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Reply to Holden on 'Tool AI'

94 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 June 2012 06:00PM

I begin by thanking Holden Karnofsky of Givewell for his rare gift of his detailed, engaged, and helpfully-meant critical article Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI). In this reply I will engage with only one of the many subjects raised therein, the topic of, as I would term them, non-self-modifying planning Oracles, a.k.a. 'Google Maps AGI' a.k.a. 'tool AI', this being the topic that requires me personally to answer.  I hope that my reply will be accepted as addressing the most important central points, though I did not have time to explore every avenue.  I certainly do not wish to be logically rude, and if I have failed, please remember with compassion that it's not always obvious to one person what another person will think was the central point.

Luke Mueulhauser and Carl Shulman contributed to this article, but the final edit was my own, likewise any flaws.


Holden's concern is that "SI appears to neglect the potentially important distinction between 'tool' and 'agent' AI." His archetypal example is Google Maps:

Google Maps is not an agent, taking actions in order to maximize a utility parameter. It is a tool, generating information and then displaying it in a user-friendly manner for me to consider, use and export or discard as I wish.

The reply breaks down into four heavily interrelated points:

First, Holden seems to think (and Jaan Tallinn doesn't apparently object to, in their exchange) that if a non-self-modifying planning Oracle is indeed the best strategy, then all of SIAI's past and intended future work is wasted.  To me it looks like there's a huge amount of overlap in underlying processes in the AI that would have to be built and the insights required to build it, and I would be trying to assemble mostly - though not quite exactly - the same kind of team if I was trying to build a non-self-modifying planning Oracle, with the same initial mix of talents and skills.

Second, a non-self-modifying planning Oracle doesn't sound nearly as safe once you stop saying human-English phrases like "describe the consequences of an action to the user" and start trying to come up with math that says scary dangerous things like (he translated into English) "increase the correspondence between the user's belief about relevant consequences and reality".  Hence why the people on the team would have to solve the same sorts of problems.

Appreciating the force of the third point is a lot easier if one appreciates the difficulties discussed in points 1 and 2, but is actually empirically verifiable independently:  Whether or not a non-self-modifying planning Oracle is the best solution in the end, it's not such an obvious privileged-point-in-solution-space that someone should be alarmed at SIAI not discussing it.  This is empirically verifiable in the sense that 'tool AI' wasn't the obvious solution to e.g. John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, I. J. Good, Peter Norvig, Vernor Vinge, or for that matter Isaac Asimov.  At one point, Holden says:

One of the things that bothers me most about SI is that there is practically no public content, as far as I can tell, explicitly addressing the idea of a "tool" and giving arguments for why AGI is likely to work only as an "agent."

If I take literally that this is one of the things that bothers Holden most... I think I'd start stacking up some of the literature on the number of different things that just respectable academics have suggested as the obvious solution to what-to-do-about-AI - none of which would be about non-self-modifying smarter-than-human planning Oracles - and beg him to have some compassion on us for what we haven't addressed yet.  It might be the right suggestion, but it's not so obviously right that our failure to prioritize discussing it reflects negligence.

The final point at the end is looking over all the preceding discussion and realizing that, yes, you want to have people specializing in Friendly AI who know this stuff, but as all that preceding discussion is actually the following discussion at this point, I shall reserve it for later.

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