Quintin's Alignment Papers Roundup
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I really don't like that you've taken this discussion to Twitter. I think Twitter is really a much worse forum for talking about complex issues like this than LW/AF.

I haven't "taken this discussion to Twitter". Joe Carlsmith posted about the paper on Twitter. I saw that post, and wrote my response on Twitter. I didn't even know it was also posted on LW until later, and decided to repost the stuff I'd written on Twitter here. If anything, I've taken my part of the discussion from Twitter to LW. I'm slightly baffled and offended that you seem to be platform-policing me?

Anyways, it looks like you're making the objection I predicted with the paragraphs:

One obvious counterpoint I expect is to claim that the "[have some internal goal x] [backchain from wanting x to the stuff needed to get x (doing well at training)]" steps actually do contribute to the later steps, maybe because they're a short way to compress a motivational pointer to "wanting" to do well on the training objective.

I don't think this is how NN simplicity biases work. Under the "cognitive executions impose constraints on parameter settings" perspective, you don't actually save any complexity by supposing that the model has some motive for figuring stuff out internally, because the circuits required to implement the "figure stuff out internally" computations themselves count as additional complexity. In contrast, if you have a view of simplicity that's closer to program description length, then you're not counting runtime execution against program complexity, and so a program that has short length in code but long runtime can count as simple.

In particular, when I said "maybe because they're a short way to compress a motivational pointer to "wanting" to do well on the training objective." I think this is pointing at the same thing you reference when you say "The entire question is about what the easiest way is to produce that distribution in terms of the inductive biases."

I.e., given the actual simplicity bias of models, what is the shortest (or most compressed) way of specifying "a model that starts by trying to do well in training"? And my response is that I think the model pays a complexity penalty for runtime computations (since they translate into constraints on parameter values which are needed to implement those computations). Even if those computations are motivated by something we call a "goal", they still need to be implemented in the circuitry of the model, and thus also constrain its parameters.

Also, when I reference models whose internal cognition looks like "[figure out how to do well at training] [actually do well at training]", I don't have sycophantic models in particular in mind. It also includes aligned models, since those models do implement the "[figure out how to do well at training] [actually do well at training]" steps (assuming that aligned behavior does well in training). 

Reposting my response on Twitter (To clarify, the following was originally written as a Tweet in response to Joe Carlsmith's Tweet about the paper, which I am now reposting here):

I just skimmed the section headers and a small amount of the content, but I'm extremely skeptical. E.g., the "counting argument" seems incredibly dubious to me because you can just as easily argue that text to image generators will internally create images of llamas in their early layers, which they then delete, before creating the actual asked for image in the later layers. There are many possible llama images, but "just one" network that straightforwardly implements the training objective, after all.

The issue is that this isn't the correct way to do counting arguments on NN configurations. While there are indeed an exponentially large number of possible llama images that an NN might create internally, there are an even more exponentially large number of NNs that have random first layers, and then go on to do the actual thing in the later layers. Thus, the "inner llamaizers" are actually more rare in NN configuration space than the straightforward NN.

The key issue is that each additional computation you speculate an NN might be doing acts as an additional constraint on the possible parameters, since the NN has to internally contain circuits that implement those computations. The constraint that the circuits actually have to do "something" is a much stronger reduction in the number of possible configurations for those parameters than any additional configurations you can get out of there being multiple "somethings" that the circuits might be doing.

So in the case of deceptive alignment counting arguments, they seem to be speculating that the NN's cognition looks something like:

[have some internal goal x] [backchain from wanting x to the stuff needed to get x (doing well at training)] [figure out how to do well at training] [actually do well at training]

and in comparison, the "honest" / direct solution looks like:

[figure out how to do well at training] [actually do well at training]

and then because there are so many different possibilities for "x", they say there are more solutions that look like the deceptive cognition. My contention is that the steps "[have some internal goal x] [backchain from wanting x to the stuff needed to get x (doing well at training)]" in the deceptive cognition are actually unnecessary, and because implementing those steps requires that one have circuits that instantiate those computations, the requirement that the deceptive model perform those steps actually *constrains* the number of parameter configurations that implement the deceptive cognition, which reduces the volume of deceptive models in parameter space.

