What is the function of a fire alarm?
One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.
In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.
(I’ve read a number of replications and variations on this research, and the effect size is blatant. I would not expect this to be one of the results that dies to the replication crisis, and I haven’t yet heard about the replication crisis touching it. But we have to put a maybe-not marker on everything now.)
A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.
The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.
But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.
It seems to me that this is one of the cases where people have mistaken beliefs about what they believe, like when somebody loudly endorsing their city’s team to win the big game will back down as soon as asked to bet. They haven’t consciously distinguished the rewarding exhilaration of shouting that the team will win, from the feeling of anticipating the team will win.
When people look at the smoke coming from under the door, I think they think their uncertain wobbling feeling comes from not assigning the fire a high-enough probability of really being there, and that they’re reluctant to act for fear of wasting effort and time. If so, I think they’re interpreting their own feelings mistakenly. If that was so, they’d get the same wobbly feeling on hearing the fire alarm, or even more so, because fire alarms correlate to fire less than does smoke coming from under a door. The uncertain wobbling feeling comes from the worry that others believe differently, not the worry that the fire isn’t there. The reluctance to act is the reluctance to be seen looking foolish, not the reluctance to waste effort. That’s why the student alone in the room does something about the fire 75% of the time, and why people have no trouble reacting to the much weaker evidence presented by fire alarms.
It’s now and then proposed that we ought to start reacting later to the issues of Artificial General Intelligence (background here), because, it is said, we are so far away from it that it just isn’t possible to do productive work on it today.
(For direct argument about there being things doable today, see: Soares and Fallenstein (2014/2017); Amodei, Olah, Steinhardt, Christiano, Schulman, and Mané (2016); or Taylor, Yudkowsky, LaVictoire, and Critch (2016).)
(If none of those papers existed or if you were an AI researcher who’d read them but thought they were all garbage, and you wished you could work on alignment but knew of nothing you could do, the wise next step would be to sit down and spend two hours by the clock sincerely trying to think of possible approaches. Preferably without self-sabotage that makes sure you don’t come up with anything plausible; as might happen if, hypothetically speaking, you would actually find it much more comfortable to believe there was nothing you ought to be working on today, because e.g. then you could work on other things that interested you more.)
(But never mind.)
So if AGI seems far-ish away, and you think the conclusion licensed by this is that you can’t do any productive work on AGI alignment yet, then the implicit alternative strategy on offer is: Wait for some unspecified future event that tells us AGI is coming near; and then we’ll all know that it’s okay to start working on AGI alignment.
This seems to me to be wrong on a number of grounds. Here are some of them.
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