AI as a science, and three obstacles to alignment strategies

 |   |  Analysis

AI used to be a science. In the old days (back when AI didn’t work very well), people were attempting to develop a working theory of cognition.

Those scientists didn’t succeed, and those days are behind us. For most people working in AI today and dividing up their work hours between tasks, gone is the ambition to understand minds. People working on mechanistic interpretability (and others attempting to build an empirical understanding of modern AIs) are laying an important foundation stone that could play a role in a future science of artificial minds, but on the whole, modern AI engineering is simply about constructing enormous networks of neurons and training them on enormous amounts of data, not about comprehending minds.

The bitter lesson has been taken to heart, by those at the forefront of the field; and although this lesson doesn’t teach us that there’s nothing to learn about how AI minds solve problems internally, it suggests that the fastest path to producing more powerful systems is likely to continue to be one that doesn’t shed much light on how those systems work.

Absent some sort of “science of artificial minds”, however, humanity’s prospects for aligning smarter-than-human AI seem to me to be quite dim.

Viewing Earth’s current situation through that lens, I see three major hurdles:

  1. Most research that helps one point AIs, probably also helps one make more capable AIs. A “science of AI” would probably increase the power of AI far sooner than it allows us to solve alignment.
  2. In a world without a mature science of AI, building a bureaucracy that reliably distinguishes real solutions from fake ones is prohibitively difficult.
  3. Fundamentally, for at least some aspects of system design, we’ll need to rely on a theory of cognition working on the first high-stakes real-world attempt.

I’ll go into more detail on these three points below. First, though, some background:

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Announcing MIRI’s new CEO and leadership team

 |   |  News

In 2023, MIRI has shifted focus in the direction of broad public communication—see, for example, our recent TED talk, our piece in TIME magazine “Pausing AI Developments Isn’t Enough. We Need to Shut it All Down”, and our appearances on various podcasts. While we’re continuing to support various technical research programs at MIRI, this is no longer our top priority, at least for the foreseeable future.

Coinciding with this shift in focus, there have also been many organizational changes at MIRI over the last several months, and we are somewhat overdue to announce them in public. The big changes are as follows:


  • Malo Bourgon: Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
    • Malo Bourgon, MIRI’s most long-standing team member next to Eliezer Yudkowsky, has transitioned from Chief Operating Officer into the senior leadership role at MIRI.1 We piloted the change starting in February and made it official in June.
    • This is partly an attempt to better reflect long-standing realities at MIRI. Nate’s focus for many years has been on high-level strategy and research, while Malo has handled much of the day-to-day running of the organization.
    • This change also reflects that Malo is taking on a lot more decision-making authority and greater responsibility for steering the organization. 
  • Nate Soares: President
    • Nate, who previously held the senior leadership role at MIRI (with the title of Executive Director), has transitioned to the new role of President.
    • As President (and as a board member), Nate will continue to play a central role in guiding MIRI and setting our vision and strategy.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky: Chair of the Board
    • Eliezer, a co-founder of MIRI and a Senior Research Fellow, was already a member of MIRI’s board. 
    • We’ve now made Eliezer the board’s chair in order to better reflect the de facto reality that his views get a large weight in MIRI strategic direction.
    • Edwin Evans, who was the board’s previous chair, remains on MIRI’s board.
    • Eliezer, Nate, and Malo have different senses of which technical research directions are most promising. To balance their different views, the board currently gives each of Eliezer, Nate, and Malo a budget to fund different technical research, in addition to the research that’s funded by the organization as a whole.
  • Alex Vermeer: Chief Operating Officer (COO)
    • Alex has stepped up to replace Malo as COO.
    • As COO, Alex is responsible for running/overseeing the operations team, as he has already been doing for some time, and he’ll continue to work closely with Malo (as he has for over a decade now) to help figure out what our core constraints are, and figure out how to break them.
  • Jimmy Rintjema: Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
    • Jimmy has been working for MIRI since 2015. Over the years, Jimmy has progressively taken on more and more of the responsibility for running MIRI’s business operations, including HR and finances. 
    • As part of this transition, Jimmy is taking on more responsibility and authority in this domain, and this title change is to reflect that.

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The basic reasons I expect AGI ruin

 |   |  Analysis

I’ve been citing AGI Ruin: A List of Lethalities to explain why the situation with AI looks lethally dangerous to me. But that post is relatively long, and emphasizes specific open technical problems over “the basics”.

Here are 10 things I’d focus on if I were giving “the basics” on why I’m so worried:[1]

1. General intelligence is very powerful, and once we can build it at all, STEM-capable artificial general intelligence (AGI) is likely to vastly outperform human intelligence immediately (or very quickly).

When I say “general intelligence”, I’m usually thinking about “whatever it is that lets human brains do astrophysics, category theory, etc. even though our brains evolved under literally zero selection pressure to solve astrophysics or category theory problems”.

It’s possible that we should already be thinking of GPT-4 as “AGI” on some definitions, so to be clear about the threshold of generality I have in mind, I’ll specifically talk about “STEM-level AGI”, though I expect such systems to be good at non-STEM tasks too.