One obvious counterpoint I expect is to claim that the "[have some internal goal x] [backchain from wanting x to the stuff needed to get x (doing well at training)]" steps actually do contribute to the later steps, maybe because they're a short way to compress a motivational pointer to "wanting" to do well on the training objective.

I don't think this is how NN simplicity biases work. Under the "cognitive executions impose constraints on parameter settings" perspective, you don't actually save any complexity by supposing that the model has some motive for figuring stuff out internally, because the circuits required to implement the "figure stuff out internally" computations themselves count as additional complexity. In contrast, if you have a view of simplicity that's closer to program description length, then you're not counting runtime execution against program complexity, and so a program that has short length in code but long runtime can count as simple.

@jkcarlsmith does seem more sympathetic to the "parameters as complexity" view than to the "code length as complexity" view. However, I go further and think that the "parameters as complexity" view actively points against deceptive alignment.

I also think NNs have an even stronger bias for short paths than you might expect from just the "parameters as complexity" view. Consider a problem that can either be solved with a single circuit of depth n, or by two parallel circuits of depth n/2 (so both solutions must set the values of an equal number of parameters, but one solution is more parallel than the other). I claim there are far more parameter configurations that implement the parallel solution than parameter configurations that implement the serial solution.

This is because the parallel solution has an entire permutation group that's not available to the serial solution: the two parallel circuits can be moved to different relative depths with respect to each other, whereas all the parts of the serial solution must have fixed relative depths. Thus, the two parallel circuits represent less of a constraint on the possible configurations of the NN, and so there are far more NNs that implement the parallel solution.

As a consequence, I expect there are significant "short depth" biases in the NN simplicity prior, consistent with empirical results such as:

Finally, I'm extremely skeptical of claims that NNs contain a 'ghost of generalized instrumental reasoning', able to perform very competent long term hidden scheming and deduce lots of world knowledge "in-context". I think current empirical results point strongly against that being plausible.

For example, the "reversal curse" results (training on "A is B" doesn't lead to models learning "B is A"). If the ghost can't even infer from "A is B" to "B is A", then I think stuff like inferring from "I have a goal x", to "here is the specific task I must perform in order to maximize my reward" is pretty much out of the question. Thus, stories about how SGD might use arbitrary goals as a way to efficiently compress an (effective) desire for the NN to silently infer lots of very specific details about the training process seem incredibly implausible to me.

I expect objections of the form "I expect future training processes to not suffer from the reversal curse, and I'm worried about the future training processes."

Obviously people will come up with training processes that don't suffer from the reversal curse. However, comparing the simplicity of the reversal curse to the capability of current NNs is still evidence about the relative power of the 'instrumental ghost' in the model compared to the external capabilities of the model. If a similar ratio continues to hold for externally superintelligent AIs, then that casts enormous doubt on e.g., deceptive alignment scenarios where the model is internally and instrumentally deriving huge amounts of user-goal-related knowledge so that it can pursue its arbitrary mesaobjectives later down the line. I'm using the reversal curse to make a more generalized update about the types of internal cognition that are easy to learn and how they contribute to external capabilities.

Some other Tweets I wrote as part of the discussion:

Tweet 1:

The key points of my Tweet are basically "the better way to think about counting arguments is to compare constraints on parameter configurations", and "corrected counting arguments introduce an implicit bias towards short, parallel solutions", where both "counting the constrained parameters", and "counting the permutations of those parameters" point in that direction.

Tweet 2:

I think shallow depth priors are pretty universal. E.g., they also make sense from a perspective of "any given step of reasoning could fail, so best to make as few sequential steps as possible, since each step is rolling the dice", as well as a perspective of "we want to explore as many hypotheses as possible with as little compute as possible, so best have lots of cheap hypotheses".

