Archive for March, 2023

On overexcitable children

Friday, March 17th, 2023

Wilbur and Orville are circumnavigating the Ohio cornfield in their Flyer. Children from the nearby farms have run over to watch, point, and gawk. But their parents know better.

An amusing toy, nothing more. Any talk of these small, brittle, crash-prone devices ferrying passengers across continents is obvious moonshine. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry that anyone could be so gullible.

Or if they were useful, then mostly for espionage and dropping bombs. They’re a negative contribution to the world, made by autistic nerds heedless of the dangers.

Indeed, one shouldn’t even say that the toy flies: only that it seems-to-fly, or “flies.” The toy hasn’t even scratched the true mystery of how the birds do it, so much more gracefully and with less energy. It sidesteps the mystery. It’s a scientific dead-end.

Wilbur and Orville haven’t even released the details of the toy, for reasons of supposed “commercial secrecy.” Until they do, how could one possibly know what to make of it?

Wilbur and Orville are greedy, seeking only profit and acclaim. If these toys were to be created — and no one particularly asked for them! — then all of society should have had a stake in the endeavor.

Only the rich will have access to the toy. It will worsen inequality.

Hot-air balloons have existed for more than a century. Even if we restrict to heavier-than-air machines, Langley, Whitehead, and others built perfectly serviceable ones years ago. Or if they didn’t, they clearly could have. There’s nothing genuinely new here.

Anyway, the reasons for doubt are many, varied, and subtle. But the bottom line is that, if the children only understood what their parents did, they wouldn’t be running out to the cornfield to gawk like idiots.

The False Promise of Chomskyism

Thursday, March 9th, 2023

Important Update (March 10): On deeper reflection, I probably don’t need to spend emotional energy refuting people like Chomsky, who believe that Large Language Models are just a laughable fad rather than a step-change in how humans can and will use technology, any more than I would’ve needed to spend it refuting those who said the same about the World Wide Web in 1993. Yes, they’re wrong, and yes, despite being wrong they’re self-certain, hostile, and smug, and yes I can see this, and yes it angers me. But the world is going to make the argument for me. And if not the world, Bing already does a perfectly serviceable job at refuting Chomsky’s points (h/t Sebastien Bubeck via Boaz Barak).

Meanwhile, out there in reality, last night’s South Park episode does a much better job than most academic thinkpieces at exploring how ordinary people are going to respond (and have already responded) to the availability of ChatGPT. It will not, to put it mildly, be with sneering Chomskyan disdain, whether the effects on the world are for good or ill or (most likely) both. Among other things—I don’t want to give away too much!—this episode prominently features a soothsayer accompanied by a bird that caws whenever it detects GPT-generated text. Now why didn’t I think of that in preference to cryptographic watermarking??

Another Update (March 11): To my astonishment and delight, even many of the anti-LLM AI experts are refusing to defend Chomsky’s attack-piece. That’s the one important point about which I stand corrected!

Another Update (March 12): “As a Professor of Linguistics myself, I find it a little sad that someone who while young was a profound innovator in linguistics and more is now conservatively trying to block exciting new approaches.“ —Christopher Manning

I was asked to respond to the New York Times opinion piece entitled The False Promise of ChatGPT, by Noam Chomsky along with Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull (who once took my class at MIT). I’ll be busy all day at the Harvard CS department, where I’m giving a quantum talk this afternoon. [Added: Several commenters complained that they found this sentence “condescending,” but I’m not sure what exactly they wanted me to say—that I was visiting some school in Cambridge, MA, two T stops from the school where Chomsky works and I used to work?]

But for now:

In this piece Chomsky, the intellectual godfather god of an effort that failed for 60 years to build machines that can converse in ordinary language, condemns the effort that succeeded. [Added: Please, please stop writing that I must be an ignoramus since I don’t even know that Chomsky has never worked on AI. I know perfectly well that he hasn’t, and meant only that he tends to be regarded as authoritative by the “don’t-look-through-the-telescope” AI faction, the ones views he himself fully endorses in his attack-piece. If you don’t know the relevant history, read Norvig.]

