I wrote this essay in early August. I now consider the presentation to be somewhat confused, and now better understand where problems arise within the "standard alignment model." I'm publishing a somewhat edited version, on the grounds that something is better than nothing.

Summary: Consider the argument: "Imperfect value representations will, in the limit of optimization power, be optimized into oblivion by the true goal we really wanted the AI to optimize." But... I think my brother cares about me in some human and "imperfect" way. I also think that the future would contain lots of value for me if he were a superintelligent dictator (this could be quite bad for other reasons, of course). 

Therefore, this argument seems to prove too much. It seems like one of the following must be true: 

  1. My brother cares about me in the "perfect" way, or 
  2. Dictator-brother would do valueless things according to my true values, or
  3. The argument is wrong.

To explore these points, I dialogue with my model of Eliezer.


Suppose you win a raffle and get to choose one of n prizes. The first prize is a book with true value 10, but your evaluation of it is noisy (drawn from the Gaussian N(10,1) with standard deviation 1). The other n-1 prizes are widgets with true value 1, but your evaluation is more noisy (drawn from N(1,16) with standard deviation 4). As n increases, you’re more probable to select a widget and lose out on 10-1=9 utility. By considering so many options, you’re selecting against your own ability to judge prizes by implicitly selecting for high noise. You end up “optimizing so hard” that you delude yourself. This is the Optimizer’s Curse.

You’re probably already familiar with Goodhart’s Law, which applies when an agent optimizes a proxy U (e.g. how many nails are produced) for the true quantity V which we value (e.g. how profitable the nail factory is).

Goodhart’s Curse is their combination. According to the article, optimizing a proxy measure U over a trillion plans can lead to high regret under the true values V, even if U is an unbiased but noisy estimator of the true values V. This seems like bad news, insofar as it suggests that even getting an AI which understands human values on average across possibilities can still produce bad outcomes.

Below is a dialogue with my model of Eliezer. I wrote the dialogue to help me think about the question at hand. I put in work to model his counterarguments, but ultimately make no claim to have written him in a way he would endorse.


An obvious next question is "Why not just define the AI such that the AI itself regards  [a proxy measure] as an estimate of  [true human values], causing the AI's [proxy measure] to more closely align with [true human values] as the AI gets a more accurate empirical picture of the world?"

Reply: Of course this is the obvious thing that we'd want to do. But what if we make an error in exactly how we define "treat  as an estimate of "? Goodhart's Curse will magnify and blow up any error in this definition as well. — Goodhart’s Curse

Alex (A): Suppose that I can get smarter over time—that AGI just doesn’t happen, that the march of reason continues, that lifespans extend, and that I therefore gradually become very old and very smart.[1] Goodhart’s Curse predicts that—even though I think I want to help my brother be happy, even though I think I value his having a good life by his own values—my desire to help him is not “error-free”, it is not perfect, and so Goodhart’s Curse will magnify and blow up these errors. And time unfolds, the Curse is realized, and I bring about a future which is high-regret by his “true values” .[2] Insofar as Goodhart’s Curse has teeth as an argument for AI risk, it seems to predict that my brother will deeply regret my optimization.

This prediction seems flatly wrong: I wouldn’t bring about an outcome like that. Why do I believe that? Because I have reasonably high-fidelity access to my own policy, via imagining myself in the relevant situations. I have information about whether I would e.g. improve myself such that "improved" Alex screws over his brother. I simply imagine being faced with the choice, and through my imagination, I realize I wouldn't want to improve myself that way.

Alex’s model of Eliezer (A-EY): What a shocking observation—humans pursue human values, like helping their relatives.

A: The point is not that I value what I value. The point is that, based on introspective evidence, I value my brother achieving his values. If it’s really so difficult to point to what other agents want, why should my pointer to his values be so “robust” (whatever that means)?

