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Mass_Driver comments on Further discussion of CFAR’s focus on AI safety, and the good things folks wanted from “cause neutrality” - Less Wrong

36 Post author: AnnaSalamon 12 December 2016 07:39PM

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Comment author: Mass_Driver 12 December 2016 04:23:30PM 8 points [-]

I dislike CFAR's new focus, and I will probably stop my modest annual donations as a result.

In my opinion, the most important benefit of cause-neutrality is that it safeguards the integrity of the young and still-evolving methods of rationality. If it is official CFAR policy that reducing AI risk is the most important cause, and CFAR staff do almost all of their work with people who are actively involved with AI risk, and then go and do almost all of their socializing with rationalists (most of whom also place a high value on reducing AI risk), then there will be an enormous temptation to discover, promote, and discuss only those methods of reasoning that support the viewpoint that reducing AI risk is the most important value. This is bad partly because it might stop CFAR from changing its mind in the face of new evidence, but mostly because the methods that CFAR will discover (and share with the world) will be stunted -- students will not receive the best-available cognitive tools; they will only receive the best-available cognitive tools that encourage people to reduce AI risk. You might also lose out on discovering methods of (teaching) rationality that would only be found by people with different sorts of brains -- it might turn out that the sort of people who strongly prioritize friendly AI think in certain similar ways, and if you surround yourself with only those people, then you limit yourself to learning only what those people have to teach, even if you somehow maintain perfect intellectual honesty.

Another problem with focusing exclusively on AI risk is that it is such a Black Swan-type problem that it is extremely difficult to measure progress, which in turn makes it difficult to assess the value or success of any new cognitive tools. If you work on reducing global warming, you can check the global average temperature. More importantly, so can any layperson, and you can all evaluate your success together. If you work on reducing nuclear proliferation for ten years, and you haven't secured or prevented a single nuclear warhead, then you know you're not doing a good job. But how do you know if you're failing to reduce AI risk? Even if you think you have good evidence that you're making progress, how could anyone who's not already a technical expert possibly assess that progress? And if you propose to train all of the best experts in your methods, so that they learn to see you as a source of wisdom, then how many of them will retain the capacity to accuse you of failure?

I would not object to CFAR rolling out a new line of seminars that are specifically intended for people working on AI risk -- it is a very important cause, and there's something to be gained in working on a specific problem, and as you say, CFAR is small enough that CFAR can't do it all. But what I hear you saying that the mission is now going to focus exclusively on reducing AI risk. I hear you saying that if all of CFAR's top leadership is obsessed with AI risk, then the solution is not to aggressively recruit some leaders who care about other topics, but rather to just be honest about that obsession and redirect the institution's policies accordingly. That sounds bad. I appreciate your transparency, but transparency alone won't be enough to save the CFAR/MIRI community from the consequences of deliberately retreating into a bubble of AI researchers.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 December 2016 04:17:12AM 5 points [-]

I see here a description of several potential costs of the new focus but no attempt to weigh those costs against the potential benefit.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 13 December 2016 05:13:07AM *  1 point [-]

Well, like I said, AI risk is a very important cause, and working on a specific problem can help focus the mind, so running a series of AI-researcher-specific rationality seminars would offer the benefit of (a) reducing AI risk, (b) improving morale, and (c) encouraging rationality researchers to test their theories using a real-world example. That's why I think it's a good idea for CFAR to run a series of AI-specific seminars.

What is the marginal benefit gained by moving further along the road to specialization, from "roughly half our efforts these days happen to go to running an AI research seminar series" to "our mission is to enlighten AI researchers?" The only marginal benefit I would expect is the potential for an even more rapid reduction in AI risk, caused by being able to run, e.g., 4 seminars a quarter for AI researchers, instead of 2 for AI researchers and 2 for the general public. I would expect any such potential to be seriously outweighed by the costs I describe in my main post (e.g., losing out on rationality techniques that would be invented by people who are interested in other issues), such that the marginal effect of moving from 50% specialization to 100% specialization would be to increase AI risk. That's why I don't want CFAR to specialize in educating AI researchers to the exclusion of all other groups.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 December 2016 06:07:59AM 3 points [-]

What is the marginal benefit gained by moving further along the road to specialization, from "roughly half our efforts these days happen to go to running an AI research seminar series" to "our mission is to enlighten AI researchers?" The only marginal benefit I would expect is the potential for an even more rapid reduction in AI risk, caused by being able to run, e.g., 4 seminars a quarter for AI researchers, instead of 2 for AI researchers and 2 for the general public.

Yes, I agree that this is the important question. I think there are benefits around stronger coordination among 1) CFAR staff, 2) CFAR supporters, and 3) CFAR participants around AI safety that are not captured by a quantitative increase in the number of seminars being run or whatever.

In the ideal situation, you can try to create a group of people who have common knowledge that everyone else in the group is actually dedicated to AI safety, and it allows them to coordinate better because it allows them to act and make plans under the assumption that everyone else is dedicated to AI safety, at every level of meta (e.g. when you make plans which are contingent on someone else's plans). If CFAR instead continues to publicly present as approximately cause-neutral, these assumptions shatter and people can't rely on each other and coordinate as well. I think it would be pretty difficult to attempt to quantify the benefit of doing this but I'd be skeptical of any confident and low upper bounds.

