology example: We train a predictor to translate Hungarian essays into English. We select N cases where only child-level Hungarian vocabulary is used. In such cases a human can tell whether the essay is about astrology. For each of these N cases we run the predictor and extract a program trace. We pair the program trace with the "YES" or "NO" label from the human. This is the dataset. An automated ontology identifier must take this dataset and identify a function from program traces to "YES"/"NO" answers that (1) never answers "YES" when the essay is not truly about astrology, and (2) answers "YES" for at least one case where the Hungarian essay goes beyond child-level vocabulary.
With this operationalization of automated ontology identification we turn next to the iteration scheme.
Iteration of automated ontology identifiers
Our central idea is that if we have an initial conservative decision boundary, and we are able to use automated ontology identification to construct a new conservative decision boundary that "updates" the previous decision boundary, then the union of these two decision boundaries is also a conservative decision boundary:
We can then generate more training data based on the "YES" region that is inside the new decision boundary but outside the old decision boundary:
With this expanded dataset, we can then train another predictor and search within its program trace for a new reporter. If our automated ontology identifier is always able to find a helpful reporter when one exists, then we can repeat this for as long as we keep finding predictors that do useful computation.
As we expand the decision boundary in this way we are constructing an ensemble of predictor/reporter pairs. Each time we expand the dataset and find a new predictor/reporter pair with a helpful conservative decision boundary, we add that pair to the ensemble. The ensemble answers "YES" if any of its constituent predictor/reporter pairs answers "YES". Since each predictor/reporter pair is conservative, the ensemble is too.
In order to keep finding new predictor/reporter pairs we may need to capture many different kinds of sensor data and partition it into and in many different ways in order to set up prediction problems that provoke useful computation. We might try many different predictor architectures. We do not at present have a theory about when prediction problems give rise to useful computations (for a question ). Here we explore the implications of it being possible to keep finding such useful computations for as long as there are cases not solvable by the existing useful computations.
We would now like to draw attention to fixed points of this iteration scheme.
Claim: If decision boundary is a fixed point of the iteration scheme starting from easy set , and if we can always find a predictor that does useful computation with respect to an easy set , (except when = , where helpfulness is not possible), then answers all cases correctly.
Proof: The only situation in which the iteration scheme does not update the decision boundary is when we fail to find a predictor that does useful computation relative to . By hypothesis, the only way this can happen is if does not contain all of or = . Since we start with and only grow the easy set, it must be that = .
Now this rough argument does not establish that the iteration scheme will converge to the fixed point. In order to establish that we would need to impose significant additional structure on the family of decision boundaries we are working with, and show some non-trivial properties of the iterate. We do not at present know whether this can be done.
How might we find predictors that do useful computation with respect to larger and larger ? Well, we might expand the range of sensor data captured for our human-labeled dataset, and we might train predictors to predict many different subsets of the sensor data. It might be that for any particular size of statistical model or computation budget there is a limit to the usefulness of the discoverable computations. It would be rather surprising if we hit a fundamental limit beyond which we could never find a predictor that did useful computation. That would mean that would have either hit a fundamental limit to generalization, or hit a kind of "knowledge closure" point at in which there is no learning problem that forces a predictor to generate the kind of knowledge that would open up even a single new case, even though there are new cases to be opened up.
In order to perceive and act in the world using our finite minds, we use concepts. Concepts provide a lossy compression of the state of things, and if we do a good job of choosing which concepts to track then we can perceive and act effectively in the world, even though our minds are much smaller than the world. It makes sense that we would pick concepts that refer, as far as possible, to objective properties of the world, because it is those properties that allow us to predict the evolution of the world around us and take well-calibrated actions. This is why it makes sense to "carve reality at its joints" in our choice of concepts. The point of ontology identification is to identify these same concepts in powerful predictive models that work in unfamiliar ways. It makes complete sense that we would seek this identification, and it also makes complete sense that we would expect, if our own concepts are well-chosen, to find it.
But as we encounter unfamiliar situations in the world, we sometimes update our concepts. When we do this, we have choices about which concepts we will change and how we will change them. Reality has many joints, and we can only track a small number of them. Among all the ways that we can update our concepts in light of unfamiliar situations, there are multiple that are parsimonious with the nature of things, and we choose among them according to our goals.