Human brains aren’t perfectly general, and not all narrow AI systems or animals are equally narrow. (E.g., AlphaZero is more general than AlphaGo.) But it sure is interesting that humans evolved cognitive abilities that unlock all of these sciences at once, with zero evolutionary fine-tuning of the brain aimed at equipping us for any of those sciences. Evolution just stumbled into a solution to other problems, that happened to generalize to millions of wildly novel tasks.

More concretely:

  • AlphaGo is a very impressive reasoner, but its hypothesis space is limited to sequences of Go board states rather than sequences of states of the physical universe. Efficiently reasoning about the physical universe requires solving at least some problems that are different in kind from what AlphaGo solves.
    • These problems might be solved by the STEM AGI’s programmer, and/or solved by the algorithm that finds the AGI in program-space; and some such problems may be solved by the AGI itself in the course of refining its thinking.[2]
  • Some examples of abilities I expect humans to only automate once we’ve built STEM-level AGI (if ever):
    • The ability to perform open-heart surgery with a high success rate, in a messy non-standardized ordinary surgical environment.
    • The ability to match smart human performance in a specific hard science field, across all the scientific work humans do in that field.
  • In principle, I suspect you could build a narrow system that is good at those tasks while lacking the basic mental machinery required to do par-human reasoning about all the hard sciences. In practice, I very strongly expect humans to find ways to build general reasoners to perform those tasks, before we figure out how to build narrow reasoners that can do them. (For the same basic reason evolution stumbled on general intelligence so early in the history of human tech development.)[3]

When I say “general intelligence is very powerful”, a lot of what I mean is that science is very powerful, and that having all of the sciences at once is a lot more powerful than the sum of each science’s impact.[4]

Another large piece of what I mean is that (STEM-level) general intelligence is a very high-impact sort of thing to automate because STEM-level AGI is likely to blow human intelligence out of the water immediately, or very soon after its invention.

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Misgeneralization as a misnomer

 |   |  Analysis

Here’s two different ways an AI can turn out unfriendly:

  1. You somehow build an AI that cares about “making people happy”. In training, it tells people jokes and buys people flowers and offers people an ear when they need one. In deployment (and once it’s more capable), it forcibly puts each human in a separate individual heavily-defended cell, and pumps them full of opiates.
  2. You build an AI that’s good at making people happy. In training, it tells people jokes and buys people flowers and offers people an ear when they need one. In deployment (and once it’s more capable), it turns out that whatever was causing that “happiness”-promoting behavior was a balance of a variety of other goals (such as basic desires for energy and memory), and it spends most of the universe on some combination of that other stuff that doesn’t involve much happiness.

(To state the obvious: please don’t try to get your AIs to pursue “happiness”; you want something more like CEV in the long run, and in the short run I strongly recommend aiming lower, at a pivotal act .)

In both cases, the AI behaves (during training) in a way that looks a lot like trying to make people happy. Then the AI described in (1) is unfriendly because it was optimizing the wrong concept of “happiness”, one that lined up with yours when the AI was weak, but that diverges in various edge-cases that matter when the AI is strong. By contrast, the AI described in (2) was never even really trying to pursue happiness; it had a mixture of goals that merely correlated with the training objective, and that balanced out right around where you wanted them to balance out in training, but deployment (and the corresponding capabilities-increases) threw the balance off.

Note that this list of “ways things can go wrong when the AI looked like it was optimizing happiness during training” is not exhaustive! (For instance, consider an AI that cares about something else entirely, and knows you’ll shut it down if it doesn’t look like it’s optimizing for happiness. Or an AI whose goals change heavily as it reflects and self-modifies.)

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Pausing AI Developments Isn’t Enough. We Need to Shut it All Down

 |   |  Analysis

(Published in TIME on March 29.)


An open letter published today calls for “all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.”

This 6-month moratorium would be better than no moratorium. I have respect for everyone who stepped up and signed it. It’s an improvement on the margin.

I refrained from signing because I think the letter is understating the seriousness of the situation and asking for too little to solve it.

The key issue is not “human-competitive” intelligence (as the open letter puts it); it’s what happens after AI gets to smarter-than-human intelligence. Key thresholds there may not be obvious, we definitely can’t calculate in advance what happens when, and it currently seems imaginable that a research lab would cross critical lines without noticing.

Many researchers steeped in these issues, including myself, expect that the most likely result of building a superhumanly smart AI, under anything remotely like the current circumstances, is that literally everyone on Earth will die. Not as in “maybe possibly some remote chance,” but as in “that is the obvious thing that would happen.” It’s not that you can’t, in principle, survive creating something much smarter than you; it’s that it would require precision and preparation and new scientific insights, and probably not having AI systems composed of giant inscrutable arrays of fractional numbers.

Without that precision and preparation, the most likely outcome is AI that does not do what we want, and does not care for us nor for sentient life in general. That kind of caring is something that could in principle be imbued into an AI but we are not ready and do not currently know how.