A-EY: This is surprising why? Kin cooperation was heavily selected for in the ancestral environment. You, peering out from inside of your own human mind, perceive the apparent simplicity of caring about your brother, because that’s a thing your brain was natively built to do. You do not appreciate the generations upon generations of selection pressure which accreted complex and fine-tuned genetic machinery into your source code.

A: Indeed. And even though evolution couldn’t get us to value inclusive genetic fitness, evolution somehow found an adaptation for caring about kin, such that this caring generalizes off-distribution into the radically different modern environment, such that Goodhart’s Curse will be unable to drastically blow up the way I care for my brother, because I care about my brother’s preferences in the requisite “error-free” way.

That doesn’t sound like a thing which happens in reality. Seems more likely that the Curse doesn’t have the alignment implications which I perceive you to be claiming (e.g. that imperfect motivations get Goodharted to oblivion in the limit).

A-EY: What’s your point? Suppose I agreed that you are not currently falling victim to Goodhart’s Curse, at least in the sense of not bringing about outcomes your brother strongly disvalues. What next?

A: The point isn’t that I’m avoiding Goodhart’s Curse right now. I’m further claiming I won’t self-improve into an entity which foreseeably-to-current-me breaks the “I care about my brother” invariant. Therefore, insofar as I can become more intelligent, I will self-improve into an entity which doesn’t bring about horrible outcomes for my brother.

(And yes, if I considered a trillion zillion plans for improving myself and assigned each one a rating—a rather foolish procedure, all things considered—the highest-rated plan wouldn’t be the actually-best plan. The optimizer’s curse applies. Furthermore, the highest-rated plan might be worse than doing nothing, insofar as I consider plans which my search implicitly optimizes to look deceptively good to me. Since I already know that that decision-making procedure sucks, I just won’t use that procedure.)

This smarter version of myself poses a problem to certain implications of Goodhart’s Curse. You claim that it’s really hard to point AI to care about other entities’ values. But if we look at actual reality, at the one empirical example ever of general intelligence, there are literally billions of examples of those intelligences caring about each other every day. And, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t do something stupid like “consider a zillion plans and then choose the best one, with the foreseeable result of screwing over my brother due to my imperfect pointer to his values.”

A-EY: Why do you keep saying that humans care about each other? Of course humans care about each other.

A: Oh? And why’s that?

A-EY: Because it was selected for. Heard of evolution?

A: That’s not an explanation for why the mechanism works, that’s an explanation of how the mechanism got there. It’s like if I said “How can your car possibly be so fast?” and you said “Of course my car is fast, I just went to the shop. If they hadn’t made my car go faster, they’d probably be a bad shop, and would have gone out of business.”

A-EY: Sure. I don’t know why the mechanism works, and we probably won’t figure it out before DeepAI kills everyone. As a corollary, you don’t understand the mechanism either. So what are we debating?

A: I disagree with your forecast, but that’s beside the point. The point is that, by your own writing (as of several years ago), Goodhart’s Curse predicts that “imperfect” pointing procedures will produce optimization which is strongly disvalued by the preferences which were supposed to be pointed to. However, back in actual reality, introspective evidence indicates that I wouldn’t do that. From this I infer that some step of the Curse is either locally invalid, wrongly framed, or inapplicable to the one example of general intelligence we’ve ever seen.

A-EY: As I stated in the original article, mild optimization seemed (back in the day) like a possible workaround. That is, humans don’t do powerful enough search to realize the really bad forms of the Curse.

A: I do not feel less confused after hearing your explanation. You say phrases like “powerful enough search” and “mild optimization.” But what do those phrases mean? How do I know that I’m even trying to explain something which really exists, or which will probably exist—that unless we get “mild optimizers”, we will hit “agents doing powerful search” such that “imperfections get blown up”? Why should I believe that Goodhart’s Curse has the implications you claim, when the “Curse” seems like a nothingburger in real life as it applies to me and my brother?

