AI Safety "Success Stories"

AI safety researchers often describe their long term goals as building "safe and efficient AIs", but don't always mean the same thing by this or other seemingly similar phrases. Asking about their "success stories" (i.e., scenarios in which their line of research helps contribute to a positive outcome) can help make clear what their actual research aims are. Knowing such scenarios also makes it easier to compare the ambition, difficulty, and other attributes of different lines of AI safety research. I hope this contributes to improved communication and coordination between different groups of people working on AI risk.

In the rest of the post, I describe some common AI safety success stories that I've heard over the years and then compare them along a number of dimensions. They are listed in roughly the order in which they first came to my attention. (Suggestions welcome for better names for any of these scenarios, as well as additional success stories and additional dimensions along which they can be compared.)

The Success Stories

Sovereign Singleton

AKA Friendly AI, an autonomous, superhumanly intelligent AGI that takes over the world and optimizes it according to some (perhaps indirect) specification of human values.

Pivotal Tool

An oracle or task AGI, which can be used to perform a pivotal but limited act, and then stops to wait for further instructions.

Corrigible Contender

A semi-autonomous AGI that does not have long-term preferences of its own but acts according to (its understanding of) the short-term preferences of some human or group of humans, it competes effectively with comparable AGIs corrigible to other users as well as unaligned AGIs (if any exist), for resources and ultimately for influence on the future of the universe.

Interim Quality-of-Life Improver

AI risk can be minimized if world powers coordinate to limit AI capabilities development or deployment, in order to give AI safety researchers more time to figure out how to build a very safe and highly capable AGI. While that is proceeding, it may be a good idea (e.g., politically advisable and/or morally correct) to deploy relatively safe, limited AIs that can improve people's quality of life but are not necessarily state of the art in terms of capability or efficiency. Such improvements can for example include curing diseases and solving pressing scientific and technological problems.

(I want to credit Rohin Shah as the person that I got this success story from, but can't find the post or comment where he talked about it. Was it someone else?)

Research Assistant

If an AGI project gains a lead over its competitors, it may be able to grow that into a larger lead by building AIs to help with (either safety or capability) research. This can be in the form of an oracle, or human imitation, or even narrow AIs useful for making money (which can be used to buy more compute, hire more human researchers, etc). Such Research Assistant AIs can help pave the way to one of the other, more definitive success stories. Examples: 1, 2.

Comparison Table

Sovereign Singleton Pivotal Tool Corrigible Contender Interim Quality-of-Life Improver Research Assistant
Autonomy High Low Medium Low Low
AI safety ambition / difficulty Very High Medium High Low Low
Reliance on human safety Low High High Medium Medium
Required capability advantage over competing agents High High None None Low
Tolerates capability trade-off due to safety measures Yes Yes No Yes Some
Assumes strong global coordination No No No Yes No
Controlled access Yes Yes No Yes Yes

(Note that due to limited space, I've left out a couple of scenarios which are straightforward recombinations of the above success stories, namely Sovereign Contender and Corrigible Singleton. I also left out CAIS because I find it hard to visualize it clearly enough as a success story to fill out its entries in the above table, plus I'm not sure if any safety researchers are currently aiming for it as a success story.)

The color coding in the table indicates how hard it would be to achieve the required condition for a success story to come to pass, with green meaning relatively easy, and yellow/pink/violet indicating increasing difficulty. Below is an explanation of what each row heading means, in case it's not immediately clear.


The opposite of human-in-the-loop.

AI safety ambition/difficulty

Achieving each success story requires solving a different set of AI safety problems. This is my subjective estimate of how ambitious/difficult the corresponding set of AI safety problems is. (Please feel free to disagree in the comments!)

Reliance on human safety

How much does achieving this success story depend on humans being safe, or on solving human safety problems? This is also a subjective judgement because different success stories rely on different aspects of human safety.

Required capability advantage over competing agents

Does achieving this success story require that the safe/aligned AI have a capability advantage over other agents in the world?

Tolerates capability trade-off due to safety measures

Many ways of achieving AI safety have a cost in terms of lowering the capability of an AI relative to an unaligned AI built using comparable resources and technology. In some scenarios this is not as consequential (e.g., because it depends on achieving a large initial capability lead and then preventing any subsequent competitors from arising), and that's indicated by a "Yes" in this row.

Assumes strong global coordination

Does this success story assume that there is strong global coordination to prevent unaligned competitors from arising?

Controlled access

Does this success story assume that only a small number of people are given access to the safe/aligned AI?

Further Thoughts

  1. This exercise made me realize that I'm confused about how the Pivotal Tool scenario is supposed to work, after the initial pivotal act is done. It would likely require several years or decades to fully solve AI safety/alignment and remove the dependence on human safety, but it's not clear how to create a safe environment for doing that after the pivotal act.
  2. One thing I'm less confused about now is why people who work toward the Contender scenarios are focused more on minimizing the capability trade-off of safety measures than people who work toward the Singleton scenarios even though the latter scenarios seem to demand more of a capability lead. It's because the latter group of people think it's possible or likely for a single AGI project to achieve a large initial capability advantage, in which case some initial capability trade-off due to safety measures is ok, and subsequent ongoing capability trade-off is not consequential because there would be no competitors left.
  3. The comparison table makes Research Assistant seem a particularly attractive scenario to aim for, as a stepping stone to a more definitive success story. Is this conclusion actually justified?
  4. Interim Quality-of-Life Improver also looks very attractive, if only strong global coordination could be achieved.
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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
I want to credit Rohin Shah as the person that I got this success story from, but can't find the post or comment where he talked about it.