I'm not concerned about the training for goal achievement contributing to deceptive alignment, because such training processes ultimately come down to optimizing the model to imitate some mapping from "goal given by the training process" -> "externally visible action sequence". Feedback is always upweighting cognitive patterns that produce some externally visible action patterns (usually over short time horizons).

In contrast, it seems very hard to me to accidentally provide sufficient feedback to specify long-term goals that don't distinguish themselves from short term one over short time horizons, given the common understanding in RL that credit assignment difficulties actively work against the formation of long term goals. It seems more likely to me that we'll instill long term goals into AIs by "scaffolding" them via feedback over shorter time horizons. E.g., train GPT-N to generate text like "the company's stock must go up" (short time horizon feedback), as well as text that represents GPT-N competently responding to a variety of situations and discussions about how to achieve long-term goals (more short time horizon feedback), and then putting GPT-N in a continuous loop of sampling from a combination of the behavioral patterns thereby constructed, in such a way that the overall effect is competent long term planning.

The point is: long term goals are sufficiently hard to form deliberately that I don't think they'll form accidentally.

Tweet 3:

...I think the llama analogy is exactly correct. It's specifically designed to avoid triggering mechanistically ungrounded intuitions about "goals" and "tryingness", which I think inappropriately upweight the compellingness of a conclusion that's frankly ridiculous on the arguments themselves. Mechanistically, generating the intermediate llamas is just as causally upstream of generating the asked for images, as "having an inner goal" is causally upstream of the deceptive model doing well on the training objective. Calling one type of causal influence "trying" and the other not is an arbitrary distinction.

Tweets 4 / 5:

My point about the "instrumental ghost" wasn't that NNs wouldn't learn instrumental / flexible reasoning. It was that such capabilities were much more likely to derive from being straightforwardly trained to learn such capabilities, and then to be employed in a manner consistent with the target function of the training process. What I'm arguing *against* is the perspective that NNs will "accidentally" acquire such capabilities internally as a convergent result of their inductive biases, and direct them to purposes/along directions very different from what's represented in the training data. That's the sort of stuff I was talking about when I mentioned the "ghost".


What I'm saying is there's a difference between a model that can do flexible instrumental reasoning because it's faithfully modeling a data distribution with examples of flexible instrumental reasoning, versus a model that acquired hidden flexible instrumental reasoning because NN inductive biases say the convergent best way to do well on tasks is to acquire hidden flexible instrumental reasoning and apply it to the task, even when the task itself doesn't have any examples of such.

This is a great post! Thank you for writing it.

There's a huge amount of ontological confusion about how to think of "objectives" for optimization processes. I think people tend to take an inappropriate intentional stance and treat something like "deliberately steering towards certain abstract notions" as a simple primitive (because it feels introspectively simple to them). This background assumption casts a shadow over all future analysis, since people try to abstract the dynamics of optimization processes in terms of their "true objectives", when there really isn't any such thing.

Optimization processes (or at least, evolution and RL) are better thought of in terms of what sorts of behavioral patterns were actually selected for in the history of the process. E.g., @Kaj_Sotala's point here about tracking the effects of evolution by thinking about what sorts of specific adaptations were actually historically selected for, rather than thinking about some abstract notion of inclusive genetic fitness, and how the difference between modern and ancestral humans seems much smaller from this perspective.

I want to make a similar point about reward in the context of RL: reward is a measure of update strength, not the selection target. We can see as much by just looking at the update equations for REINFORCE (from page 328 of Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction):

The reward[1] is literally a (per step) multiplier of the learning rate. You can also think of it as providing the weights of a linear combination of the parameter gradients, which means that it's the historical action trajectories that determine what subspaces of the parameters can potentially be explored. And due to the high correlations between gradients (at least compared to the full volume of parameter space), this means it's the action trajectories, and not the reward function, that provides most of the information relevant for the NN's learning process. 