There are also benefits from CFAR signaling that it cares enough about AI safety in particular to drop cause neutrality; that could encourage some people who otherwise might not have to take the cause more seriously.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 13 December 2016 08:25:10AM 4 points [-]

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up: do you think it's more important for rationalists to focus even more heavily on AI research so that their example will sway others to prioritize FAI, or do you think it's more important for rationalists to broaden their network so that rationalists have more examples to learn from?

Shockingly, as a lawyer who's working on homelessness and donating to universal income experiments, I prefer a more general focus. Just as shockingly, the mathematicians and engineers who have been focusing on AI for the last several years prefer a more specialized focus. I don't see a good way for us to resolve our disagreement, because the disagreement is rooted primarily in differences in personal identity.

I think the evidence is undeniable that rationality memes can help young, awkward engineers build a satisfying social life and increase their productivity by 10% to 20%. As an alum of one of CFAR's first minicamps back in 2011, I'd hoped that rationality would amount to much more than that. I was looking forward to seeing rationalist tycoons, rationalist Olympians, rationalist professors, rationalist mayors, rationalist DJs. I assumed that learning how to think clearly and act accordingly would fuel a wave of conspicuous success, which would in turn attract more resources for the project of learning how to think clearly, in a rapidly expanding virtuous cycle.

Instead, five years later, we've got a handful of reasonably happy rationalist families, an annual holiday party, and a couple of research institutes dedicated to pursuing problems that, by definition, will provide no reliable indicia of their success until it is too late. I feel very disappointed.

Comment author: Raemon 13 December 2016 12:14:21PM *  9 points [-]

I think a lot of this is fair concern (I care about AI but am currently neutral/undecided on whether this change was a good one)

But I also note that "a couple research institutions" is sweeping a lot of work into deliberately innocuous sounding words.

First - we have lots of startups that aren't AI related that I think were in some fashion facilitated by the overall rationality community project (With CFAR playing a major role in pushing that project forward).

We also have Effective Altruism Global, and many wings of the EA community that have benefited from CFAR and Eliezer's original writings, which has had huge benefits to plenty of cause areas other than AI. We have your aforementioned young, awkward engineers with their 20% increase in productivity, often earning to give (often to non AI causes), or embarking on startups of their own.

Second, very credible progress has happened on AI as a result of the institutions working on AI. Elon Musk pledged $10 million to AI safety, and he did that because FLI held a conference bringing him and top AI people together, and FLI was able to do that because of a sizeable base of CFAR inspired volunteers as well as the FLI leadership having attended CFAR.

Even if everything MIRI does turns out to be worthless (which I also think is unlikely), FLI has demonstrably changed the landscape of AI safety.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 13 December 2016 10:04:46PM *  4 points [-]

do you think it's more important for rationalists to focus even more heavily on AI research so that their example will sway others to prioritize FAI, or do you think it's more important for rationalists to broaden their network so that rationalists have more examples to learn from?

I think this question implicitly assumes as a premise that CFAR is the main vehicle by which the rationality community grows. That may be more or less true now, plausibly it can become less true in the future, but most interestingly it suggests that you already understand the value of CFAR as a coordination point (for rationality in general). That's the kind of value I think CFAR is trying to generate in the future as a coordination point for AI safety in particular, because it might in fact turn out to be that important.

I sympathize with your concerns - I would love for the rationality community to be more diverse along all sorts of axes - but I worry they're predicated on a perspective on existential risk-like topics as these luxuries that maybe we should devote a little time to but that aren't particularly urgent, and that if you had a stronger sense of urgency around them as a group (not necessarily around any of them individually) you might be able to have more sympathy for people (such as the CFAR staff) who really, really just want to focus on them, even though they're highly uncertain and even though there are no obvious feedback loops, because they're important enough to work on anyway.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 December 2016 01:28:31AM 1 point [-]

I am always trying to cultivate a little more sympathy for people who work hard and have good intentions! CFAR staff definitely fit in that basket. If your heart's calling is reducing AI risk, then work on that! Despite my disappointment, I would not urge anyone who's longing to work on reducing AI risk to put that dream aside and teach general-purpose rationality classes.

That said, I honestly believe that there is an anti-synergy between (a) cultivating rationality and (b) teaching AI researchers. I think each of those worthy goals is best pursued separately.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 December 2016 07:23:23PM 0 points [-]

That said, I honestly believe that there is an anti-synergy between (a) cultivating rationality and (b) teaching AI researchers. I think each of those worthy goals is best pursued separately.

That seems fine to me. At some point someone might be sufficiently worried about the lack of a cause-neutral rationality organization to start a new one themselves, and that would be probably fine; CFAR would probably try to help them out. (I don't have a good sense of CFAR's internal position on whether they should themselves spin off such an organization.)

Comment author: username2 14 December 2016 11:12:10PM *  1 point [-]

At some point someone might be sufficiently worried about the lack of a cause-neutral rationality organization to start a new one themselves, and that would be probably fine

Incidentally, if someone decides to do this please advertise here. This change in focus has made me stop my (modest) donations to CFAR. If someone started a cause-neutral rationality building institute I'd fund it, at a higher(*) level than I funded CFAR.

(*) One of the things that restrained my CFAR charity in the last few years, other than lack of money until recently, was uncertainty over their cause neutrality. They seemed to be biased in the causes they pushed for, and that gave me hesitation against funding them further. Now that they've come out of the closet on the issue I'm against giving them even 1 cent.