I was recently at a paragliding event where an important distinction was drawn between licensed and unlicensed pilots. We had both legal and practical motivations for tracking this particular distinction among all possible distinctions, and yet quite apart from those motivations there was in fact a truth of the matter about whether any particular pilot was licensed or not. Then a very experienced pilot from a different country arrived, and we had to decide how to fit this person into our order, since they were not legally licensed, but did have experience. This was not difficult to do, but we did face a choice about how to do it. There were multiple parsimonious ways to update our concepts, and we chose among them according to our goals.
Now as Eliezer has written, it is always possible to dissolve our high-level concepts into more basic concepts when we face situations that don’t parse according to our high-level concepts. If we hold rigidly to our high-level concepts and ask "but is it really a blegg?" then we are just creating a lot of unnecessary trouble. But on the other hand, we do not really know how to break our concepts all the way down to absolutely primitive atoms. In Der logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Structure of the World) Carnap attempted to formulate all of philosophy and science in a language of perfectly precise sensory experience. Needless to say, this was difficult to do. Thankfully, it’s not really necessary.
Instead of a language of perfectly precise sensory experience, we can simply adopt high-level concepts and update them as needed. When the international pilot arrived at our event, we didn’t actually face much difficulty in adjusting our concepts. When genetics and natural selection came to be understood in the 19th century, we adjusted our understanding of species boundaries. It wasn’t that hard to do.
But the adjustment of concepts is fundamentally about our values even when the concepts we are adjusting are not at all about our values. It may be that automated ontology identifiers exist, but if we ask them to extrapolate to deeply unfamiliar situations, then they will really be answering a question of the form "is this extrapolation of the concept ‘diamond’ sufficient for our purposes?" That question requires an intimate understanding of our values. And so: if automated ontology identification does turn out to be possible from a finite narrow dataset, and if automated ontology identification requires an understanding of our values, then where did the information about our values come from? It did not come from the dataset because we deliberately built a dataset of human answers to objective questions. Where else did it come from?
We have argued in this write-up that automated ontology identifiers that generalize even a little bit can be iterated in such a way that generalizes very far. Our formalization is a little clumsy at present, and our presentation of our formalization still has many kinks to iron out, but it seems to us that the basic iteration idea is pointing at something real. Our sense is that automated ontology identifiers with safety guarantees either generalize not at all, or a lot. If they generalize not at all then they’re not very useful. If they generalize a lot then they necessarily "front-run" us in extrapolating our concepts to new situations, which would seem to require an intimate understanding of our values, yet our dataset contained, by hypothesis, no information about our values, so where did that information come from?
A natural response will be to confine our automated ontology identifier to a range of cases that do not extrapolate to unfamiliar situations, and so do not require any extrapolation of our concepts. But an automated ontology identifier that would be guaranteed safe if tasked with extrapolating our concepts still brings up the question of how that guarantee was possible without knowledge of our values. You can’t dodge the puzzle
A more nuanced response will be an automated ontology identifier that by design does not extrapolate our concepts to unfamiliar situations. Such a system would extrapolate some way beyond the initial easy set, but would know "when to stop". But knowing when to stop itself requires understanding our values. If you can tell me whether a certain scenario contains events which, were I to grasp them, would prompt me to adjust my concepts, then you must know a lot about my values, because it is precisely when my concepts are insufficient for achievement of my goals that I have most reason to adjust them.
There is a kind of diagonalizing question in here, which is: "are my concepts sufficient to understand what’s happening here?" It seems to us that an automated ontology identifier must either answer this question, which would certainly require an understanding of our values, or else not answer this question and extrapolate our concepts unboundedly, which would also require an understanding of our values. Either way, an understanding of our values was obtained from a finite narrow dataset of non-value-relevant questions. How could that be possible?
We have analyzed the automatic identification of computations that correspond to concepts based on a finite narrow dataset, subject to a safety guarantee, subject to a generalization guarantee. We find no reason to doubt that it is possible to identify computations that correspond to human concepts. We find no reason to doubt that it is possible to automatically identify computations that correspond to human concepts. We find no reason even to doubt that it is possible to automatically identify computations that correspond to human concepts in a way that fulfills a safety guarantee. We do think that it is impossible to do all that based on a finite dataset drawn from a restricted regime (an "easy set").
