Joar Skalse

My name is pronounced "YOO-ar SKULL-se".

I'm a DPhil Scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford.

Wiki Contributions


The kinds of humans that we are worried about are the kinds of humans that can do original scientific research and autonomously form plans for taking over the world. Human brains learn to take actions and plans that previously led to high rewards (outcomes like eating food when hungry, having sex, etc)*. These two things are fundamentally not the same thing. Why, exactly, would we expect that a system that is good at the latter necessarily would be able to do the former?"

This feels like a bit of a digression, but we do have concrete examples of systems that are good at eating food when hungry, having sex, and etc, without being able to do original scientific research and autonomously form plans for taking over the world; animals. And the difference between humans and animals isn't just that humans have more training data (or even that we are that much better at survival and reproduction in the environment of evolutionary adaptation). But I should also note that I consider argument 6 to be one of the weaker arguments I know of.

We know, from computer science, that it is very powerful to be able to reason in terms of variables and operations on variables. It seems hard to see how you could have human-level intelligence without this ability. However, humans do not typically have this ability, with most human brains instead being more analogous to Boolean circuits, given their finite size and architecture of neuron connections.

The fact that human brains have a finite size and architecture of neuron connections does not mean that they are well-modelled as Boolean circuits. For example, a (real-world) computer is better modelled as a Turing machine than as a finite-state automaton, even though there is a sense in which they actually are finite-state automata. 

The brain is made out of neurons, yes, but it matters a great deal how those neurons are connected. Depending on the answer to that question, you could end up with a system that behaves more like Boolean circuits, or more like a Turing machine, or more like something else.

With neural networks, the training algorihtm and the architecture together determine how the neurons end up connected, and therefore, if the resulting system is better thought of as a Boolean circuit, or a Turing machine, or otherwise. If the wiring of the brain is determined by a different mechanism than what determines the wiring of a deep learning system, then the two systems could end up with very different properties, even if they are made out of similar kinds of parts.

With the brain, we don't know what determines the wiring. This makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions about the high-level behaviour of brains from their low-level physiology. With deep learning, it is easier to do this.

I find it hard to make the argument here because there is no argument -- it's just flatly asserted that neural networks don't use such representations, so all I can do is flatly assert that humans don't use such representations. If I had to guess, you would say something like "matrix multiplications don't seem like they can be discrete and combinatorial", to which I would say "the strength of brain neuron synapse firings doesn't seem like it can be discrete and combinatorial".

What representations you end up with does not just depend on the model space, it also depends on the learning algorithm. Matrix multiplications can be discrete and combinatorial. The question is if those are the kinds of representations that you in fact would end up with when you train a neural network by gradient descent, which to me seems unlikely. The brain does (most likely) not use gradient descent, so the argument does not apply to the brain.

Do you perhaps agree that you would have a hard time navigating in a 10-D space? Clearly you have simply memorized a bunch of heuristics that together are barely sufficient for navigating 3-D space, rather than truly understanding the underlying algorithm for navigating spaces.

It would obviously be harder for me to do this, and narrow heuristics are obviously an important part of intelligence. But I could do it, which suggests a stronger transfer ability than what would be suggested if I couldn't do this.

In some other parts, I feel like in many places you are being one-sidedly skeptical.

Yes, as I said, my goal with this post is not to present a balanced view of the issue. Rather, my goal is just to summarise as many arguments as possible for being skeptical of strong scaling. This makes the skepticism one-sided in some places.

The general rule I'm following is "if the argument would say false things about humans, then don't update on it".

Yes, this is of course very sensible. However, I don't see why these arguments would apply to humans, unless you make some additional assumption or connection that I am not making. Considering the rest of the conversation, I assume the difference is that you draw a stronger analogy between brains and deep learning systems than I do?

I want to ask a question that goes something like "how correlated is your credence that arguments 5-10 apply to human brains with your credence that human brains and deep learning systems are analogous in important sense X"? But because I don't quite know what your beliefs are, or why you say that arguments 5-10 apply to humans, I find it hard to formulate this question in the right way.

