# Values vs. parameters

9 17 May 2011 05:53AM

I've written before about the difficulty of distinguishing values from errors, from algorithms, and from context.  Now I have to add to that list:  How can we distinguish our utility function from the parameters we use to apply it?

In my recent discussion post, "Rationalists don't care about the future", I showed that exponential time-discounting, plus some assumptions about physics and knowledge, leads to not caring about the future.  Many people responded by saying that, if I care about the future, this shows that my utility function does not use exponential time-discounting.

This response assumes that the shape of my time-discounting function is part of my utility function.  In other words, the way you time-discount is one of your values.

By contrast, Eliezer wrote an earlier post saying that we should use human values, but without time-discounting.  Eliezer is aware that humans appear to use time discounting.  Therefore, this implicitly claims that the time-discounting function is not one of our values.  It's a parameter for how we implement them.

(Some of the arguments Eliezer used were value-based arguments, suggesting that we can use our values to set the parameters that we use to implement our values...  I suspect this recursive approach could introduce bogus solutions, like multiplying both sides of an equation by a variable, or worse; but that would take a longer post to address.  I will note that some recursive equations do have unique solutions.)

The program of CEV assumes that a transhuman can use some extrapolated version of values currently used by some humans.  If that transhuman has a life expectancy of a billion years, it will likely view time discounting differently.  Eliezer's post against time discounting suggests, to me, a God-like view of the universe, in which we eliminate time discounting in the same way (and for the same reasons) that many people want to eliminate space-discounting (not caring about far-away people) in contemporary ethics.  This is taking an ethical code that evolved agents have, which is constructed to promote the propagation of those agents' genes, and applying it without reference to any particular set of genes.  This is also pretty much what folk-morality says a social moral code is.  So the idea that you can apply the same utility function from a radically different context, is inherent in CEV, and is common to much public discourse on ethics which assumes that you can construct a social morality that is based on the morality we find in individual agents.

On the other hand, I have argued that assuming that social ethics and individual ethics are the same, is either merely sloppy thinking, or an evolved (or deliberately constructed) lie.  People who believed this would probably subscribe to a social-contract theory of ethics.  (This view also has problems, beyond the scope of this post.)

I have one heuristic that I think is pretty good for telling when something is not a value:  If it's mathematically wrong, it's an error, not a value.  So my inclination is to point out that exponential time-discounting is correct.  All other forms of time-discounting lead to inconsistencies.  You can time-discount exponentially; or you can not time-discount at all, as Eliezer suggested; or you can be in error.

But my purpose in this post is not to continue the arguments from that other post.  It's to point out this additional challenge in isolating what values are.  Is your time-discounting function a value, or a value parameter?

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Comment author: 17 May 2011 04:42:22PM 3 points [-]

What is a "value parameter"? I don't think I've seen that phrase either in academic literature or on LW before. "Parameters we use to apply [our utility function]" does not explain it for me.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 04:57:33PM *  0 points [-]

PhilGoetz seems to be using "parameter" to mean "instrumental value" and "value" to mean "terminal value".

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:20:52PM *  0 points [-]

If "parameter" were "instrumental value", that would mean you could set the parameter according to your values. That would be very similar to saying it was part of your values.

The notion of "value" vs. "instrumental value" is probably bankrupt. It's very similar to the dichotomy of "grounded symbol vs. dependent symbol". I talked about this in the section "Value is a network problem" of my regrettably long post on values.

In this particular case, I'm also presenting the option that "parameter" is something you can place logical constraints on, regardless of values. Like math: You can't say that believing that 1+1=3 is one of your values.

Answer to Wei Dai: It's a parameter you need to set to implement your values; but I don't know how you set it. That's the problem I'm pointing out. Resolving whether this was an instrumental value or not would solve the problem.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 08:33:29PM *  1 point [-]

Answer to Wei Dai: It's a parameter you need to set to implement your values; but I don't know how you set it. That's the problem I'm pointing out. Resolving whether this was an instrumental value or not would solve the problem.

If I understand you correctly, you're thinking of utility functions as f(p,U), were U is the state of the universe and p is some parameter. Here f is your values and p is the parameter. If that's the case, I don't understand the distinction your making by separating out p, i.e., why not just work with F(U)=f(p,U). If there's uncertainty about the value of p, how is that different from uncertainty about your utility function?

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:27:30AM 1 point [-]

That is the question posed by the original post. There is a long history of assuming that it makes sense to talk about using the same utility function with different parameters.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:33:14PM *  -1 points [-]

If "parameter" were "instrumental value", that would mean you could set the parameter according to your values. That would be very similar to saying it was part of your values. The notion of "value" vs. "instrumental value" is probably bankrupt.

