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From my perspective, meaningfully operationalizing “tool-like” seems like A) almost the whole crux of the disagreement, and B) really quite difficult (i.e., requiring substantial novel scientific progress to accomplish), so it seems weird to leave as a simple to-do at the end.

Like, I think that “tool versus agent” shares the same confusion that we have about “non-life versus life”—why do some pieces of matter seem to “want” things, to optimize for them, to make decisions, to steer the world into their preferred states, and so on, while other pieces seem to “just” follow a predetermined path (algorithms, machines, chemicals, particles, etc.)? What’s the difference? How do we draw the lines? Is that even the right question? I claim we are many scientific insights away from being able to talk about these questions at the level of precision necessary to make predictions like this.

Concrete operationalizations seem great to ask for, when they’re possible to give—but I suspect that expecting/requesting them before they’re possible is more likely to muddy the discourse than clarify it.


I’m sympathetic to the idea that it would be good to have concrete criteria for when to stop a pause, were we to start one. But I also think it’s potentially quite dangerous, and corrosive to the epistemic commons, to expect such concreteness before we’re ready to give it. 

I’m first going to zoom out a bit—to a broader trend which I’m worried about in AI Safety, and something that I believe evaluation-gating might exacerbate, although it is certainly not the only contributing factor.   

I think there is pressure mounting within the field of AI Safety to produce measurables, and to do so quickly, as we continue building towards this godlike power under an unknown timer of unknown length. This is understandable, and I think can often be good, because in order to make decisions it is indeed helpful to know things like “how fast is this actually going” and to assure things like “if a system fails such and such metric, we'll stop.” 

But I worry that in our haste we will end up focusing our efforts under the streetlight. I worry, in other words, that the hard problem of finding robust measurements—those which enable us to predict the behavior and safety of AI systems with anywhere near the level of precision we have when we say “it’s safe for you to get on this plane”—will be substituted for the easier problem of using the measurements we already have, or those which are close by; ones which are at best only proxies and at worst almost completely unrelated to what we ultimately care about.

And I think it is easy to forget, in an environment where we are continually churning out things like evaluations and metrics, how little we in fact know. That when people see a sea of ML papers, conferences, math, numbers, and “such and such system passed such and such safety metric,” that it conveys an inflated sense of our understanding, not only to the public but also to ourselves. I think this sort of dynamic can create a Red Queen’s race of sorts, where the more we demand concrete proposals—in a domain we don’t yet actually understand—the more pressure we’ll feel to appear as if we understand what we’re talking about, even when we don’t. And the more we create this appearance of understanding, the more concrete asks we’ll make of the system, and the more inflated our sense of understanding will grow, and so on.

I’ve seen this sort of dynamic play out in neuroscience, where in my experience the ability to measure anything at all about some phenomenon often leads people to prematurely conclude we understand how it works. For instance, reaction times are a thing one can reliably measure, and so is EEG activity, so people will often do things like… measure both of these quantities while manipulating the number of green blocks on a screen, then call the relationship between these “top-down” or “bottom-up” attention. All of this despite having no idea what attention is, and hence no idea if these measures in fact meaningfully relate much to the thing we actually care about. 

There are a truly staggering number of green block-type experiments in the field, proliferating every year, and I think the existence of all this activity (papers, conferences, math, numbers, measurement, etc.) convinces people that something must be happening, that progress must be being made. But if you ask the neuroscientists attending these conferences what attention is, over a beer, they will often confess that we still basically have no idea. And yet they go on, year after year, adding green blocks to screens ad infinitum, because those are the measurements they can produce, the numbers they can write on grant applications, grants which get funded because at least they’re saying something concrete about attention, rather than “I have no idea what this is, but I’d like to figure it out!”

I think this dynamic has significantly corroded academia’s ability to figure out important, true things, and I worry that if we introduce it here, that we will face similar corrosion.

Zooming back in on this proposal in particular: I feel pretty uneasy about the messaging, here. When I hear words like “responsible” and “policy” around a technology which threatens to vanquish all that I know and all that I love, I am expecting things more like “here is a plan that gives us multiple 9’s of confidence that we won’t kill everyone.” I understand that this sort of assurance is unavailable, at present, and I am grateful to Anthropic for sharing their sketches of what they hope for in the absence of such assurances. 

But the unavailability of such assurance is also kind of the point, and one that I wish this proposal emphasized more… it seems to me that vague sketches like these ought to be full of disclaimers like, “This is our best idea but it’s still not very reassuring. Please do not believe that we are safely able to prevent you from dying, yet. We have no 9’s to give.” It also seems to me like something called a “responsible scaling plan” should at the very least have a convincing story to tell about how we might get from our current state, with the primitive understanding we have, to the end-goal of possessing the sort of understanding that is capable of steering a godly power the likes of which we have never seen.   

And I worry that in the absence of such a story—where the true plan is something closer to “fill in the blanks as we go”—that a mounting pressure to color in such blanks will create a vacuum, and that we will begin to fill it with the appearance of understanding rather than understanding itself; that we will pretend to know more than we in fact do, because that’s easier to do in the face of a pressure for results, easier than standing our ground and saying “we have no idea what we’re talking about.” That the focus on concrete asks and concrete proposals will place far too much emphasis on what we can find under the streetlight, and will end up giving us an inflated sense of our understanding, such that we stop searching in the darkness altogether, forget that it is even there…

I agree with you that having concrete asks would be great, but I think they’re only great if we actually have the right asks. In the absence of robust measures and evaluations—those which give us high confidence about the safety of AI systems—in the absence of a realistic plan to get those, I think demanding them may end up being actively harmful. Harmful because people will walk away feeling like AI Safety “knows” more than it does and will hence, I think, feel more secure than is warranted.