Ajeya Cotra

Wiki Contributions


(Cross-posted to EA Forum.)

I’m a Senior Program Officer at Open Phil, focused on technical AI safety funding. I’m hearing a lot of discussion suggesting funding is very tight right now for AI safety, so I wanted to give my take on the situation.

At a high level: AI safety is a top priority for Open Phil, and we are aiming to grow how much we spend in that area. There are many potential projects we'd be excited to fund, including some potential new AI safety orgs as well as renewals to existing grantees, academic research projects, upskilling grants, and more.

At the same time, it is also not the case that someone who reads this post and tries to start an AI safety org would necessarily have an easy time raising funding from us. This is because:

  • All of our teams whose work touches on AI (Luke Muehlhauser’s team on AI governance, Claire Zabel’s team on capacity building, and me on technical AI safety) are quite understaffed at the moment. We’ve hired several people recently, but across the board we still don’t have the capacity to evaluate all the plausible AI-related grants, and hiring remains a top priority for us.
    • And we are extra-understaffed for evaluating technical AI safety proposals in particular. I am the only person who is primarily focused on funding technical research projects (sometimes Claire’s team funds AI safety related grants, primarily upskilling, but a large technical AI safety grant like a new research org would fall to me). I currently have no team members; I expect to have one person joining in October and am aiming to launch a wider hiring round soon, but I think it’ll take me several months to build my team’s capacity up substantially. 
    • I began making grants in November 2022, and spent the first few months full-time evaluating applicants affected by FTX (largely academic PIs as opposed to independent organizations started by members of the EA community). Since then, a large chunk of my time has gone into maintaining and renewing existing grant commitments and evaluating grant opportunities referred to us by existing advisors. I am aiming to reserve remaining bandwidth for thinking through strategic priorities, articulating what research directions seem highest-priority and encouraging researchers to work on them (through conversations and hopefully soon through more public communication), and hiring for my team or otherwise helping Open Phil build evaluation capacity in AI safety (including separately from my team). 
    • As a result, I have deliberately held off on launching open calls for grant applications similar to the ones run by Claire’s team (e.g. this one); before onboarding more people (and developing or strengthening internal processes), I would not have the bandwidth to keep up with the applications.
  • On top of this, in our experience, providing seed funding to new organizations (particularly organizations started by younger and less experienced founders) often leads to complications that aren't present in funding academic research or career transition grants.  We prefer to think carefully about seeding new organizations, and have a different and higher bar for funding someone to start an org than for funding that same person for other purposes (e.g. career development and transition funding, or PhD and postdoc funding).
    • I’m very uncertain about how to think about seeding new research organizations and many related program strategy questions. I could certainly imagine developing a different picture upon further reflection — but having low capacity combines poorly with the fact that this is a complex type of grant we are uncertain about on a lot of dimensions. We haven’t had the senior staff bandwidth to develop a clear stance on the strategic or process level about this genre of grant, and that means that we are more hesitant to take on such grant investigations — and if / when we do, it takes up more scarce capacity to think through the considerations in a bespoke way rather than having a clear policy to fall back on.

my guess is most of that success is attributable to the work on RLHF, since that was really the only substantial difference between Chat-GPT and GPT-3

I don't think this is right -- the main hype effect of chatGPT over previous models feels like it's just because it was in a convenient chat interface that was easy to use and free. My guess is that if you did a head-to-head comparison of RLHF and kludgey random hacks involving imitation and prompt engineering, they'd seem similarly cool to a random journalist / VC, and generate similar excitement.

I strongly disagree with the "best case" thing. Like, policies could just learn human values! It's not that implausible.

Yes, sorry, "best case" was oversimplified. What I meant is that generalizing to want reward is in some sense the model generalizing "correctly;" we could get lucky and have it generalize "incorrectly" in an important sense in a way that happens to be beneficial to us. I discuss this a bit more here.

But if Alex did initially develop a benevolent goal like “empower humans,” the straightforward and “naive” way of acting on that goal would have been disincentivized early in training. As I argued above, if Alex had behaved in a straightforwardly benevolent way at all times, it would not have been able to maximize reward effectively.

That means even if Alex had developed a benevolent goal, it would have needed to play the training game as well as possible -- including lying and manipulating humans in a way that naively seems in conflict with that goal. If its benevolent goal had caused it to play the training game less ruthlessly, it would’ve had a constant incentive to move away from having that goal or at least from acting on it.[35] If Alex actually retained the benevolent goal through the end of training, then it probably strategically chose to act exactly as if it were maximizing reward.

This means we could have replaced this hypothetical benevolent goal with a wide variety of other goals without changing Alex’s behavior or reward in the lab setting at all -- “help humans” is just one possible goal among many that Alex could have developed which would have all resulted in exactly the same behavior in the lab setting.