For example, regarding argument 7 (language of thought), consider the following two propositions:

  1. Some part of the human brain is hard-coded to use LoT-like representations, and the way that these representations are updated in response to experience is not analogous to gradient descent.
  2. Updating the parameters of a neural network with gradient descent is very unlikely to yield (and maintain) LoT-like representations.

These claims could both be true simultaneously, no? Why, concretely, do you think that arguments 5-10 apply to human brains?

I'm not seeing why that's evidence for the perspective. Even when word order is scrambled, if you see "= 32 44 +" and you have to predict the remaining number, you should predict some combination of 76, 12, and -12 to get optimal performance; to do that you need to be able to add and subtract, so the model presumably still develops addition and subtraction circuits. Similarly for text that involves logic and reasoning, even after scrambling word order it would still be helpful to use logic and reasoning to predict which words are likely to be present. The overall argument for why the resulting system would have strong, general capabilities seems to still go through.

It is empirically true that the resulting system has strong and general capabilities, there is no need to question that. What I mean is that this is evidence that those capabilities are a result of information processing that is quite dissimilar from what humans do, which in turn opens up the possibility that those processes could not be re-tooled to create the kind of system that could take over the world. In particular, they could be much more shallow than they seem.

It is not hard to argue that a model with general capabilities for reasoning, hypothesis generation, and world modelling, etc, would get a good score at the task of an LLM. However, I think one of the central lessons from the history of AI is that there probably also are many other ways to get a good score at this task.

In addition, I don't know why you expect that intelligence can't be implemented through "a truly massive ensemble of simple heuristics".

Given a sufficiently loose definition of "intelligence", I would expect that you almost certainly could do this. However, if we instead consider systems that would be able to overpower humanity, or very significantly shorten the amount of time before such a system could be created, then it is much less clear to me.

Why don't you think a big random forest classifier could lead to AGI?

I don't rule out the possibility, but it seems unlikely that such a system could learn representations and circuits that would enable sufficiently strong out-of-distribution generalisation.

But it is "forced" by the training data? The argument here is that text prediction is hard enough that the only way the network can do it (to a very very high standard) is to develop these sorts of representation?

I think this may be worth zooming in on. One of the main points I'm trying to get at is that it is not just the asymptotic behaviour of the system that matters; two other (plausibly connected) things which are at least as important is how well the system generalises out-of-distribution, and how much data it needs to attain that performance. In other words, how good it is at extrapolating from observed examples to new situations. A system could be very bad at this, and yet eventually with enough training data get good in-distribution performance.

The main point of LoT-like representations would be a better ability to generalise. This benefit is removed if you could only learn LoT-like representation by observing training data corresponding to all the cases you would like to generalise to.

I certainly agree that a randomly initialized network is not going to have sensible representations, just as I'd predict that a randomly initialized human brain is going to have sensible representations (modulo maybe some innate representations encoded by the genome). I assume you are saying something different from that but I'm not sure what.

Yes, I am not saying that.

Maybe if I rephrase it this way; to get us to AGI, LLMs would need to have a sufficiently good inductive bias, but I'm not convinced that they actually have a sufficiently good inductive bias.

But why not? If I were to say "it seems as though the human brain works like a deep learning system, while of course being implemented somewhat differently", how would you argue against that?

It is hard for me to argue against this, without knowing in more detail what you mean by "like", and "somewhat differently", as well as knowing what pieces of evidence underpin this belief/impression.

I would be quite surprised if there aren't important high-level principles in common between deep learning and at least parts of the human brain (it would be a bit too much of a coincidence if not). However, this does not mean that deep learning (in its current form) captures most of the important factors behind human intelligence. Given that there are both clear physiological differences (some of which seem more significant than others) and many behavioural differences, I think that the default should be to assume that there are important principles of human cognition that are not captured by (current) deep learning.