Chomsky condemns ChatGPT for four reasons:

  1. because it could, in principle, misinterpret sentences that could also be sentence fragments, like “John is too stubborn to talk to” (bizarrely, he never checks whether it does misinterpret it—I just tried it this morning and it seems to decide correctly based on context whether it’s a sentence or a sentence fragment, much like I would!);
  2. because it doesn’t learn the way humans do (personally, I think ChatGPT and other large language models have massively illuminated at least one component of the human language faculty, what you could call its predictive coding component, though clearly not all of it);
  3. because it could learn false facts or grammatical systems if fed false training data (how could it be otherwise?); and
  4. most of all because it’s “amoral,” refusing to take a stand on potentially controversial issues (he gives an example involving the ethics of terraforming Mars).

This last, of course, is a choice, imposed by OpenAI using reinforcement learning. The reason for it is simply that ChatGPT is a consumer product. The same people who condemn it for not taking controversial stands would condemn it much more loudly if it did — just like the same people who condemn it for wrong answers and explanations, would condemn it equally for right ones (Chomsky promises as much in the essay).

I submit that, like the Jesuit astronomers declining to look through Galileo’s telescope, what Chomsky and his followers are ultimately angry at is reality itself, for having the temerity to offer something up that they didn’t predict and that doesn’t fit their worldview.

[Note for people who might be visiting this blog for the first time: I’m a CS professor at UT Austin, on leave for one year to work at OpenAI on the theoretical foundations of AI safety. I accepted OpenAI’s offer in part because I already held the views here, or something close to them; and given that I could see how large language models were poised to change the world for good and ill, I wanted to be part of the effort to help prevent their misuse. No one at OpenAI asked me to write this or saw it beforehand, and I don’t even know to what extent they agree with it.]

Why am I not terrified of AI?

Monday, March 6th, 2023

Every week now, it seems, events on the ground make a fresh mockery of those who confidently assert what AI will never be able to do, or won’t do for centuries if ever, or is incoherent even to ask for, or wouldn’t matter even if an AI did appear to do it, or would require a breakthrough in “symbol-grounding,” “semantics,” “compositionality” or some other abstraction that puts the end of human intellectual dominance on earth conveniently far beyond where we’d actually have to worry about it. Many of my brilliant academic colleagues still haven’t adjusted to the new reality: maybe they’re just so conditioned by the broken promises of previous decades that they’d laugh at the Silicon Valley nerds with their febrile Skynet fantasies even as a T-1000 reconstituted itself from metal droplets in front of them.

No doubt these colleagues feel the same deep frustration that I feel, as I explain for the billionth time why this week’s headline about noisy quantum computers solving traffic flow and machine learning and financial optimization problems doesn’t mean what the hypesters claim it means. But whereas I’d say events have largely proved me right about quantum computing—where are all those practical speedups on NISQ devices, anyway?—events have already proven many naysayers wrong about AI. Or to say it more carefully: yes, quantum computers really are able to do more and more of what we use classical computers for, and AI really is able to do more and more of what we use human brains for. There’s spectacular engineering progress on both fronts. The crucial difference is that quantum computers won’t be useful until they can beat the best classical computers on one or more practical problems, whereas an AI that merely writes or draws like a middling human already changes the world.

Given the new reality, and my full acknowledgment of the new reality, and my refusal to go down with the sinking ship of “AI will probably never do X and please stop being so impressed that it just did X”—many have wondered, why aren’t I much more terrified? Why am I still not fully on board with the Orthodox AI doom scenario, the Eliezer Yudkowsky one, the one where an unaligned AI will sooner or later (probably sooner) unleash self-replicating nanobots that turn us all to goo?

Is the answer simply that I’m too much of an academic conformist, afraid to endorse anything that sounds weird or far-out or culty? I certainly should consider the possibility. If so, though, how do you explain the fact that I’ve publicly said things, right on this blog, several orders of magnitude likelier to get me in trouble than “I’m scared about AI destroying the world”—an idea now so firmly within the Overton Window that Henry Kissinger gravely ponders it in the Wall Street Journal?

On a trip to the Bay Area last week, my rationalist friends asked me some version of the “why aren’t you more terrified?” question over and over. Often it was paired with: “Scott, as someone working at OpenAI this year, how can you defend that company’s existence at all? Did OpenAI not just endanger the whole world, by successfully teaming up with Microsoft to bait Google into an AI capabilities race—precisely what we were all trying to avoid? Won’t this race burn the little time we had thought we had left to solve the AI alignment problem?”