If I had to try point to the crux here, it might be "how much selection pressure is needed to make policies learn goals that are abstractly related to their training data, as opposed to goals that are fairly concretely related to their training data?"...As usual, there's the human analogy: our goals are very strongly biased towards things we have direct observational access to!)

I don't understand why reward isn't something the model has direct access to -- it seems like it basically does? If I had to say which of us were focusing on abstract vs concrete goals, I'd have said I was thinking about concrete goals and you were thinking about abstract ones, so I think we have some disagreement of intuition here.

Even setting aside this disagreement, though, I don't like the argumentative structure because the generalization of "reward" to large scales is much less intuitive than the generalization of other concepts (like "make money") to large scales - in part because directly having a goal of reward is a kinda counterintuitive self-referential thing.

Yeah, I don't really agree with this; I think I could pretty easily imagine being an AI system asking the question "How much reward would this episode get if it were sampled for training?" It seems like the intuition this is weird and unnatural is doing a lot of work in your argument, and I don't really share it.

Yeah, I agree this is a good argument structure -- in my mind, maximizing reward is both a plausible case (which Richard might disagree with) and the best case (conditional on it being strategic at all and not a bag of heuristics), so it's quite useful to establish that it's doomed; that's the kind of structure I was going for in the post.

Note that the "without countermeasures" post consistently discusses both possibilities (the model cares about reward or the model cares about something else that's consistent with it getting very high reward on the training dataset). E.g. see this paragraph from the above-the-fold intro:

Once this progresses far enough, the best way for Alex to accomplish most possible “goals” no longer looks like “essentially give humans what they want but take opportunities to manipulate them here and there.” It looks more like “seize the power to permanently direct how it uses its time and what rewards it receives -- and defend against humans trying to reassert control over it, including by eliminating them.” This seems like Alex’s best strategy whether it’s trying to get large amounts of reward or has other motives. If it’s trying to maximize reward, this strategy would allow it to force its incoming rewards to be high indefinitely.[6] If it has other motives, this strategy would give it long-term freedom, security, and resources to pursue those motives.

As well as the section Even if Alex isn't "motivated" to maximize reward.... I do place a ton of emphasis on the fact that Alex enacts a policy which has the empirical effect of maximizing reward, but that's distinct from being confident in the motivations that give rise to that policy. I believe Alex would try very hard to maximize reward in most cases, but this could be for either terminal or instrumental reasons.

With that said, for roughly the reasons Paul says above, I think I probably do have a disagreement with Richard -- I think that caring about some version of reward is pretty plausible (~50% or so). It seems pretty natural and easy to grasp to me, and because I think there will likely be continuous online training the argument that there's no notion of reward on the deployment distribution doesn't feel compelling to me.

Yeah I agree more of the value of this kind of exercise (at least within the community) is in revealing more granular disagreements about various things. But I do think there's value in establishing to more external people something high level like "It really could be soon and it's not crazy or sci fi to think so."

Can you say more about what particular applications you had in mind?

Stuff like personal assistants who write emails / do simple shopping, coding assistants that people are more excited about than they seem to be about Codex, etc.

(Like I said in the main post, I'm not totally sure what PONR refers to, but don't think I agree that the first lucrative application marks a PONR -- seems like there are a bunch of things you can do after that point, including but not limited to alignment research.)

I don't see it that way, no. Today's coding models can help automate some parts of the ML researcher workflow a little bit, and I think tomorrow's coding models will automate more and more complex parts, and so on. I think this expansion could be pretty rapid, but I don't think it'll look like "not much going on until something snaps into place."

(Coherence aside, when I now look at that number it does seem a bit too high, and I feel tempted to move it to 2027-2028, but I dunno, that kind of intuition is likely to change quickly from day to day.)

Hm, yeah, I bet if I reflected more things would shift around, but I'm not sure the fact that there's a shortish period where the per-year probability is very elevated followed by a longer period with lower per-year probability is actually a bad sign.

Roughly speaking, right now we're in an AI boom where spending on compute for training big models is going up rapidly, and it's fairly easy to actually increase spending quickly because the current levels are low. There's some chance of transformative AI in the middle of this spending boom -- and because resource inputs are going up a ton each year, the probability of TAI by date X would also be increasing pretty rapidly.

But the current spending boom is pretty unsustainable if it doesn't lead to TAI. At some point in the 2040s or 50s, if we haven't gotten transformative AI by then, we'll have been spending 10s of billions training models, and it won't be that easy to keep ramping up quickly from there. And then because the input growth will have slowed, the increase in probability from one year to the next will also slow. (That said, not sure how this works out exactly.)

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