I know several arguments in favour of drawing a strong analogy between the brain and deep learning, and I have arguments against those arguments. However, I don't know if you believe in any of these arguments (eg, some of them are arguments like "the brain is made out of neurons, therefore deep learning"), so I don't want to type out long replies before I know why you believe that human brains work like deep learning systems.

Oh, is your point "LLMs do not have a general notion of search that they can apply to arbitrary problems"? I agree this is currently true, whereas humans do have this. This doesn't seem too relevant to me, and I don't buy defining memorization as "things that are not general-purpose search" and then saying "things that do memorization are not intelligent", that seems too strong.

Yes, that was my point. I'm definitely not saying that intelligence = search, I just brought this up as an example of a case where GPT3 has an impressive ability, but where the mechanism behind that ability is better construed as "memorising the training data" rather than "understanding the problem". The fact that the example involved search was coincidental.

Do you actually endorse that response? Seems mostly false to me, except inasmuch as humans can write things down on external memory (which I expect an LLM could also easily do, we just haven't done that yet).

I don't actually know much about this, but that is the impression I have got from speaking with people who work on this. Introspectively, it also feels like it's very non-random what I remember. But if we want to go deeper into this track, I would probably need to look more closely at the research first.

But for all of them except argument 6, it seems like the same argument would imply that humans would not be generally intelligent.

Why is that?

Because text on the Internet sometimes involves people using logic, reasoning, hypothesis generation, analyzing experimental evidence, etc, and so plausibly the simplest program that successfully predicts that text would do so by replicating that logic, reasoning etc, which you could then chain together to make scientific progress.

What does the argument say in response?

There are a few ways to respond.

First of all, what comes after "plausibly" could just turn out to be wrong. Many people thought human-level chess would require human-like strategising, but this turned out to be wrong (though the case for text prediction is certainly more convincing).

Secondly, an LLM is almost certainly not learning the lowest K-complexity program for text prediction, and given that, the case becomes less clear. For example, suppose an LLM instead learns a truly massive ensemble of simple heuristics, that together produce human-like text. It seems plausible that such an ensemble could produce convincing results, but without replicating logic, reasoning, and etc. IBM-Watson did something along these lines. Studies such as this one also provide some evidence for this perspective.

To give an intuition pump, suppose we trained an extremely large random forest classifier on the same data as GPT3 was trained on. How good would the output of this classifier be? While it would probably not be as good as GPT3, it would probably still be very impressive. And a random forest classifier is also a universal function approximator, whose performance keeps improving as it is given more training data. I'm sure there are scaling laws for them. But I don't think many people believe that we could get AGI by making a sufficiently big random forest classifier for next-token prediction. Why is that? I have found this to be an interesting prompt to think about. For me, a gestalt shift that makes long time lines seem plausible is to look at LLMs sort of like how you would look at a giant random forest classifier.

(Also, just to reiterate, I am not personally convinced of long time-lines, I am just trying to make the best arguments for this view more easily available.)

How do you know neural networks won't use such representations?

I can't say this for sure, especially not for newer or more exotic architectures, but it does certainly not seem like these are the kinds of representations that deep learning systems are likely to learn. Rather, they seems much more likely to learn manifold-like representations, where proximity corresponds to relevant similarity, or something along those lines. Syntactically organised, combinatorial representations are certainly not very "native" to the deep learning paradigm.

It is worth clarifying that neural networks of course in principle could implement these representations, at least in the same sense as how a Boolean network can implement a Turing machine. The question is if they in practice can learn such representations in a reasonable way. Consider the example I gave with how an MLP can't learn an identity function, unless the training data essentially forces it to memorise one. The question is whether or not a similar thing is true of LoT-style representations. Can you think of a natural way to represent a LoT in a vector space, that a neural network might plausibly learn, without being "forced" by the training data?