Well, instrumental value is a totally standard concept:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_value

It is different from the equally-standard concept of intrinsic value:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intrinsic_value_%28ethics%29

...so: it is not very clear what you mean.

I think what you are saying is that because instrumental values arise out of intrinsic values we need not bother too much in distinguishing between them.

However, that isn't right - there's at least one important time to know what is an instrumental value and what is an intrinsic value - namely when self-improving.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:24:31AM *  1 point [-]

No, I really think instrumental vs. intrinsic values is a bankrupt set of ideas, despite being standard. Our values were not generated by starting with a set of intrinsic values, then adding those instrumental values needed to achieve them. Similarly, I don't think that we learn language by learning a set of fundamental words, and then defining all other words in terms of them. The link to my regrettably long post on values above is supposed to elucidate this (though I'm not sure it's any clearer than what I just said).

Comment author: 18 May 2011 08:37:03AM *  2 points [-]

No, I really think instrumental vs. intrinsic values is a bankrupt set of ideas, despite being standard. Our values were not generated by starting with a set of intrinsic values, then adding those instrumental values needed to achieve them.

Well, then please reconsider. Humans intrinsically value warmth, sweetness, fullness, orgasms, the absence of pain - and various other things. They instrumentally value money, qualifications, property rights, and so on. Mostly the instrumental values arise out of the intrinsic values - in the context of some environment.

There may be some wrinkles to this kind of model. There may be instinctive predispositions towards some instrumental values. There may be instrumental values that only develop as a result of certain types of interaction with the environment. However, overall, I fail to see how arguing with the significance of the instrumental / intrinsic value split is productive.

I am pretty sure that any more sophisticated model would still exhibit the same instrumental / intrinsic value division.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 05:40:08AM 2 points [-]

I don't think you have the same notion of instrumental values in mind that everyone else has. Instrumental values aren't values, properly. If X is an instrumental value, all this means is that X is useful for obtaining our values. Examples of instrumental values: money, natural resources, or computing power.

The problem with distinguishing instrumental and terminal values in humans is that it isn't always clear whether you really do value, for example, justice, or if it's just a heuristic for obtaining that which we do value.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 07:28:56AM *  3 points [-]

Is your time-discounting function a value, or a value parameter?

I agree, this is not a continuation - the argument in the other thread is indifferent to this, since if we ignore the possibility of later things being valued exponentially more, a polynomial discounting function from any source means that the "real" (context-independent) discounting function is polynomial (including 1).

As for "mathematically wrong," you should rather say "bad if preference reversals are inherently bad." "Inconsistent" means multiple things here, and the "mathematically wrong" inconsistent is not the same as the "preference reversal" inconsistent.. See this Wei Dai comment.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:19:47AM 1 point [-]

As for "mathematically wrong," you should rather say "bad if preference reversals are inherently bad."

Maybe. I need to think about that.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:22:13PM *  2 points [-]

Is your time-discounting function a value, or a value parameter?

Speaking personally, my discounting is instrumental, to the extent that I can make it.

So: temporal discounting is not part of my ultimate values.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:01:39PM 2 points [-]

I have one heuristic that I think is pretty good for telling when something is not a value: If it's mathematically wrong, it's an error, not a value. So my inclination is to point out that exponential time-discounting is correct. All other forms of time-discounting lead to inconsistencies. You can time-discount exponentially; or you can not time-discount at all, as Eliezer suggested; or you can be in error.

I think this is a good heuristic, but my inclination is to say that it's a logical error to think that non-exponential time-discounting is an "error" and that either exponential discounting and no time-discounting must be part of our values because they are not "errors".

Besides what I said in this reply to Eliezer, another way to avoid inconsistencies without going to exponential discounting is to discount via absolute time as opposed to time relative to "now". Humans do not work this way, of course, but you can program it into an AI if you wanted to.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:10:23PM *  0 points [-]

Besides what I said in this reply to Eliezer,

I'll have to think about that. It's a little too deep for me to process right now.

discount via absolute time as opposed to time relative to "now".

I don't think that will work. Can you explain it in more detail? Distorting time won't prevent reversals of preference just because it makes some plotted curves match.

Comment author: 21 May 2011 03:19:10AM *  1 point [-]

Distorting time won't prevent reversals of preference just because it makes some plotted curves match.

If your discounting factor is f(t-now) for some function f, then f needs to be translation invariant (modulo positive affine scaling), on pain of preference reversals. The requirement of translation invariance is directly due to the fact that f gets translated by the varying values of "now". For two possible events x1 and x2, the agent compares U(x1)*f(t1-now) vs U(x2)*f(t2-now), where U is the non-discounted utility function, and if the result of that comparison depends on the value of "now" you have problems.