From Survival Instinct in Offline Reinforcement Learning:

on many benchmark datasets, offline RL can produce well-performing and safe policies even when trained with "wrong" reward labels, such as those that are zero everywhere or are negatives of the true rewards. This phenomenon cannot be easily explained by offline RL's return maximization objective. Moreover, it gives offline RL a degree of robustness that is uncharacteristic of its online RL counterparts, which are known to be sensitive to reward design.

Trying to preempt possible confusion:

I expect some people to object that the point of the evolutionary analogy is precisely to show that the high-level abstract objective of the optimization process isn't incorporated into the goals of the optimized product, and that this is a reason for concern because it suggests an unpredictable/uncontrollable mapping between outer and inner optimization objectives.

My point here is that, if you want to judge an optimization process's predictability/controllability, you should not be comparing some abstract notion of the process's "true outer objective" to the result's "true inner objective". Instead, you should consider the historical trajectory of how the optimization process actually adjusted the behaviors of the thing being optimized, and consider how predictable that thing's future behaviors are, given past behaviors / updates. 

@Kaj_Sotala argues above that this perspective implies greater consistency in human goals between the ancestral and modern environments, since the goals evolution actually historically selected for in the ancestral environment are ~the same goals humans pursue in the modern environment. 

For RL agents, I am also arguing that thinking in terms of the historical action trajectories that were actually reinforced during training implies greater consistency, as compared to thinking of things in terms of some "true goal" of the training process. E.g., Goal Misgeneralization in Deep Reinforcement Learning trained a mouse to navigate to cheese that was always placed in the upper right corner of the maze and found that it would continue going to the upper right even when the cheese was moved. 

This is actually a high degree of consistency from the perspective of the historical action trajectories. During training, the mouse continually executed the action trajectories that navigated it to the upper right of the board, and continued to do the exact same thing in the modified testing environment.

  1. ^

    Technically it's the future return in this formulation, and current SOTA RL algorithms can be different / more complex, but I think this perspective is still a more accurate intuition pump than notions of "reward as objective", even for setups where "reward as a learning rate multiplier" isn't literally true.

I really don't want to spend even more time arguing over my evolution post, so I'll just copy over our interactions from the previous times you criticized it, since that seems like context readers may appreciate.

In the comment sections of the original post:

Your comment

[very long, but mainly about your "many other animals also transmit information via non-genetic means" objection + some other mechanisms you think might have caused human takeoff]

My response

I don't think this objection matters for the argument I'm making. All the cross-generational information channels you highlight are at rough saturation, so they're not able to contribute to the cross-generational accumulation of capabilities-promoting information. Thus, the enormous disparity between the brain's with-lifetime learning versus evolution cannot lead to a multiple OOM faster accumulation of capabilities as compared to evolution.

When non-genetic cross-generational channels are at saturation, the plot of capabilities-related info versus generation count looks like this:

with non-genetic information channels only giving the "All info" line a ~constant advantage over "Genetic info". Non-genetic channels might be faster than evolution, but because they're saturated, they only give each generation a fixed advantage over where they'd be with only genetic info. In contrast, once the cultural channel allows for an ever-increasing volume of transmitted information, then the vastly faster rate of within-lifetime learning can start contributing to the slope of the "All info" line, and not just its height.

Thus, humanity's sharp left turn.

In Twitter comments on Open Philanthropy's announcement of prize winners:

Your tweet

But what's the central point, than? Evolution discovered how to avoid the genetic bottleneck myriad times; also discovered potentially unbounded ways how to transmit arbitrary number of bits, like learning-teaching behaviours; except humans, nothing foomed. So the updated story would be more like "some amount of non-genetic/cultural accumulation is clearly convergent and is common, but there is apparently some threshold crossed so far only by humans. Once you cross it you unlock a lot of free energy and the process grows explosively". (&the cause or size of treshold is unexplained)

(note: this was a reply and part of a slightly longer chain)

My response

Firstly, I disagree with your statement that other species have "potentially unbounded ways how to transmit arbitrary number of bits". Taken literally, of course there's no species on earth that can actually transmit an *unlimited* amount of cultural information between generations. However, humans are still a clear and massive outlier in the volume of cultural information we can transmit between generations, which is what allows for our continuously increasing capabilities across time.

