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Robust Cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma

69 orthonormal 07 June 2013 08:30AM

I'm proud to announce the preprint of Robust Cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma: Program Equilibrium via Provability Logic, a joint paper with Mihaly Barasz, Paul Christiano, Benja Fallenstein, Marcello Herreshoff, Patrick LaVictoire (me), and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

This paper was one of three projects to come out of the 2nd MIRI Workshop on Probability and Reflection in April 2013, and had its genesis in ideas about formalizations of decision theory that have appeared on LessWrong. (At the end of this post, I'll include links for further reading.)

Below, I'll briefly outline the problem we considered, the results we proved, and the (many) open questions that remain. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and suggestions!

Background: Writing programs to play the PD with source code swap

(If you're not familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, see here.)

The paper concerns the following setup, which has come up in academic research on game theory: say that you have the chance to write a computer program X, which takes in one input and returns either Cooperate or Defect. This program will face off against some other computer program Y, but with a twist: X will receive the source code of Y as input, and Y will receive the source code of X as input. And you will be given your program's winnings, so you should think carefully about what sort of program you'd write!

Of course, you could simply write a program that defects regardless of its input; we call this program DefectBot, and call the program that cooperates on all inputs CooperateBot. But with the wealth of information afforded by the setup, you might wonder if there's some program that might be able to achieve mutual cooperation in situations where DefectBot achieves mutual defection, without thereby risking a sucker's payoff. (Douglas Hofstadter would call this a perfect opportunity for superrationality...)

Previously known: CliqueBot and FairBot

And indeed, there's a way to do this that's been known since at least the 1980s. You can write a computer program that knows its own source code, compares it to the input, and returns C if and only if the two are identical (and D otherwise). Thus it achieves mutual cooperation in one important case where it intuitively ought to: when playing against itself! We call this program CliqueBot, since it cooperates only with the "clique" of agents identical to itself.

There's one particularly irksome issue with CliqueBot, and that's the fragility of its cooperation. If two people write functionally analogous but syntactically different versions of it, those programs will defect against one another! This problem can be patched somewhat, but not fully fixed. Moreover, mutual cooperation might be the best strategy against some agents that are not even functionally identical, and extending this approach requires you to explicitly delineate the list of programs that you're willing to cooperate with. Is there a more flexible and robust kind of program you could write instead?

As it turns out, there is: in a 2010 post on LessWrong, cousin_it introduced an algorithm that we now call FairBot. Given the source code of Y, FairBot searches for a proof (of less than some large fixed length) that Y returns C when given the source code of FairBot, and then returns C if and only if it discovers such a proof (otherwise it returns D). Clearly, if our proof system is consistent, FairBot only cooperates when that cooperation will be mutual. But the really fascinating thing is what happens when you play two versions of FairBot against each other. Intuitively, it seems that either mutual cooperation or mutual defection would be stable outcomes, but it turns out that if their limits on proof lengths are sufficiently high, they will achieve mutual cooperation!

The proof that they mutually cooperate follows from a bounded version of Löb's Theorem from mathematical logic. (If you're not familiar with this result, you might enjoy Eliezer's Cartoon Guide to Löb's Theorem, which is a correct formal proof written in much more intuitive notation.) Essentially, the asymmetry comes from the fact that both programs are searching for the same outcome, so that a short proof that one of them cooperates leads to a short proof that the other cooperates, and vice versa. (The opposite is not true, because the formal system can't know it won't find a contradiction. This is a subtle but essential feature of mathematical logic!)

Generalization: Modal Agents

Unfortunately, FairBot isn't what I'd consider an ideal program to write: it happily cooperates with CooperateBot, when it could do better by defecting. This is problematic because in real life, the world isn't separated into agents and non-agents, and any natural phenomenon that doesn't predict your actions can be thought of as a CooperateBot (or a DefectBot). You don't want your agent to be making concessions to rocks that happened not to fall on them. (There's an important caveat: some things have utility functions that you care about, but don't have sufficient ability to predicate their actions on yours. In that case, though, it wouldn't be a true Prisoner's Dilemma if your values actually prefer the outcome (C,C) to (D,C).)

However, FairBot belongs to a promising class of algorithms: those that decide on their action by looking for short proofs of logical statements that concern their opponent's actions. In fact, there's a really convenient mathematical structure that's analogous to the class of such algorithms: the modal logic of provability (known as GL, for Gödel-Löb).