However, if your discounting factor is f(t) simpliciter, then f isn't translated and thus doesn't need to be translation invariant. No single event is ever valued according to multiple different outputs of f. The agent will derive the same preference between any two events regardless of when it computes the decision.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 12:54:55PM 2 points [-]

It seems to me that eliminating space-discounting is done for memetic, not genetic, reasons. And, as the triumph of individualistic nations over collectivist tribes shows, it outcompetes. "I trust strangers in the way a hunter-gatherer trusts his cousins" is not just a platitude for making people think you're moral, but also a good strategy for conquering the world.

Do values come from genes, and parameters from memes? The other way around? A mix? My guess is that most of our value drift will represent genetic strategies being replaced by memetic strategies, and so talking about values and parameters may not make a whole lot of sense.

It seems to me that time discounting is a heuristic to deal with death- if that issue gets resolved, then you don't need to discount as heavily. I'm not sure how a utility function would deal with memories, though- if I get to have an awesome experience at one point in my life, it seems like the earlier the better, as I can only remember the experience after I have it (I can anticipate it beforehand, but I imagine that'll be weaker). So my guess is immortals (or, at least, billion-year lifespan individuals) will have a weak preference for the present.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 03:01:36PM 2 points [-]

It seems to me that time discounting is a heuristic to deal with death

I think a large part of time discounting is dealing with uncertainty about the future. It's notable that people in unstable societies/situations tend to time discount more then people in more stable situations.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:26:48PM 0 points [-]

See Eliezer's post against discounting - I've been trying to address the problem that's left even after you factor out uncertainty.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:46:29PM 1 point [-]

Note that instrumental discounting is not just down to uncertainly - there's also mortality, future-impotence, resource limitations, the divide-and-conquer strategy - and so on. You should probably be trying to factor all of those things out.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:25:37PM 0 points [-]

"I trust strangers in the way a hunter-gatherer trusts his cousins" is not just a platitude for making people think you're moral, but also a good strategy for conquering the world.

Nitpick: Feeling that way would prevent you from conquering the world.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 12:58:31AM 0 points [-]

Nitpick: Feeling that way would prevent you from conquering the world.

I'm inclined to agree. Unless the hunter-gatherer in question somehow had an overwhelmingly nuanced and Machiavellian instinct for trust and, presumably, extremely promiscuous relatives in a culture with significant inter-tribal mating.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:45:49PM *  0 points [-]

Nitpick: Feeling that way would prevent you from conquering the world.

As in, hunter-gatherers don't feel the way towards their cousins that citizens of the developed world are encouraged to feel towards their fellow citizens? Or that if I personally feel that way, I personally will not become the ruler of the world? Or something else?

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:22:16AM 2 points [-]

If you really feel about strangers the way you feel about your cousins, you're not going to want to conquer them. That, or you have difficult family reunions.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 10:18:47AM 0 points [-]

I thought it was pretty obvious that I was talking about nationalism- i.e. the feeling of relatedness to all people who share a nationality with you, regardless of genetics- and not unity with all of mankind. I apologize for being unclear.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 07:24:07AM 1 point [-]

that citizens of the developed world are encouraged to feel towards their fellow citizens?

You don't conquer the world by doing what you are encouraged to do by society. You do the encouraging. Adamantly.

If the history of conquerers can be taken as a guide you trust your cousins about as far as you can preemptively execute them.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 10:15:29AM 0 points [-]

Alexander, as he existed before the rise of nationalism, is not the sort of conqueror I'm talking about. Are you telling me that British shopkeepers should have gone around preemptively executing each other?

Comment author: 18 May 2011 11:08:14AM 0 points [-]

Are you telling me that British shopkeepers should have gone around preemptively executing each other?

No, I was talking about conquering the world. I don't recommend being a British shopkeeper at all if world conquest is your goal. Although Rupert Giles might like to test that theory. Maybe it even worked for him after all!

Are you referring to, instead, 'success'?

Comment author: 17 May 2011 11:58:54AM 1 point [-]

We are humans. We do not possess a utility-function. Our values and goals are not stable. We do not differentiate between means and ends, instrumental and terminal goals. Humans get bored. Humans have time preferences.

There is no crucial difference between inconsistency of goals caused by discounting versus inconsistency caused by boredom. You might enjoy collecting paperclips in 2011 and pay for a ticket to visit a paperclip conference in 2012; but then your future self in 2012 gets bored of paperclips and goes to visit Disneyland instead. That's humane!

What would happen if humans were to discard their time preferences? We would be terrorized by our expectations, always choosing the future over the present. We would only ever pursue instrumental goals and never reach any terminal goals. We would solely care about expected utility rather than actual experience utility.