Secondly, the main point of my article was not to determine why humans, in particular, are exceptional in this regard. The main point was to connect the rapid increase in human capabilities relative to previous evolution-driven progress rates with the greater optimization power of brains as compared to evolution. Being so much better at transmitting cultural information as compared to other species allowed humans to undergo a "data-driven singularity" relative to evolution. While our individual brains and learning processes might not have changed much between us and ancestral humans, the volume and quality of data available for training future generations did increase massively, since past generations were much better able to distill the results of their lifetime learning into higher-quality data.

This allows for a connection between the factors we've identified are important for creating powerful AI systems (data volume, data quality, and effectively applied compute), and the process underlying the human "sharp left turn". It reframes the mechanisms that drove human progress rates in terms of the quantities and narratives that drive AI progress rates, and allows us to more easily see what implications the latter has for the former.

In particular, this frame suggests that the human "sharp left turn" was driven by the exploitation of a one-time enormous resource inefficiency in the structure of the human, species-level optimization process. And while the current process of AI training is not perfectly efficient, I don't think it has comparably sized overhangs which can be exploited easily. If true, this would mean human evolutionary history provides little evidence for sudden increases in AI capabilities.

The above is also consistent with rapid civilizational progress depending on many additional factors: it relies on resource overhand being a *necessary* factor, but does not require it to be alone *sufficient* to accelerate human progress. There are doubtless many other factors that are relevant, such as a historical environment favorable to progress, a learning process that sufficiently pays attention to other members of ones species, not being a purely aquatic species, and so on. However, any full explanation of the acceleration in human progress of the form: 
"sudden progress happens exactly when (resource overhang) AND (X) AND (Y) AND (NOT Z) AND (W OR P OR NOT R) AND..." 
is still going to have the above implications for AI progress rates.

There's also an entire second half to the article, which discusses what human "misalignment" to inclusive genetic fitness (doesn't) mean for alignment, as well as the prospects for alignment during two specific fast takeoff (but not sharp left turn) scenarios, but that seems secondary to this discussion.

Addressing this objection is why I emphasized the relatively low information content that architecture / optimizers provide for minds, as compared to training data. We've gotten very far in instantiating human-like behaviors by training networks on human-like data. I'm saying the primacy of data for determining minds means you can get surprisingly close in mindspace, as compared to if you thought architecture / optimizer / etc were the most important.

Obviously, there are still huge gaps between the sorts of data that an LLM is trained on versus the implicit loss functions human brains actually minimize, so it's kind of surprising we've even gotten this far. The implication I'm pointing to is that it's feasible to get really close to human minds along important dimensions related to values and behaviors, even without replicating all the quirks of human mental architecture.

I believe the human visual cortex is actually the more relevant comparison point for estimating the level of danger we face due to mesaoptimization. Its training process is more similar to the self-supervised / offline way in which we train (base) LLMs. In contrast, 'most abstract / "psychological"' are more entangled in future decision-making. They're more "online", with greater ability to influence their future training data.

I think it's not too controversial that online learning processes can have self-reinforcing loops in them. Crucially however, such loops rely on being able to influence the externally visible data collection process, rather than being invisibly baked into the prior. They are thus much more amenable to being addressed with scalable oversight approaches.

I've recently decided to revisit this post. I'll try to address all un-responded to comments in the next ~2 weeks.

Part of this is just straight disagreement, I think; see So8res's Sharp Left Turn and follow-on discussion.

Evolution provides no evidence for the sharp left turn

But for the rest of it, I don't see this as addressing the case for pessimism, which is not problems from the reference class that contains "the LLM sometimes outputs naughty sentences" but instead problems from the reference class that contains "we don't know how to prevent an ontological collapse, where meaning structures constructed under one world-model compile to something different under a different world model."

