Artificial intelligence capabilities research is aimed at making computer systems more intelligent — able to solve a wider range of problems more effectively and efficiently. We can distinguish this from research specifically aimed at making AI systems at various capability levels safer, or more “robust and beneficial.” In this post, I distinguish three kinds of direct research that might be thought of as “AI safety” work: safety engineering, target selection, and alignment theory.
Imagine a world where humans somehow developed heavier-than-air flight before developing a firm understanding of calculus or celestial mechanics. In a world like that, what work would be needed in order to safely transport humans to the Moon?
In this case, we can say that the main task at hand is one of engineering a rocket and refining fuel such that the rocket, when launched, accelerates upwards and does not explode. The boundary of space can be compared to the boundary between narrowly intelligent and generally intelligent AI. Both boundaries are fuzzy, but have engineering importance: spacecraft and aircraft have different uses and face different constraints.
Paired with this task of developing rocket capabilities is a safety engineering task. Safety engineering is the art of ensuring that an engineered system provides acceptable levels of safety. When it comes to achieving a soft landing on the Moon, there are many different roles for safety engineering to play. One team of engineers might ensure that the materials used in constructing the rocket are capable of withstanding the stress of a rocket launch with significant margin for error. Another might design escape systems that ensure the humans in the rocket can survive even in the event of failure. Another might design life support systems capable of supporting the crew in dangerous environments.
A separate important task is target selection, i.e., picking where on the Moon to land. In the case of a Moon mission, targeting research might entail things like designing and constructing telescopes (if they didn’t exist already) and identifying a landing zone on the Moon. Of course, only so much targeting can be done in advance, and the lunar landing vehicle may need to be designed so that it can alter the landing target at the last minute as new data comes in; this again would require feats of engineering.
Beyond the task of (safely) reaching escape velocity and figuring out where you want to go, there is one more crucial prerequisite for landing on the Moon. This is rocket alignment research, the technical work required to reach the correct final destination. We’ll use this as an analogy to illustrate MIRI’s research focus, the problem of artificial intelligence alignment.