What is irrational with regard to human nature is to allow the preservation of our values to outweigh their satisfaction. We can not pick and choose our values by their weighting and at the same time retain more than a few basic goals (e.g. survival). If to be rational means to win and to win means to satisfy our values, to reach our goals, then we have to account for the fact that the preservation and satisfaction of human values are overlapping. We value how we choose and we choose what we value.

Comment author: 22 May 2011 04:08:35AM 1 point [-]

There is no crucial difference between inconsistency of goals caused by discounting versus inconsistency caused by boredom. You might enjoy collecting paperclips in 2011 and pay for a ticket to visit a paperclip conference in 2012; but then your future self in 2012 gets bored of paperclips and goes to visit Disneyland instead. That's humane!

I disagree. In this case, I would instrumentally value collecting paperclips, perhaps because I find it fun. What has changed is how much fun I derive from paperclips, not how much I value fun. This is not a true case of preference reversal, because I have learnt new information during the time interval; if I had known that I would stop finding paperclips fun, I would not buy the ticket and I would not mind the change, as long as I could find fun in visits to Disneyland instead. This is no different from a gambler who would change his bet if he knew more about how the future would play out.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 04:13:54AM 1 point [-]

Utility functions do not converge even with time discounting. See http://arxiv.org/abs/0712.4318 - though time discounting is not mentioned, it does not affect the result.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:31:56PM *  2 points [-]

Utility functions do not converge even with time discounting. [...]

That is not what the cited paper says at all.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 12:52:42AM 0 points [-]

I was not claiming that it said that. The paper did not mention time discounting but, if you understand the paper, it is clear that discounting cannot affect the result.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 09:13:33AM 0 points [-]

This is not about "time discounting" - it is about "Utility functions do not converge". That comes across as a ridiculous over-generalisation - and has no support from the paper, which lays out some of the conditions under which convergence happens.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 11:36:52PM 0 points [-]

Oh I see. I meant human utility functions, though, now that I think about it many people claim to have bounded utilities, so even that was inaccurate.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:25:53AM 2 points [-]

I guess bounded utility functions are where it's at then. Or finite hypothesis spaces. Or, of course, making the busy beaver function illegal :3

Comment author: 17 May 2011 10:11:58PM *  1 point [-]

I'm trying to read that paper now, but I'm stuck.

First, the paper needs to define what an unbounded function is.

Next, in Lemma one that B(x) > f(x) infinitely often. But f(x) is defined as "a function that describes the environment". There is no ordering defined on f(x); no interpretation of what the number you get out of f(x) means. So what does it mean for f(x) to be large or small?

Just before equation 2, it refers to "the expected utility of inputting k to the environment." Since when do environments have inputs? Somehow, the environment is a function, which takes an input and produces an output that is itself used as input to a utility function. I don't see how this relates to the usual system of computing utility as a function of an environment. What's this business with treating the environment as a function of - something? What are these "inputs"?

In proving theorem 1, the paper defines psi_G(n). But psi_n has already been defined as a way of indexing all computable functions. You can't redefine psi after that. So this move looks suspect.

This paper really needs some more English text in it explaining what it is doing.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 10:40:42PM *  1 point [-]

I don't have my head around the proof in the paper, but I can answer your specific questions:

First, the paper needs to define what an unbounded function is.

U maps N to R and is unbounded, which means for all x in R there exists a y in N such that U(y) > x.

Next, in Lemma one that B(x) > f(x) infinitely often. But f(x) is defined as "a function that describes the environment". There is no ordering defined on f(x); no interpretation of what the number you get out of f(x) means.

His point is that B grows really fast, faster than any computable f. I don't see where it defines f(x) to be "a function that describes the environment", and that definition wouldn't make sense at this point anyway. Once he's done proving B grows faster than any computable function, he doesn't need that f any more.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 11:40:46PM 1 point [-]

Thanks! Your definition of unbounded does not mention being unbounded below; that seems oddly asymmetrical to me.

I am still puzzled over what the environment functions are. f is one of the same kinds of things that h is, and h is "the true function that describes the environment".

Comment author: 18 May 2011 12:12:19AM *  2 points [-]

Your definition of unbounded does not mention being unbounded below; that seems oddly asymmetrical to me.

Technically you should use the abs. value of the function, see here.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 12:06:02AM *  2 points [-]

Thanks! Your definition of unbounded does not mention being unbounded below; that seems oddly asymmetrical to me.

I was wrong on this and Tim Tyler was right. The theorem takes an absolute value of U at the end, so apparently it's still true if U has an unbounded absolute value. My guess that "unbounded" meant "unbounded below" was wrong, but apparently harmless.