I dislike this minimization of contemporary alignment progress. Even just limiting ourselves to RLHF, that method addresses far more problems than "the LLM sometimes outputs naughty sentences". E.g., it also tackles problems such as consistently following user instructions, reducing hallucinations, improving the topicality of LLM suggestions, etc. It allows much more significant interfacing with the cognition and objectives pursued by LLMs than just some profanity filter.

I don't think ontological collapse is a real issue (or at least, not an issue that appropriate training data can't solve in a relatively straightforwards way). I feel similarly about lots of things that are speculated to be convergent problems for ML systems, such as wireheading and mesaoptimization.

Or, like, once LLMs gain the capability to design proteins (because you added in a relevant dataset, say), do you really expect the 'helpful, harmless, honest' alignment techniques that were used to make a chatbot not accidentally offend users to also work for making a biologist-bot not accidentally murder patients?

If you're referring to the technique used on LLMs (RLHF), then the answer seems like an obvious yes. RLHF just refers to using reinforcement learning with supervisory signals from a preference model. It's an incredibly powerful and flexible approach, one that's only marginally less general than reinforcement learning itself (can't use it for things you can't build a preference model of). It seems clear enough to me that you could do RLHF over the biologist-bot's action outputs in the biological domain, and be able to shape its behavior there.

If you're referring to just doing language-only RLHF on the model, then making a bio-model, and seeing if the RLHF influences the bio-model's behaviors, then I think the answer is "variable, and it depends a lot on the specifics of the RLHF and how the cross-modal grounding works". 

People often translate non-lingual modalities into language so LLMs can operate in their "native element" in those other domains. Assuming you don't do that, then yes, I could easily see the language-only RLHF training having little impact on the bio-model's behaviors.

However, if the bio-model were acting multi-modally by e.g., alternating between biological sequence outputs and natural language planning of what to use those outputs for, then I expect the RLHF would constrain the language portions of that dialog. Then, there are two options:

  • Bio-bot's multi-modal outputs don't correctly ground between language and bio-sequences. 
    • In this case, bio-bot's language planning doesn't correctly describe the sequences its outputting, so the RLHF doesn't constrain those sequences.
    • However, if bio-bot doesn't ground cross-modally, than bio-bot also can't benefit from its ability to plan in the language modality to better use its bio modality capabilities (which are presumably much better for planning than its bio-modality). 
  • Bio-bot's multi-modal outputs DO correctly ground between language and bio-sequences. 
    • In that case, the RLHF-constrained language does correctly describe the bio-sequences, and so the language-only RLHF training does also constrain bio-bot's biology-related behavior.

Put another way, I think new capabilities advances reveal new alignment challenges and unless alignment techniques are clearly cutting at the root of the problem, I don't expect that they will easily transfer to those new challenges.

Whereas I see future alignment challenges as intimately tied to those we've had to tackle for previous, less capable models. E.g., your bio-bot example is basically a problem of cross-modality grounding, on which there has been an enormous amount of past work, driven by the fact that cross-modality grounding is a problem for systems across very broad ranges of capabilities.

There was an entire thread about Yudkowsky's past opinions on neural networks, and I agree with Alex Turner's evidence that Yudkowsky was dubious. 

I also think people who used brain analogies as the basis for optimism about neural networks were right to do so.

Roughly, the core distinction between software engineering and computer security is whether the system is thinking back.

Yes, and my point in that section is that the fundamental laws governing how AI training processes work are not "thinking back". They're not adversaries. If you created a misaligned AI, then it would be "thinking back", and you'd be in an adversarial position where security mindset is appropriate.

What's your story for specification gaming?

"Building an AI that doesn't game your specifications" is the actual "alignment question" we should be doing research on. The mathematical principles which determine how much a given AI training process games your specifications are not adversaries. It's also a problem we've made enormous progress on, mostly by using large pretrained models with priors over how to appropriately generalize from limited specification signals. E.g., Learning Which Features Matter: RoBERTa Acquires a Preference for Linguistic Generalizations (Eventually) shows how the process of pretraining an LM causes it to go from "gaming" a limited set of finetuning data via shortcut learning / memorization, to generalizing with the appropriate linguistic prior knowledge.

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