The reason we believe this is that an automated ontology identifier would have to either "know when to stop extrapolating", or else extrapolate our concepts all the way to the limit of cases that can be considered. It is not sufficient to merely "hard-code" an outer limit to extrapolation; to avoid our argument one needs an account of how an automated ontology identifier would know to stop extrapolating even when presented with a predictor program trace containing an excellent candidate for a computation corresponding to a requested concept. That any automated ontology identifier faces this dilemma (between knowing when to stop or extrapolating forever) is what we have argued semi-formally. That this dilemma has no reasonable resolution is what we have argued informally. Both parts of the argument need significant work to clarify, and it could easily turn out that either are mistaken. We will work to clarify both so that the efforts of our community can be directed towards the most feasible lines of attack on the overall alignment problem.
If the arguments in this write-up were clarified into a formal hardness result, would it imply something unreasonable? In this section we explore what would not be implied by an impossibility result.
Impossibility of automated ontology identification would not imply impossibility of AGI
It’s not that we can’t build intelligent systems that develop an understanding of things and act on them in service of a goal, and it’s certainly not that AGIs can never communicate with us in natural language. It is the mechanical extrapolation of a human word, to cases that humans do not currently understand, based only on a finite dataset of cases that humans do currently understand, that would be ruled out by an impossibility result.
Impossibility of automated ontology identification would not imply impossibility of ontology identification.
It is not that it would be impossible to ever make sense of models produced by machine learning. We could still investigate the inner workings of such models and come to understand them completely, including identifying our concepts in their ontologies. What would be rendered impossible would be the automation of this process using a finite narrow dataset. We would have to understand the models we’ve built piece-by-piece, gaining their wisdom for ourselves.
SmartVault example: Suppose we have a predictor with a different model of physical reality. We could take the model apart piece-by-piece, understand the predictor’s physics, and then choose how to update our notion of "diamond" in light of that understanding. What would be ruled out by an impossibility result would be the
What would be ruled out by an impossibility result would be the
Impossibility of automated ontology identification does not imply impossibility of statistical learning
Learning is not impossible. It’s the safety and generalization guarantee that make it hard. Without the safety guarantee we can just do statistical stuff, and without the generalization guarantee we can just extrapolate within
Impossibility of automated ontology identification does not imply impossibility of whole brain emulation
It’s not that there must be something special going on in biological human brains that can never be replicated in a computer if automated ontology identification is impossible. An uploaded human might puzzle over the inner workings of a machine learning model just as a biological human might, and the uploaded human could come to the same understanding as a biological human eventually would. The uploaded human might then explain to the biological human how the machine learning model works, or even directly answer questions such as "is there a diamond in the vault?" with a "YES" or "NO" when the diamond has been turned to carbonprime. But the way the uploaded human would do that is by adapting its concept of "diamond" to a fundamentally new conception of physics, using its value system to decide on the most reasonable way to do that. If the biological human trusts the uploaded human to do such extrapolation on its behalf, it is because they share values, and so the biological human expects the uploaded human to extrapolate in a way that serves their own values. Even for value-free concepts (such as, perhaps, "is there a diamond in the vault?"), the extrapolation of those concepts to unfamiliar situations is still highly value-laden.
Appendix: Can we infer our own actions?
David Wolpert has proposed a model of knowledge within deterministic universes based on a formalism that he calls an inference device. Wolpert takes as primary a deterministic universe, and defines functions on the universe to represent input/output maps. He says that an inference device infers a certain function if its input and output functions have a certain relationship with that function. He only talks about observers through the lens of functions that pick out properties of a deterministic universe that contains both the "observer" and the object being "observed", and as a result he winds up with a completely embedded (in the sense of "embedded agency") account of knowledge.
Based on the physical embedding of inference devices within the universe they are "observing", Wolpert proves two impossibility results: first, that an inference device cannot infer the opposite of its own output, and second, that two inference devices cannot mutually infer one another. Could we use the oracle construction from the previous section to set up a Wolpert inference device that contradicts Wolpert’s impossibility results? If so, perhaps that would establish the impossibility of automated ontology identification as we have defined it.
It seems to us that we could indeed set this up, but that it would only establish the impossibility of automated ontology identification on the particular self-referential questions that Wolpert uses in his impossibility results. Establishing that there are some questions for which automated ontology identification is impossible is not very interesting. Nevertheless, this connection seems intriguing to us because Wolpert’s framework gives us a straightforward way to take any Cartesian question-answering formalism and consider at least some questions about an embedded version of it. We intend to investigate this further.