Pandemic Prediction Checklist: H5N1

Pandemic Prediction Checklist: Monkeypox

I have lost my trust in this community’s epistemic integrity, no longer see my values as being in accord with it, and don’t see hope for change. I am therefore taking an indefinite long-term hiatus from reading or posting here.

Correlation does imply some sort of causal link.

For guessing its direction, simple models help you think.

Controlled experiments, if they are well beyond the brink

Of .05 significance will make your unknowns shrink.

Replications prove there's something new under the sun.

Did one cause the other? Did the other cause the one?

Are they both controlled by something already begun?

Or was it their coincidence that caused it to be done?


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If that were the case, I actually would fault Eliezer, at least a little. He’s frequently, though by no means always, stuck to qualitative and hard-to-pin-down punditry like we see here, rather than to unambiguous forecasting.

This allows him, or his defenders, to retroactively defend his predictions as somehow correct even when they seem wrong in hindsight.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Eliezer’s right that AI safety is a cosmically important issue, and yet that he’s quite mistaken about all the technical details of how AGI will arise and how to effectively make it safe. It would be important to know whether we can trust his judgment and leadership.

Without the ability to evaluate his performance, either by going with the most obvious interpretation of his qualitative judgments or an unambiguous forecast, it’s hard to evaluate his performance as an AI safety leader. Combine that with a culture of deference to perceived expertise and status and the problem gets worse.

So I prioritize the avoidance of special pleading in this case: I think Eliezer comes across as clearly wrong in substance in this specific post, and that it’s important not to reach for ways “he was actually right from a certain point of view” when evaluating his predictive accuracy.

Similarly, I wouldn’t judge as correct the early COVID-19 pronouncements that masks don’t work to stop the spread just because cloth masks are poor-to-ineffective and many people refuse to wear masks properly. There’s a way we can stretch the interpretation to make them seem sort of right, but we shouldn’t. We should expect public health messaging to be clearly right in substance, if it’s not making cut and dry unambiguous quantitative forecasts but is instead delivering qualitative judgments of efficacy.

None of that bears on how easy or hard it was to build gpt-4. It only bears on how we should evaluate Eliezer as a forecaster/pundit/AI safety leader.

One of Yudkowsky's claims in the post you link is:

It's hard to build a flying machine if the only thing you understand about flight is that somehow birds magically fly.  What you need is a concept of aerodynamic lift, so that you can see how something can fly even if it isn't exactly like a bird.

This is a claim that lack of the correct mechanistic theory is a formidable barrier for capabilities, not just alignment, and it inaccurately underestimates the amount of empirical understandings available on which to base an empirical approach.

It's true that it's hard, even perhaps impossible, to build a flying machine if the only thing you understand is that birds "magically" fly.

But if you are like most people for thousands of years, you've observed many types of things flying, gliding, or floating in the air: birds and insects, fabric and leaves, arrows and spears, clouds and smoke.

So if you, like the Montgolfier brothers, observe fabric floating over a fire, and live in an era in which invention is celebrated and have the ability to build, test, and iterate, then you can probably figure out how to build a flying machine without basing this on a fully worked out concept of aerodynamics. Indeed, the Montgolfier brothers thought it was the smoke, rather than the heat, that made their balloons fly. Having the wrong theory was bad, but it didn't prevent them from building a working hot air balloon.

Let's try turning Yudkowsky's quote around:

It's hard get a concept of aerodynamic lift if the only thing you observe about flight is that somehow birds magically fly.  What you need is a rich set of empirical observations and flying mechanisms, so that you can find the common principles for how something can fly even if it isn't exactly like a bird.

Eliezer went on to list five methods for producing AI that he considered dubious, including builting powerful computers running the most advanced available neural network algorithms, intelligence "emerging from the internet", and putting "a sufficiently huge quantity of knowledge into [a computer]." But he only admitted that two other methods would work - builting a mechanical duplicate of the human brain and evolving AI via natural selection.

If Eliezer wasn't meaning to make a confident claim that scaling up neural networks without a fundamental theoretical understanding of intelligence would fail, then he did a poor job of communicating that in these posts. I don't find that blameworthy - I just think Eliezer comes across as confidently wrong about which avenues would lead to intelligence in these posts, simple as that. He was saying that to achieve a high level of AI capabilities, we'd need a deep mechanistic understanding of how intelligence works akin to our modern understanding of chemistry or aerodynamics, and that didn't turn out to be the case.

One possible defense is that Eliezer was attacking a weakman, specifically the idea that with only one empirical observation and zero insight into the factors that cause the property of interest (i.e. only seeing that "birds magically fly"), then it's nearly impossible to replicate that property in a new way. But that's an uninteresting claim and Eliezer is never uninteresting.