As an extremely simple example, a CNN and an MLP will in practice not learn the same kinds of representations, even though the CNN model space is contained in the MLP model space (if you make them wide enough). How do I know that an MLP won't learn a CNN-like representation? Because these representations are not "natural" to MLPs, and the MLP will not be explicitly incentivised to learn them. My sense is that most deep learning systems are inclined away from LoT-like representations for similar reasons.

What is true of human brains but not of neural networks such that human brains can do this but neural networks can't?

A human brain is not a tabula rasa system trained by gradient descent. I don't know how a human brain is organised, what learning algorithms are used, or what parts are learnt as opposed to innate, etc, but it does not seem as though it works in the same way as a deep learning system. 

What is true of human brains but not neural networks such that human brains can represent programs but neural networks can't?

(I'd note that I'm including chain-of-thought as a way that neural networks can run programs.)

Here I will again just say that a human brain isn't a tabula rasa system trained by gradient descent, so it is not inherently surprising for one of the two to have a property that the other one does not.

Chain-of-thought and attention mechanisms do certainly do seem to bring deep learning systems much closer to the ability to reason in terms of variables. Whether or not it is sufficient, I do not know.

I would bet that you can play chess, but you cannot fold a protein (even if the rules for protein were verbally described to you). What's the difference?

Why wouldn't I be able to fold a protein? At least if the size of the relevant state space is similar to that of eg chess.

(Also, to be clear, GPT-3 struggles with verbally described mazes with as few as ~5 states.)

Why doesn't this apply to humans as well? We forget stuff all the time.

The argument would have to be that humans are more strategic with what to remember, and what to forget.

What I'm suggesting is that volume in high-dimensions can concentrate on the boundary.

Yes. I imagine this is why overtraining doesn't make a huge difference.

Falsifiable Hypothesis: Compare SGD with overtaining to the random sampling algorithm. You will see that functions that are unlikely to be generated by random sampling will be more likely under SGD with overtraining. Moreover, functions that are more likely with random sampling will be become less likely under SGD with overtraining.

See e.g., page 47 in the main paper.

(Maybe you weren't disagreeing with Zach and were just saying the same thing a different way?)

I'm honestly not sure, I just wasn't really sure what he meant when he said that the Bayesian and the Kolmogorov complexity stuff were "distractions from the main point".

This feels similar to:

Saying that MLK was a "criminal" is one way of saying that MLK thought and acted as though he had a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action.

(This is an exaggeration but I think it is directionally correct. Certainly when I read the title "neural networks are fundamentally Bayesian" I was thinking of something very different.)

Haha. That's obviously not what we're trying to do here, but I do see what you mean. I originally wanted to express these ideas in more geometric language, rather than probability-theoretic language, but in the end we decided to go for more probability-theoretic language anyway. 

I agree that this arguably could be mildly misleading. For example, the correspondence between SGD and Bayesian sampling only really holds for some initialisation distributions. If you deterministically initialise your neural network to the origin (i.e., all zero weights) then SGD will most certainly not behave like Bayesian sampling with the initialisation distribution as its prior. Then again, the probability-theoretic formulation might make other things more intuitive.

I agree with your summary. I'm mainly just clarifying what my view is of the strength and overall role of the Algorithmic Information Theory arguments, since you said you found them unconvincing. 

I do however disagree that those arguments can be applied to "literally any machine learning algorithm", although they certainly do apply to a much larger class of ML algorithms than just neural networks. However, I also don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. The picture that the AIT arguments give makes it reasonably unsurprising that you would get the double-descent phenomenon as you increase the size of a model (at small sizes VC-dimensionality mechanisms dominate, but at larger sizes the overparameterisation starts to induce a simplicity bias, which eventually starts to dominate). Since you get double descent in the model size for both neural networks and eg random forests, you should expect there to be some mechanism in common between them (even if the details of course differ from case to case).