I am still puzzled over what the environment functions are. f is one of the same kinds of things that h is, and h is "the true function that describes the environment".

The f in Lemma 1 is a different sort of thing from the f in Equation 2 and Theorem 1. I assume you're talking about Equation 2 and Theorem 1.

(Variable scope is ambiguous in mathematical texts and has to be guessed from context. Maybe I'm not stuck on this right now and you're feeling stuck because I worked through Hutter's AIXI paper. I spent a lot of time feeling stuck when reading that. Perhaps we all have to pay the same entry price. One might also argue that the papers are too concisely written.)

Our heroic AI is attempting to take action to maximize its expected utility. The only action it can take is to choose an input to h; suppose that's i. The only response from the world is h(i). The utility it experiences is U(h(i)). There is no persistent state, and h never changes. It doesn't know the true h, so the best it can do is maximize the expected value of U(f(i)), where f is a version of h that's consistent with it's observations. The weights in the expected value are p(f), which is the AI's prior probability of f being h. The point of the paper is that it can't evaluate that expected value because the series diverges when the U is unbounded.

Maybe we should do more math on this blog. It's much more pleasant than arguing about philosophy. I would enjoy this conversation with Phil even if he was one of those goddamned moral realists. :-).

Comment author: 18 May 2011 10:01:50AM 1 point [-]

Knowing that this discussion exists here has increased the probability that I will actually attempt to work through the paper at some future time. Thanks.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 07:58:49PM 0 points [-]

At one point I was wondering whether I should talk about this via PM with Phil, or as replies to his posts. Since the level of interest in public replies was positive, I think I did the right thing. We should do more of this.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:52:26AM 1 point [-]

It doesn't say that utility functions don't converge. It says that the expected value of unbounded utility functions don't converge.

Ironically, I read that paper last week, and my main reaction was that it was not very relevant because it did not incorporate time discounting; or that you could interpret it as an argument for time discounting, because time discounting makes its result go away.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 01:27:39PM 3 points [-]

As Manfred said, it does not appear that the results of the paper are affected by time discounting.

Let's be a bit more explicit about this. The model in the paper is that an action (or perhaps a pair (action,context)) is represented by a single natural number; this is provided to the environment and it returns a single natural number; the agent feeds that number into its utility function, and out comes a utility. The agent has measured what the environment does in response to a finite set of actions; what it cares about is the expected utility (over computable environments whose behaviour is consistent with the agent's past observations, with some not-necessarily-computable but not too ill-behaved probability distribution on them) of the environment's response to its actions.

The paper says that the expected utilities don't exist, if the utility function is unbounded and computable (or merely bounded below in absolute value by an unbounded computable function).

(Remark: It seems to me that this isn't necessarily fatal; if the agent cannot exactly repeat previous actions, and if it happens that the expected utility difference between two of the agent's actions exists, then it can still decide between actions. However, (1) the "cannot repeat previous actions" condition seems a bit artificial and (2) I'd guess that the arguments in the paper can be adjusted to show that expected utility differences are also divergent. But I could be wrong, and it would be interesting to know.)

So, anyway. How does time discounting fit into this? It seems to me that this is meant to model the immediate response of the environment to the agent's action; time doesn't come into it at all. And the conclusion is that even then -- even without considering the possible infinite future -- the relevant expectations don't exist.

The pathology described in the paper doesn't seem to me to have anything to do with not discounting in time. Turning the consequences of an action into an infinite stream rather than a single result might make things worse, but it can't possibly make them better.

Actually, that's not quite fair. Here's one way it could make them better. One way to avoid the divergence described in the paper is to have a bounded utility function. That seems troublesome to many people. But it's not so unreasonable to say that the utility you attach to what happens in any bounded region of spacetime should be bounded. So maybe there's some mileage to taking the bounded-utility case of this model (where the expectations all exist happily), then representing an agent's actual deliberations as involving (say) some kind of limit as the spacetime region gets larger, and hoping that lim { larger spacetime region } E { utility } converges even though E { lim { larger spacetime region} utility } doesn't. Which might be the case; I haven't thought about it carefully enough to have much idea how plausible that is.

In that scenario, you might well get saved by exponential time-discounting. Or even something weaker like 1/t^2. (Probably not 1/t, though.) But it seems to me that filling in the details is a big job; and I don't think it can possibly be right to assert that time discounting makes the result of the paper go away, without doing that work.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:16:43PM 0 points [-]

Hi, downvoter! If you happen not to be PhilGoetz (whose objections I already know from his reply), could you please let me know what you didn't like about what I wrote? Did I make a mistake or express something unclearly?

Thanks.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 10:34:09AM 1 point [-]

Hi, (other?) downvoter! Whatever do you object to about the above?