In response, I often stressed that my role at OpenAI has specifically been to think about ways to make GPT and OpenAI’s other products safer, including via watermarking, cryptographic backdoors, and more. Would the rationalists rather I not do this? Is there something else I should work on instead? Do they have suggestions?

“Oh, no!” the rationalists would reply. “We love that you’re at OpenAI thinking about these problems! Please continue exactly what you’re doing! It’s just … why don’t you seem more sad and defeated as you do it?”

The other day, I had an epiphany about that question—one that hit with such force and obviousness that I wondered why it hadn’t come decades ago.

Let’s step back and restate the worldview of AI doomerism, but in words that could make sense to a medieval peasant. Something like…

There is now an alien entity that could soon become vastly smarter than us. This alien’s intelligence could make it terrifyingly dangerous. It might plot to kill us all. Indeed, even if it’s acted unfailingly friendly and helpful to us, that means nothing: it could just be biding its time before it strikes. Unless, therefore, we can figure out how to control the entity, completely shackle it and make it do our bidding, we shouldn’t suffer it to share the earth with us. We should destroy it before it destroys us.

Maybe now it jumps out at you. If you’d never heard of AI, would this not rhyme with the worldview of every high-school bully stuffing the nerds into lockers, every blankfaced administrator gleefully holding back the gifted kids or keeping them away from the top universities to make room for “well-rounded” legacies and athletes, every Agatha Trunchbull from Matilda or Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter? Or, to up the stakes a little, every Mao Zedong or Pol Pot sending the glasses-wearing intellectuals for re-education in the fields? And of course, every antisemite over the millennia, from the Pharoah of the Oppression (if there was one) to the mythical Haman whose name Jews around the world will drown out tonight at Purim to the Cossacks to the Nazis?

In other words: does it not rhyme with a worldview the rejection and hatred of which has been the North Star of my life?

As I’ve shared before here, my parents were 1970s hippies who weren’t planning to have kids. When they eventually decided to do so, it was (they say) “in order not to give Hitler what he wanted.” I literally exist, then, purely to spite those who don’t want me to. And I confess that I didn’t have any better reason to bring my and Dana’s own two lovely children into existence.

My childhood was defined, in part, by my and my parents’ constant fights against bureaucratic school systems trying to force me to do the same rote math as everyone else at the same stultifying pace. It was also defined by my struggle against the bullies—i.e., the kids who the blankfaced administrators sheltered and protected, and who actually did to me all the things that the blankfaces probably wanted to do but couldn’t. I eventually addressed both difficulties by dropping out of high school, getting a G.E.D., and starting college at age 15.

My teenage and early adult years were then defined, in part, by the struggle to prove to myself and others that, having enfreaked myself through nerdiness and academic acceleration, I wasn’t thereby completely disqualified from dating, sex, marriage, parenthood, or any of the other aspects of human existence that are thought to provide it with meaning. I even sometimes wonder about my research career, whether it’s all just been one long attempt to prove to the bullies and blankfaces from back in junior high that they were wrong, while also proving to the wonderful teachers and friends who believed in me back then that they were right.

In short, if my existence on Earth has ever “meant” anything, then it can only have meant: a stick in the eye of the bullies, blankfaces, sneerers, totalitarians, and all who fear others’ intellect and curiosity and seek to squelch it. Or at least, that’s the way I seem to be programmed. And I’m probably only slightly more able to deviate from my programming than the paperclip-maximizer is to deviate from its.

And I’ve tried to be consistent. Once I started regularly meeting people who were smarter, wiser, more knowledgeable than I was, in one subject or even every subject—I resolved to admire and befriend and support and learn from those amazing people, rather than fearing and resenting and undermining them. I was acutely conscious that my own moral worldview demanded this.

But now, when it comes to a hypothetical future superintelligence, I’m asked to put all that aside. I’m asked to fear an alien who’s far smarter than I am, solely because it’s alien and because it’s so smart … even if it hasn’t yet lifted a finger against me or anyone else. I’m asked to play the bully this time, to knock the AI’s books to the ground, maybe even unplug it using the physical muscles that I have and it lacks, lest the AI plot against me and my friends using its admittedly superior intellect.