I have a few comments on this:

Fundamentally the point here is that generalization performance is explained much more by the neural network architecture, rather than the structure of stochastic gradient descent, since we can see that stochastic gradient descent tends to behave similarly to (an approximation of) random sampling. The paper talks a bunch about things like SGD being (almost) Bayesian and the neural network prior having low Kolmogorov complexity; I found these to be distractions from the main point.

The main point, as I see it, is essentially that functions with good generalisation correspond to large volumes in parameter-space, and that SGD finds functions with a probability roughly proportional to their volume. Saying that SGD is “Bayesian” is one way of saying the latter, and the Kolmogorov complexity stuff is a way to formalise some intuitions around the former.

Beyond that, approximating the random sampling probability with a Gaussian process is a fairly delicate affair and I have concerns about the applicability to real neural networks.

This has been done with real neural networks! See this, for example -- they use Gaussian Processes on stuff like Mobilenetv2, Densenet121, and Resnet50. It seems to work well.

One way that SGD could differ from random sampling is that SGD will typically only reach the boundary of a region with zero training error, whereas random sampling will sample uniformly within the region. However, in high dimensional settings, most of the volume is near the boundary, so this is not a big deal. I'm not aware of any work that claims SGD uniformly samples from this boundary, but it's worth considering that possibility if the experimental results hold up.

We have done overtraining, which should allow SGD to penetrate into the region. This doesn’t seem to make much difference for the probabilities we get.

Rohin’s opinion: [...]

I basically agree with what you say here.

This part of the argument is indeed quite general, but it’s not vacuous. For the argument to apply you need it to be the case that the function space is overparameterised, that the parameter-function map has low complexity relative to the functions in the function space, and that parameter-function map is biased in some direction. This will not be the case for all learning algorithms.

But, I do agree that the Levin bound argument doesn’t really capture the “mechanism” of what’s going on here. I can of course only speak for myself (and not the other people involved with this work), but I think of the Levin bound argument as essentially a more formal way to state this intuition. I.e., it is a loose argument for why we needn't be surprised that simple functions have larger measures in parameter-space, even if the argument doesn’t identify all the precise details of how this works in any particular case. For example, while the argument doesn’t apply to all ML algorithms, it does apply to all neural network architectures in exactly the same way, but clearly there are important differences in the inductive bias of eg CNNs and RNNs.

(Also: I don’t think the notion of “low effective parameterisation” really captures what’s going on here, but for the reason you point out yourself.)

Like Rohin, I'm not impressed with the information theoretic side of this work.

Specifically, I'm wary of the focus on measuring complexity for functions between finite sets, such as binary functions.

Mostly, we care about NN generalization on problems where the input space is continuous, generally R^n.  The authors argue that the finite-set results are relevant to these problems, because one can always discretize R^n to get a finite set.  I don't think this captures the kinds of function complexity we care about for NNs.

We’re not saying that discrete complexity measures fully capture what we care about for NNs! We do however think that they are sufficiently relevant to be informative for the bigger picture, even if just as a proxy for what we actually care about.

Most complexity measures give roughly similar values for the (relative) complexity of most objects, so our assumption is that if something is the case for a bunch of different tractable complexity measures, then this is also likely to be the case for whatever the “ideal” complexity measure would be in the relevant case. In particular, if  regardless of whether K represents Boolean complexity, or LZ complexity, etc, then this is also likely to be true for the “ideal” complexity measure for neural networks.

Also: since we’re estimating various probabilities by sampling, we basically need to discretise the function space. If you have any concrete suggestions for how to get around this then we’re all ears!

As for the rest of your comment -- what you’re saying here seems true to me, but I’m not sure I see how any of this is a counterpoint to anything we’re saying?

Yes, it does of course apply in that sense. 

I guess the question then basically is which level of abstraction we think would be the most informative or useful for understanding what's going on here. I mean, we could for example also choose to take into account the fact that any actual computer program runs on a physical computer, which is governed by the laws of electromagnetism (in which case the parameter-space might count as continuous again). 

I'm not sure if accounting for the floating-point implementation is informative or not in this case.

Load More