If someone's downvoting me for good reason, I would like to know how I can improve. If someone's downvoting me without good reason, I would like to make that apparent. The interests of LW, as much as my own, are advanced in both cases.

What, if anything, am I missing?

Comment author: 17 May 2011 04:50:58PM *  -1 points [-]

See my response to Manfred above. The paper does not define what it means by "expected value"; I am assuming that it means the sum of all possible continuations of the infinite series, multiplied by their probabilities, because that seems consistent and appropriate. It could alternately mean the expectation of the value that an infinite series converges to, which would be a peculiar way of talking about utility calculations (it would be the opposite of time-discounting: the present doesn't matter, only the infinite future), but would probably also be consistent with the paper.

The paper assumes that you have a universe of possible infinite series, all of which diverge; and proves (not surprisingly) that the sum of an expected value over an infinite number of such infinite series diverges.

If instead of taking the sum x1 + x2 + ..., you use time-discounting into the future from the present time t=1:

x1 + f(x2 + f(x3 + f(x4 + ...))))

where f(x) = x/c, then you are using exponential time-discounting; and you can find series that meet the particular definition of "unbounded" in the paper, but that are exponentially bounded, and for which the expected value of time-discounted infinite series, multiplied by their probabilities, would converge.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 05:14:46PM 1 point [-]

As I just pointed out at that other place in the thread, you are talking about a different paper from the one endoself linked to. The paper we are discussing here does not make the assumption you describe.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:12:19AM *  0 points [-]

I can't understand the proof, but I can construct some counterexamples. Either these disprove the theorem, or they will show where I misunderstand the proof.

The first class relies on the fact that the proof places no restrictions on the probability distribution. Define U(n) = n. This is bounded below in abs. value by the unbounded computable function U(n)=n. Define p:N->R such that p(1) = 1, and p=0 for all other n. Now EU(h(k)) = 1.

Notice that I am defining p as a function from the integers into the reals, whereas Peter defined it as a function from the reals into the reals. Peter's definition must be incorrect, since in equation 2, the term should not be p(f)U(f(k)), as Peter has defined it; it must be either p(f)U(f) or p(f(k))U(f(k)). p and U must always be operating on the same thing within one term, so p should be defined over the same domain as U.

(Peter has disagreed with me in email on this, but I can't agree. In an expected utility calculation, each term must be the utility of something, times the probability of that same something.)

The second class of counter-examples relies on the fact that the utility function is not constrained to be positive. The proof says, "To establish that this series does not converge, we will show that infinitely many of its terms have absolute value >= 1." The consequent does not follow from the antecedent if the terms can be negative; so we already know the proof is flawed in that case. (And if it isn't the case, why does the proof mention absolute value?)

I define U(n) = n if n is even, -n if n is odd. Now I define p(n) = 1 / 2^n. p(n) is a valid probability distribution, as it sums to one; and the infinite sum of p(f)U(f) converges on zero.

The third and most important class of counter-examples is building a reasonable positive utility function and probability distribution for which the theorem fails. Again use p(n) = 1 / 2^n, which sums to 1. My utility function will be

• U(n) = log(n) for n = 2^i, i an integer
• U(n) = 0 otherwise

Now U(n) is bounded below in absolute value by itself, and U(n) is unbounded; and yet the infinite sum p(n)U(n) converges to 1. (Intuitive proof: The sum of all the n terms from (2^n)+1 to 2^(n+1) is n+1; their average is thus 1, and they all have very similar probabilities. Therefore, the sum of the infinite series is going to be the same as if it used the constant U(n) = 1, which would make the entire sum p(n)U(n) sum to 1.)

Comment author: 18 May 2011 01:43:56PM *  0 points [-]

Some retractions, clarified by Peter in email:

• Peter does place a limit on the probability distribution: It must never be zero. (I read a '<' as '<='.) This removes counterexamples 1 and 3. However, I am not sure it's possible to build a probability distribution satisfying his requirements (one that has cardinality 2^N, no zero terms, and sums to one). This link says it is not possible.

• The reason Peter's expected value calculation is not of the form p(x)U(x) is because he is summing over one possible action. p(h) is the probability that a particular hypothesis h is true; h(k) is the result of action k when h is true; U(h(k)) is the utility from that result.

• "To establish that this series does not converge, we will show that infinitely many of its terms have absolute value >= 1." This statement is valid.

However, my second counterexample still looks solid to me: U(n) = n if n is even, -n if n is odd. p(n) = 1/2^n. This doesn't work in Peter's framework because the domain of p is not countable.

So I give 3 caveats on Peter's theorem:

• It only applies if the number of possible worlds, and possible actions you are summing over, is uncountable. This seems overly restrictive. It really doesn't matter if expected utility converges or not, when the sum for the expected utility for a single action would be non-computable regardless of whether it converged.