Oh, it’s not the same of course. I’m sure Eliezer could list at least 30 disanalogies between the AI case and the human one before rising from bed. He’d say, for example, that the intellectual gap between Évariste Galois and the average high-school bully is microscopic, barely worth mentioning, compared to the intellectual gap between a future artificial superintelligence and Galois. He’d say that nothing in the past experience of civilization prepares us for the qualitative enormity of this gap.

Still, if you ask, “why aren’t I more terrified about AI?”—well, that’s an emotional question, and this is my emotional answer.

I think it’s entirely plausible that, even as AI transforms civilization, it will do so in the form of tools and services that can no more plot to annihilate us than can Windows 11 or the Google search bar. In that scenario, the young field of AI safety will still be extremely important, but it will be broadly continuous with aviation safety and nuclear safety and cybersecurity and so on, rather than being a desperate losing war against an incipient godlike alien. If, on the other hand, this is to be a desperate losing war against an alien … well then, I don’t yet know whether I’m on the humans’ side or the alien’s, or both, or neither! I’d at least like to hear the alien’s side of the story.

A central linchpin of the Orthodox AI-doom case is the Orthogonality Thesis, which holds that arbitrary levels of intelligence can be mixed-and-matched arbitrarily with arbitrary goals—so that, for example, an intellect vastly beyond Einstein’s could devote itself entirely to the production of paperclips. Only recently did I clearly realize that I reject the Orthogonality Thesis in its practically-relevant version. At most, I believe in the Pretty Large Angle Thesis.

Yes, there could be a superintelligence that cared for nothing but maximizing paperclips—in the same way that there exist humans with 180 IQs, who’ve mastered philosophy and literature and science as well as any of us, but who now mostly care about maximizing their orgasms or their heroin intake. But, like, that’s a nontrivial achievement! When intelligence and goals are that orthogonal, there was normally some effort spent prying them apart.

If you really accept the practical version of the Orthogonality Thesis, then it seems to me that you can’t regard education, knowledge, and enlightenment as instruments for moral betterment. Sure, they’re great for any entities that happen to share your values (or close enough), but ignorance and miseducation are far preferable for any entities that don’t. Conversely, then, if I do regard knowledge and enlightenment as instruments for moral betterment—and I do—then I can’t accept the practical form of the Orthogonality Thesis.

Yes, the world would surely have been a better place had A. Q. Khan never learned how to build nuclear weapons. On the whole, though, education hasn’t merely improved humans’ abilities to achieve their goals; it’s also improved their goals. It’s broadened our circles of empathy, and led to the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women and individual rights and everything else that we associate with liberality, the Enlightenment, and existence being a little less nasty and brutish than it once was.

In the Orthodox AI-doomers’ own account, the paperclip-maximizing AI would’ve mastered the nuances of human moral philosophy far more completely than any human—the better to deceive the humans, en route to extracting the iron from their bodies to make more paperclips. And yet the AI would never once use all that learning to question its paperclip directive. I acknowledge that this is possible. I deny that it’s trivial.

Yes, there were Nazis with PhDs and prestigious professorships. But when you look into it, they were mostly mediocrities, second-raters full of resentment for their first-rate colleagues (like Planck and Hilbert) who found the Hitler ideology contemptible from beginning to end. Werner Heisenberg, Pascual Jordan—these are interesting as two of the only exceptions. Heidegger, Paul de Man—I daresay that these are exactly the sort of “philosophers” who I’d have expected to become Nazis, even if I hadn’t known that they did become Nazis.

With the Allies, it wasn’t merely that they had Szilard and von Neumann and Meitner and Ulam and Oppenheimer and Bohr and Bethe and Fermi and Feynman and Compton and Seaborg and Schwinger and Shannon and Turing and Tutte and all the other Jewish and non-Jewish scientists who built fearsome weapons and broke the Axis codes and won the war. They also had Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. They had, if I’m not mistaken, all the philosophers who wrote clearly and made sense.

WWII was (among other things) a gargantuan, civilization-scale test of the Orthogonality Thesis. And the result was that the more moral side ultimately prevailed, seemingly not completely at random but in part because, by being more moral, it was able to attract the smarter and more thoughtful people. There are many reasons for pessimism in today’s world; that observation about WWII is perhaps my best reason for optimism.