So that's the subject of this preprint: what can we achieve in decision theory by considering agents defined by formulas of provability logic?

continue reading »

Decision Theories: A Semi-Formal Analysis, Part III

23 orthonormal 14 April 2012 07:34PM

Or: Formalizing Timeless Decision Theory


0. Decision Theories: A Less Wrong Primer
1. The Problem with Naive Decision Theory
2. Causal Decision Theory and Substitution

WARNING: The main result of this post, as it's written here, is flawed. I at first thought it was a fatal flaw, but later found a fix. I'm going to try and repair this post, either by including the tricky bits, or by handwaving and pointing you to the actual proofs if you're curious. Carry on!

Summary of Post: Have you ever wanted to know how (and whether) Timeless Decision Theory works? Using the framework from the last two posts, this post shows you explicitly how TDT can be implemented in the context of our tournament, what it does, how it strictly beats CDT on fair problems, and a bit about why this is a Big Deal. But you're seriously going to want to read the previous posts in the sequence before this one.

We've reached the frontier of decision theories, and we're ready at last to write algorithms that achieve mutual cooperation in Prisoner's Dilemma (without risk of being defected on, and without giving up the ability to defect against players who always cooperate)! After two substantial preparatory posts, it feels like it's been a long time, hasn't it?

But look at me, here, talking when there's Science to do...

continue reading »

Decision Theories: A Semi-Formal Analysis, Part II

16 orthonormal 06 April 2012 06:59PM

Or: Causal Decision Theory and Substitution


0. Decision Theories: A Less Wrong Primer
1. The Problem with Naive Decision Theory

Summary of Post: We explore the role of substitution in avoiding spurious counterfactuals, introduce an implementation of Causal Decision Theory and a CliqueBot, and set off in the direction of Timeless Decision Theory.

In the last post, we showed the problem with what we termed Naive Decision Theory, which attempts to prove counterfactuals directly and pick the best action: there's a possibility of spurious counterfactuals which lead to terrible decisions. We'll want to implement a decision theory that does better; one that is, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error...

I know you're eager to get to Timeless Decision Theory and the others. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I can't do that just yet. This background is too important for me to allow you to skip it...

Over the next few posts, we'll create a sequence of decision theories, each of which will outperform the previous ones (the new ones will do better in some games, without doing worse in others0) in a wide range of plausible games.

continue reading »

Decision Theories: A Semi-Formal Analysis, Part I

21 orthonormal 24 March 2012 04:01PM

Or: The Problem with Naive Decision Theory

Previously: Decision Theories: A Less Wrong Primer

Summary of Sequence: In the context of a tournament for computer programs, I give almost-explicit versions of causal, timeless, ambient, updateless, and several other decision theories. I explain the mathematical considerations that make decision theories tricky in general, and end with a bunch of links to the relevant recent research. This sequence is heavier on the math than the primer was, but is meant to be accessible to a fairly general audience. Understanding the basics of game theory (and Nash equilibria) will be essential. Knowing about things like Gödel numbering, quining and Löb's Theorem will help, but won't be required.

Summary of Post: I introduce a context in which we can avoid most of the usual tricky philosophical problems and formalize the decision theories of interest. Then I show the chief issue with what might be called "naive decision theory": the problem of spurious counterfactual reasoning. In future posts, we'll see how other decision theories get around that problem.

In my Decision Theory Primer, I gave an intuitive explanation of decision theories; now I'd like to give a technical explanation. The main difficulty is that in the real world, there are all sorts of complications that are extraneous to the core of decision theory. (I'll mention more of these in the last post, but an obvious one is that we can't be sure that our perception and memory match reality.)

In order to avoid such difficulties, I'll need to demonstrate decision theory in a completely artificial setting: a tournament among computer programs.

continue reading »

Decision Theories: A Less Wrong Primer

69 orthonormal 13 March 2012 11:31PM

Alpha-beta pruning (from Wikipedia)

Summary: If you've been wondering why people keep going on about decision theory on Less Wrong, I wrote you this post as an answer. I explain what decision theories are, show how Causal Decision Theory works and where it seems to give the wrong answers, introduce (very briefly) some candidates for a more advanced decision theory, and touch on the (possible) connection between decision theory and ethics.

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