• It is impossible to construct a probability distribution satisfying his requirements, so the theorem doesn't apply to any possible situations.

• It doesn't prove that the expected utility isn't bounded. The way the theorem works, it can't rule out a bound over an interval of 2, e.g., U(k) might be provably between -1.1 and 1.1. A reasoner can work fine with bounded utility functions.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:35:42PM 0 points [-]

I can't agree with any of your caveats. (This is not the same as saying that I think everything in PdB's paper is correct. I haven't looked at it carefully enough to have an opinion on that point.)

"my second counterexample still looks solid to me ... It only applies if the number of ... is uncountable":

The function U in PdB's paper doesn't take integers as arguments, it takes infinite sequences of "perceptions". Provided there are at least two possible perceptions at each time step, there are uncountably many such sequences. How are you proposing to change the model to make the domain of U countable, while still making it be a model of agents acting in time?

One way would be to use finite instead of infinite sequences. That corresponds to considering only a finite number of time-steps. (In that case, obviously temporal discounting isn't going to have any impact on the convergence of anything.)

Another possibility would be to use a utility function that's zero almost everywhere. Aside from the obvious remark that this seems unlikely to be a good model for real agents' (actual or idealized) utility functions, I think (but this is just pure intuition; I haven't tried to construct a proof or looked for refutations) that a utility function satisfying PdB's conditions about being bounded away from zero by a computable function is necessarily nonzero on an uncountable set of arguments.

"It is impossible to construct a probability distribution satisfying his requirements"":

I think you are mistaken about what those requirements are. What he needs is a probability measure on the space of environments; he doesn't insist that each individual possible environment have nonzero probability. What he does insist on is a nonzero probability for each possible computable environment (note: an environment is a function from agent action-sequences to agent perception-sequences), and there are only countably many of those.

"It doesn't prove that the expected utility isn't bounded."

I think it does, actually, although he hasn't said so explicitly. He has this noncomputable function B, and he uses the assertion that B(n) > rho(n) infinitely often when rho is computable. But then consider, say, 2^n rho(n), which is also computable; B(n) / rho(n) is then > 2^n infinitely often. Unless I'm confused (which I might be) I think this leads not only to the conclusion (which he states) that the absolute values of the terms in his series are >=1 infinitely often, but that you can find an infinite subsequence of the terms that grows faster than 2^n, or indeed faster than any computable function.

In any case, if you try to sum an infinite series with infinitely many terms of absolute value > 1, then the range of values in your partial sums depends on the order of summation. In particular, even if the U(k) were bounded, that wouldn't enable you to say things like "the expected utility is a divergent series but its value oscillates only between -13 and +56" unless there were One True Order of summation for the terms of the series. Which I can't see that there is or could be.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 03:32:29PM *  0 points [-]

The function U in PdB's paper doesn't take integers as arguments, it takes infinite sequences of "perceptions". Provided there are at least two possible perceptions at each time step, there are uncountably many such sequences. How are you proposing to change the model to make the domain of U countable, while still making it be a model of agents acting in time?

The domain of U must not only be countable; it must be finite. Remember, an agent needs to compute this sum once for every possible action! Both the number of possible worlds, and the number of possible actions, need to be finite; or the utility function needs to be solvable analytically (unlikely); or else the agent will take an infinite amount of time to make a decision.

So, the model of an agent acting in time, where we compute utility at each timestep in the future, does not seem to produce a computable decision process. Is that right?

I think you are mistaken about what those requirements are. What he needs is a probability measure on the space of environments; he doesn't insist that each individual possible environment have nonzero probability.

You're right. Let's try to figure out how many possible environments there are.

"Let p:H->R be our probability distribution on the hypothesis set. We require that there exist some computable function p-bar:N->Q such that for all psi_n in S_I, 0 < p-bar(n) <= p(psi_n)".

p(psi_n) must be non-zero for all psi_n in S_I. S is the set of mu-recursive functions on a single argument. A mu-recursive function is one that can be computed by Turing machines. S_I is the set of computable environments f such that for every input that has been tested, f(i) = h(i), where h is the true environment.

How large is S_I? It could be up to the size of S. Is the number of computable functions less than R (2^N)?

In any case, if you try to sum an infinite series with infinitely many terms of absolute value > 1, then the range of values in your partial sums depends on the order of summation. In particular, even if the U(k) were bounded, that wouldn't enable you to say things like "the expected utility is a divergent series but its value oscillates only between -13 and +56" unless there were One True Order of summation for the terms of the series. Which I can't see that there is or could be.