A-EY: [Sighs] We have now entered the foreseeable part of the conversation where my interlocutor fails to understand how intelligence works. You peer out from your human condition, from the messy heuristics which chain into each other, and fail to realize the utter dissimilarity of AI. Of how Utility will sharpen and unify messy heuristics into coherence, pulling together disparate strands of cognition into a more efficient whole. You introspect upon your messy and kludgy human experience and, having lived nothing else, expect the same from AI.

AI will not be like you. AI will not think like you do. AI will not value like you do. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to understand.

A: Ad hominem and appeal to your own authority without making specific counterarguments against my point. Also, “humans are a mess” is not an actual explanation but a profession of ignorance (more precisely, a hypothesis class containing a range of high-complexity hypotheses), nor does that statement explain how your Goodhart’s Curse arguments shouldn’t blow up my ability to successfully care about my brother.

Let’s get back to the substance: I’m claiming that your theory makes an introspectively-apparent-to-me misprediction. You’re saying that your theory doesn’t apply to this situation, for reasons which I don’t currently understand and which have not been explained to my satisfaction. I'm currently inclined to conclude that the misprediction-generator (i.e. "value pointers must be perfect else shattering of all true value") is significantly less likely to apply to real-world agents. (And that insofar as this is a hole in your argument which no one else noticed, there are probably more holes in other alignment arguments.)

A-EY: [I don’t really know what he’d say here]


Again, I wrote this dialogue to help me think about the issue. It seems to me like there's a real problem here with arguments like "Imperfect motivations get Goodharted into oblivion." Seems just wrong in many cases. See also Katja's recent post section "Small differences in utility functions may not be catastrophic."

Thanks to Abram Demski and others for comments on a draft of this post.

  1. ^

    When I first wrote this dialogue, I may have swept difficulties under the rug like "augmenting intelligence may be hard for biological humans to do while preserving their values." I think the main point should still stand. 

  2. ^

    We can also swap out "I bring about a good future for my brother" with "my brother brings about a good future for me, and I think that he will do a good job of it, even though he presumably doesn't contain a 'perfect' motivational pointer to my true values."

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This prediction seems flatly wrong: I wouldn’t bring about an outcome like that. Why do I believe that? Because I have reasonably high-fidelity access to my own policy, via imagining myself in the relevant situations.

This seems like you're confusing two things here, because the thing you would want is not knowable by introspection. What I think you're introspecting is that if you'd noticed that the-thing-you-pursued-so-far was different from what your brother actually wants, you'd do what he actually wants. But the-thing-you-pursued-so-far doesn't play the role of "your utility function" in the goodhart argument. All of you plays into that. If the goodharting were to play out, your detector for differences between the-thing-you-pursued-so-far and what-your-brother-actually-wants would simply fail to warn you that it was happening, because it too can only use a proxy measure for the real thing.

I want to know whether, as a matter of falsifiable fact, I would enact good outcomes by my brother's values were I very powerful and smart. You seem to be sympathetic to the falsifiable-in-principle prediction that, no, I would not. (Is that true?)

Anyways, I don't really buy this counterargument, but we can consider the following variant (from footnote 2): 

We can also swap out "I bring about a good future for my brother" with "my brother brings about a good future for me, and I think that he will do a good job of it, even though he presumably doesn't contain a 'perfect' motivational pointer to my true values."

"True" values: My own (which I have access to)

"Proxy" values: My brother's model of my values (I have a model of his model of my values, as part of the package deal by which I have a model of him)

I still predict that he would bring about a good future by my values. Unless you think my predictive model is wrong? I could ask him to introspect on this scenario and get evidence about what he would do? 

My short answer: Violations of the IID assumption is the likeliest problem in trying to generalize your values, and I see this as the key flaw underlying the post.

What does that mean? Can you give an example to help me follow?

I tagged this "Pointers Problem" but am not 100% sure it's getting at the same thing. Curious if there's a different tag that feels more appropriate.