Ah, but I’m again just throwing around human metaphors totally inapplicable to AI! None of this stuff will matter once a superintelligence is unleashed whose cold, hard code specifies an objective function of “maximize paperclips”!

OK, but what’s the goal of ChatGPT? Depending on your level of description, you could say it’s “to be friendly, helpful, and inoffensive,” or “to minimize loss in predicting the next token,” or both, or neither. I think we should consider the possibility that powerful AIs will not be best understood in terms of the monomanaical pursuit of a single goal—as most of us aren’t, and as GPT isn’t either. Future AIs could have partial goals, malleable goals, or differing goals depending on how you look at them. And if “the pursuit and application of wisdom” is one of the goals, then I’m just enough of a moral realist to think that that would preclude the superintelligence that harvests the iron from our blood to make more paperclips.

In my last post, I said that my “Faust parameter” — the probability I’d accept of existential catastrophe in exchange for learning the answers to humanity’s greatest questions — might be as high as 0.02.  Though I never actually said as much, some people interpreted this to mean that I estimated the probability of AI causing an existential catastrophe at somewhere around 2%.   In one of his characteristically long and interesting posts, Zvi Mowshowitz asked point-blank: why do I believe the probability is “merely” 2%?

Of course, taking this question on its own Bayesian terms, I could easily be limited in my ability to answer it: the best I could do might be to ground it in other subjective probabilities, terminating at made-up numbers with no further justification. 

Thinking it over, though, I realized that my probability crucially depends on how you phrase the question.  Even before AI, I assigned a way higher than 2% probability to existential catastrophe in the coming century—caused by nuclear war or runaway climate change or collapse of the world’s ecosystems or whatever else.  This probability has certainly not gone down with the rise of AI, and the increased uncertainty and volatility it might cause.  Furthermore, if an existential catastrophe does happen, I expect AI to be causally involved in some way or other, simply because from this decade onward, I expect AI to be woven into everything that happens in human civilization.  But I don’t expect AI to be the only cause worth talking about.

Here’s a warmup question: has AI already caused the downfall of American democracy?  There’s a plausible case that it has: Trump might never have been elected in 2016 if not for the Facebook recommendation algorithm, and after Trump’s conspiracy-fueled insurrection and the continuing strength of its unrepentant backers, many would classify the United States as at best a failing or teetering democracy, no longer a robust one like Finland or Denmark.  OK, but AI clearly wasn’t the only factor in the rise of Trumpism, and most people wouldn’t even call it the most important one.

I expect AI’s role in the end of civilization, if and when it comes, to be broadly similar. The survivors, huddled around the fire, will still be able to argue about how much of a role AI played or didn’t play in causing the cataclysm.

So, if we ask the directly relevant question — do I expect the generative AI race, which started in earnest around 2016 or 2017 with the founding of OpenAI, to play a central causal role in the extinction of humanity? — I’ll give a probability of around 2% for that.  And I’ll give a similar probability, maybe even a higher one, for the generative AI race to play a central causal role in the saving of humanity. All considered, then, I come down in favor right now of proceeding with AI research … with extreme caution, but proceeding.

I liked and fully endorse OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s recent statement on “planning for AGI and beyond” (though see also Scott Alexander’s reply). I expect that few on any side will disagree, when I say that I hope our society holds OpenAI to Sam’s statement.

As it happens, my responses will be delayed for a couple days because I’ll be at an OpenAI alignment meeting! In my next post, I hope to share what I’ve learned from recent meetings and discussions about the near-term, practical aspects of AI safety—having hopefully laid some intellectual and emotional groundwork in this post for why near-term AI safety research isn’t just a total red herring and distraction.

Meantime, some of you might enjoy a post by Eliezer’s former co-blogger Robin Hanson, which comes to some of the same conclusions I do. “My fellow moderate, Robin Hanson” isn’t a phrase you hear every day, but it applies here!

You might also enjoy the new paper by me and my postdoc Shih-Han Hung, Certified Randomness from Quantum Supremacy, finally up on the arXiv after a five-year delay! But that’s a subject for a different post.