Absent that caring, we get “the AI does not love you, nor does it hate you, and you are made of atoms it can use for something else.”

The likely result of humanity facing down an opposed superhuman intelligence is a total loss. Valid metaphors include “a 10-year-old trying to play chess against Stockfish 15”, “the 11th century trying to fight the 21st century,” and “Australopithecus trying to fight Homo sapiens“.

To visualize a hostile superhuman AI, don’t imagine a lifeless book-smart thinker dwelling inside the internet and sending ill-intentioned emails. Visualize an entire alien civilization, thinking at millions of times human speeds, initially confined to computers—in a world of creatures that are, from its perspective, very stupid and very slow. A sufficiently intelligent AI won’t stay confined to computers for long. In today’s world you can email DNA strings to laboratories that will produce proteins on demand, allowing an AI initially confined to the internet to build artificial life forms or bootstrap straight to postbiological molecular manufacturing.

If somebody builds a too-powerful AI, under present conditions, I expect that every single member of the human species and all biological life on Earth dies shortly thereafter.

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Truth and Advantage: Response to a draft of “AI safety seems hard to measure”

 |   |  Analysis

Status: This was a response to a draft of Holden’s cold take “AI safety seems hard to measure”. It sparked a further discussion, that Holden recently posted a summary of.

The follow-up discussion ended up focusing on some issues in AI alignment that I think are underserved, which Holden said were kinda orthogonal to the point he was trying to make, and which didn’t show up much in the final draft. I nevertheless think my notes were a fine attempt at articulating some open problems I see, from a different angle than usual. (Though it does have some overlap with the points made in Deep Deceptiveness, which I was also drafting at the time.)

I’m posting the document I wrote to Holden with only minimal editing, because it’s been a few months and I apparently won’t produce anything better. (I acknowledge that it’s annoying to post a response to an old draft of a thing when nobody can see the old draft, sorry.)

Quick take: (1) it’s a write-up of a handful of difficulties that I think are real, in a way that I expect to be palatable to a relevant different audience than the one I appeal to; huzzah for that. (2) It’s missing some stuff that I think is pretty important.

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Deep Deceptiveness

 |   |  Analysis


This post is an attempt to gesture at a class of AI notkilleveryoneism (alignment) problem that seems to me to go largely unrecognized. E.g., it isn’t discussed (or at least I don’t recognize it) in the recent plans written up by OpenAI (1,2), by DeepMind’s alignment team, or by Anthropic, and I know of no other acknowledgment of this issue by major labs.

You could think of this as a fragment of my answer to “Where do plans like OpenAI’s ‘Our Approach to Alignment Research’ fail?”, as discussed in Rob and Eliezer’s challenge for AGI organizations and readers. Note that it would only be a fragment of the reply; there’s a lot more to say about why AI alignment is a particularly tricky task to task an AI with. (Some of which Eliezer gestures at in a follow-up to his interview on Bankless.)

Caveat: I’ll be talking a bunch about “deception” in this post because this post was generated as a result of conversations I had with alignment researchers at big labs who seemed to me to be suggesting “just train AI to not be deceptive; there’s a decent chance that works”.[1]

I have a vague impression that others in the community think that deception in particular is much more central than I think it is, so I want to warn against that interpretation here: I think deception is an important problem, but its main importance is as an example of some broader issues in alignment.[2]

Caveat: I haven’t checked the relationship between my use of the word ‘deception’ here, and the use of the word ‘deceptive’ in discussions of “deceptive alignment“. Please don’t assume that the two words mean the same thing.

Investigating a made-up but moderately concrete story

Suppose you have a nascent AGI, and you’ve been training against all hints of deceptiveness. What goes wrong?

When I ask this question of people who are optimistic that we can just “train AIs not to be deceptive”, there are a few answers that seem well-known. Perhaps you lack the interpretability tools to correctly identify the precursors of ‘deception’, so that you can only train against visibly deceptive AI outputs instead of AI thoughts about how to plan deceptions. Or perhaps training against interpreted deceptive thoughts also trains against your interpretability tools, and your AI becomes illegibly deceptive rather than non-deceptive.

And these are both real obstacles. But there are deeper obstacles, that seem to me more central, and that I haven’t observed others to notice on their own.

That’s a challenge, and while you (hopefully) chew on it, I’ll tell an implausibly-detailed story to exemplify a deeper obstacle.

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Yudkowsky on AGI risk on the Bankless podcast

 |   |  Analysis, Conversations

Eliezer gave a very frank overview of his take on AI two weeks ago on the cryptocurrency show Bankless: 

I’ve posted a transcript of the show and a follow-up Q&A below.

Thanks to Andrea_Miotti, remember, and vonk for help posting transcripts.


Eliezer Yudkowsky: [clip] I think that we are hearing the last winds start to blow, the fabric of reality start to fray. This thing alone cannot end the world, but I think that probably some of the vast quantities of money being blindly and helplessly piled into here are going to end up actually accomplishing something.

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