It might be from Following human norms?

With a norm-following AI system, the success story is primarily around accelerating our rate of progress. Humans remain in charge of the overall trajectory of the future, and we use AI systems as tools that enable us to make better decisions and create better technologies, which looks like “superhuman intelligence” from our vantage point today.
If we still want an AI system that colonizes space and optimizes it according to our values without our supervision, we can figure out what our values are over a period of reflection, solve the alignment problem for goal-directed AI systems, and then create such an AI system.

Which was referenced again in Learning preferences by looking at the world:

If I had to point towards a particular concrete path to a good future, it would be the one that I outlined in Following human norms. We build AI systems that have a good understanding of “common sense” or “how to behave normally in human society”; they accelerate technological development and improve decision-making; if we really want to have a goal-directed AI that is not under our control but that optimizes for our values then we solve the full alignment problem in the future. Inferring preferences or norms from the world state could be a crucial part of helping our AI systems understand “common sense”.

It's not the same as your Interim Quality-of-Life Improver, but it's got similar aspects.

It's also related to the concept of a "Great Deliberation" where we stabilize the world and then figure out what we want to do. (I don't have a reference for that though.)

If it wasn't these (but it was me), it was probably something earlier; I think I was thinking along the lines of Interim Quality-of-Life Improver in early-to-mid 2018.

Thanks for the references. I think I should also credit you with being the first to use "success story" the way I'm using it here, in connection with AI safety, which gave me the idea to write this post.

It’s not the same as your Interim Quality-of-Life Improver, but it’s got similar aspects.

The main difference seems to be that you don't explicitly mention strong global coordination to stop unaligned AI from arising. Is that something you also had in mind? (I seem to recall someone talking about that in connection with this kind of scenario.)

It’s also related to the concept of a “Great Deliberation” where we stabilize the world and then figure out what we want to do. (I don’t have a reference for that though.)

There's also Will MacAskill and Toby Ord's "the Long Reflection" (which may be the same thing that you're thinking of), which as far as I know isn't written up in detail anywhere yet. However I'm told that both of their upcoming books will have some discussions of it.

The main difference seems to be that you don't explicitly mention strong global coordination to stop unaligned AI from arising. Is that something you also had in mind?

It's more of a free variable -- I could imagine the world turning out such that we don't need very strong coordination (because the Quality of Life Improver AI could plausibly not sacrifice competitiveness), and I could also imagine the world turning out such that it's really easy to build very powerful unaligned AI and we need strong global coordination to prevent it from happening.

I think the difference may just be in how we present it -- you focus more on the global coordination part, whereas I focus more on the following norms + improving technology + quality of life part.

There's also Will MacAskill and Toby Ord's "the Long Reflection"

Yeah I think that's the same concept.

Seems like a good starting point for discussion. Researchers need to have some picture of what AI alignment is "for," in order to think about what research directions look most promising.

I'm surprised this post didn't get more comments and spark more further research. Rereading it, I think it's both an excellent overview/distillation, and also a piece of strategy research in its own right. I wish there were more things like this. I think this post deserves to be expanded into a book or website and continually updated and refined.

Does an "AI safety success story" encapsulate just a certain trajectory in AI (safety) development?

Or does it also include a story about how AI is deployed (and by who, etc.)?

I like this post a lot, but I think it ends up being a bit unclear because I don't think everyone has the same use cases in mind for the different technologies underlying these scenarios, and/or I don't think everyone agrees with the way in which safety research is viewed as contributing to success in these different scenarios... Maybe fleshing out the success stories, or referencing some more in-depth elaborations of them would make this clearer?

I don't understand what you mean by "Reliance on human safety". Can you clarify/elaborate? Is this like... relying on humans' (meta-)philosophical competence? Relying on not having bad actors? etc...

I'm going to dispute a few cells in your grid.

  • I think pivotal tool story has low reliance on human safety (although I'm confused by that row in general).
  • Whether sovereigns would require restricted access is unclear. This is basically the question of whether single-agent, single-user alignment will likely produce a solution to multi-agent, multi-user alignment (in a timely manner).
  • ETA: the "interim quality of life improver" seems to roughly be talking about episodic RL, which I would classify as "medium" autonomy.

For the alignment newsletter:

Planned summary: It is difficult to measure the usefulness of various alignment approaches without clearly understanding what type of future they end up being useful for. This post collects "Success Stories" for AI -- disjunctive scenarios in which alignment approaches are leveraged to ensure a positive future. Whether these scenarios come to pass will depend critically on background assumptions, such as whether we can achieve global coordination, or solve the most ambitious safety issues. Mapping these success stories can help us prioritize research.

Planned opinion: This post does not exhaust the possible success stories, but it gets us a lot closer to being able to look at a particular approach and ask, "Where exactly does this help us?" My guess is that most research ends up being only minimally helpful for the long run, and so I consider inquiry like this to be very useful for cause prioritization.

I think that our research is at a sufficiently early stage that most technical work could contribute to most success stories. We are still mostly understanding the rules of the game and building the building blocks. I would say that we work on AI safety in general until we find anything that can be used at all. (There is some current work on things like satisficers that seem less relevant to sovereigns. I am not discouraging working on areas that seem more likely to help some success stories, just saying that those areas seem rare.)

While that's true to some extent, a lot of research does seem to be motivated much more by some of these scenarios. For example, work on safe oracle designs seems primarily motivated by the pivotal tool success story.