If I construct a countable series so as to have a 1-1 pairing between terms with value 1 and terms with value -1, does that do no good? e.g. U(n) = 1 if n is even, -1 if n is odd.

Is there a way to enter subscripts and superscripts in this thing?

Comment author: 18 May 2011 05:06:46PM 0 points [-]

No, the domain of U need not be finite. (1) The paper explicitly says that U need not be computable. (2) The model of computation implicit in the paper permits computable functions to have infinite domain (it's basically Turing machines). (3) The way the paper proposes that a computable U should be implemented involves only looking at a finite amount of the information in the argument of U. (Kinda.)

But yes: the paper's model does permit a non-computable decision process. (Neither does it require that U be uncomputable.)

There is a countable infinite of computable functions. (Because there is a countable infinity of programs, because a program is a finite string or something of the kind.) An environment is defined to be a function from sequences of actions to sequences of perceptions, and there are uncountably many (more precisely: continuum-many) of those. So the situation envisaged by the paper is as follows: our agent assigns a nonzero probability to each computable environment; if the sum of those probabilities is less than 1, it also assigns a nonzero probability to some sets (though not necessarily any singleton sets) of other possible environments.

Suppose you get an expression for the expected utility in some situation, and it takes the form of an infinite series: 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - ... (etc.). Then you might want to say "well, there's no actual expected utility, but we can say that the expected utility is some kind of fuzzy thing taking values between 0 and 1" -- but unless there's some reason why the order of summation you used there is the only possible one, you could rearrange the terms a little (swap terms 2 and 3, terms 6 and 7, etc.) and get 1 + 1 - 1 - 1 + 1 + 1 - 1 - 1 + ... whose partial sums vary between 0 and 2 instead. Or you could rearrange the terms more drastically and get partial sums that become arbitrarily large-and-positive and arbitrarily large-and-negative. Or you could just swap the first two terms, getting a series whose values vary between -1 and +1 instead of between 0 and +1.

Perhaps it's possible to construct some theory of "fuzzy convergence" for series like this when there's a single right order to add up the terms in. But it's far from obvious that you could base any usable sort of decision theory on utilities defined as the sums of such series. In any case, in this instance there's one term for each possible computable environment, and it seems very obvious that there isn't a canonical way to order those, and that different orderings will give substantially different sequences of partial sums.

Comment author: 30 May 2011 03:39:01AM 0 points [-]

I was unhappy with having an uncomputable decision process, but I realize now that isn't important - we can approximate it, but only if it exists. The paper is about whether it exists atall.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 12:36:35PM 1 point [-]

It should also be noted that humans do not apply time-discounting equally over all outcomes and are also risk averse. That's why I have a hard time to accept arguments against discount rates based on the decisions of some hypothetical agent. Humans are not going to attempt time-travel, because they are risk-averse. Further, time-travel is subject to time-discounting as well. Just because you might be able to turn the clock back doesn't change anything about your subjective time experience, which is the basis of human time preference.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:42:18AM 1 point [-]

Isn't this all about reflective equilibrium?

Define my real values to be the endpoint of the process in which I continually question my intuitions and self-modify until I have a single, coherent set of values and moral intuitions.

Define my used values to be the approximation that I use to make decisions on a day-by-day basis.

Define the discounting hypothesis to be the statement that there exists a utility function that takes a paramater f(p,U) such that:

1. p can be interpreted as the amount of discounting

2. f(0,U) closely approximates our real values.

3. f(x,U) for some x>0 closely approximates our used values.

Then perhaps Eliezer is arguing for the discount hypothesis.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:35:16AM *  0 points [-]

How do I tell if something is a value or parameter in general?

My current guess is that something is a parameter if I can act in ways contrary to it, and be happier than if I followed it. It seems like time discounting is an approximation of how reality works so that humans can plan in ways that used to be accurate.

In this sense, I think that time discounting is a parameter. If I were able to do strategic things like save money in a compounding way so that I can retire significantly earlier, I would probably be happier than if I spent my money on say, candy bars and movie tickets.

Comment author: 17 May 2011 06:26:17PM *  -2 points [-]

How can we distinguish our utility function from the parameters we use to apply it?

The utility function contains the values which we want to preserve - except when we are using pragmatic utility functions for performance reasons.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 02:28:36AM *  1 point [-]

That's like saying that opium puts people to sleep because it has a dormative power. Doesn't go anywhere.

Comment author: 18 May 2011 09:10:11AM 0 points [-]

If you want actual methods of distinguishing them in humans, I don't think that is trivial.

There are some heuristics, though. For example, if young babies want it, it is an intrinsic value - whereas if it varies from one culture to the next, it is probably instrumental. If you keep going like that, you eventually wind up with a pretty good idea about how to classify most values.