Reflections on AI

The Basic AI Drives Steve Omohundro

Apr 29, 2023 Source

Note: this paper was written in 2008.

As far as I know, this paper by Steve Omohundro introduced the idea that was later repackaged by Nick Bostrom as instrumental convergence. The idea is that regardless of an AI system’s “goals”, which may well be harmless, as the system becomes more capable it will develop intermediate goals or “drives” in service of these goals; and these drives themselves may not be so harmless.

The following is my attempt to cover them all concisely. For illustration, let’s imagine an AI system whose only explicit goal is to win at chess.

  1. Self-improvement. The system will develop an intermediate goal of finding ways of improving its chess skills. Doing so will help it to ultimately achieve its explicit goal of winning games.
  2. Rationality. The system will strive to act in a rational way, i.e. to always pursue actions that maximize its chances of victory at chess. It will resist acting irrationally, i.e. doing things that would reduce its chances of victory at chess.
  3. Goal preservation. The system will avoid modifying itself in ways that might reduce its desire to win chess games, or add new goals that could distract it from winning chess games.
  4. Avoidance of false pleasures. The system will recognize and avoid “counterfeit utility”, i.e. blindly pursuing signals that are typically correlated with winning chess games but aren’t the real deal.
  5. Self-preservation. The system will protect itself from external forces that would threaten to shut it down, since that would prevent it from playing and winning more games of chess.
  6. Acquisition of resources. The system will aim to acquire resources (“space, time, matter, and free energy”) in order to maximize its capacity to play and win more games of chess.

I must admit that I was a bit surprised reading this. I’m not sure why, but I was expecting something much more scientifically rigorous. What do I mean by that? I think I was expecting either some over-my-head mathematical proofs, or else empirical evidence supporting these claims. As far as I can tell, it seems like these are basically well-articulated intuitions about how AI systems might develop. Thought experiments, basically.

The “empirical evidence” I was expecting might have looked like: a survey of the most advanced versions of artificial intelligence across multiple architectural paradigms, showing that despite having very different architectures, each paradigm demonstrated some form of each of the drives Omohundro describes. Or: a review of real-world AI systems with highly divergent goals, highlighting the emergence of these drives in each of them.

I recognize that, considering this paper was written 15 years ago (!), such empirical evidence would likely have been impossible to produce at the time.

Assorted thoughts that came to me as I read the paper:

Systems will therefore exercise great care in modifying themselves. They will devote significant analysis to understanding the consequences of modifications before they make them.

I was genuinely incredulous reading this part. I don’t believe that this is even remotely true of humans: collectively, our willingness to try potentially dangerous things without knowing the consequences in advance practically defines us as a species. (Exhibit A: the field of artificial intelligence!)

Does Omohundro feel differently? Or would he agree with this, but he feels that AI will be fundamentally different from us in this regard? Why would it be?

So how can it ensure that future self-modifications will accomplish its current objectives? For one thing, it has to make those objectives clear to itself.

Again, to me human behavior seems like a counterpoint to this. We are mesa-optimizers, are we not? In the developed world, affluence is negatively correlated with birth rates, as one example.

In many situations, irrational collective behavior arising from conflicting component goals ultimately hurts those components.

This acknowledges the possibility of irrational behavior emerging from rational componentized systems. Omohundro provides a compelling example of a couple arguing: they can’t agree on what to do one evening, so they spend the entire evening arguing, which is not something either of them wanted. It feels highly speculative to me that this phenomenon will inevitably be “overcome” by instrumental convergence operating at every level.

Would AI be immune to Moloch?

Regarding counterfeit utility:

AI systems will recognize this vulnerability in themselves and will go to great lengths to prevent themselves from being seduced by its siren call.

Again, as I read these words I wondered: Why? How do we know this?

Regarding self-preservation: the idea a chess-playing robot would defend itself feels pretty contrived to me. We’re talking about a superintelligent robot that is advanced enough to exhibit all of these basic drives, but it’s still just playing chess?

It might be unfair for me to be judging this idea through the lens of what we know about large language models in 2023. The notion of a chess-playing AI with human-level intelligence that doesn’t have countless other unpredictable emergent behaviors seems downright quaint to me now. I have serious doubts about whether such a thing is even possible. That said, maybe 15 years from now it will seem prehistoric that the most advanced AI systems we had in 2023 were so opaque.

But also: humans clearly value self-preservation. But under threat, a human’s behavior can be unpredictable. They may do nothing (paralyzed with fear). Picture a hostage following instructions silently while a gun is held to their head. They may know they are likely doomed but fail to see a viable alternative. The rational response might be a “wait and see” approach, cooperating to optimize for short-term survival while holding out hope that new opportunities will present themselves, e.g. someone might show up to rescue them, or their aggressor might trip and drop their weapon.

My point is we already have evidence of intelligent systems that theoretically should exhibit self-preservation at all times, but actually don’t.

Regarding efficient use of resources:

We can expect their physical forms to adopt the sleek, well-adapted shapes so often created in nature.

Ha! This is directly related to Max Tegmark’s point about the development of flying machines versus the evolution of birds. (In my mind, Tegmark’s observation effectively refutes this prediction.) Also related: Tegmark’s story about the researchers who figured out how to “move” the Eiffel Tower from Paris to Rome in an AI system’s internal representation of the world. Apparently the way this system was storing this information was “incredibly dumb” i.e. very inefficient.

I think efficiency as an emergent value is dubious. Maybe if you properly account for all resources in your “efficiency” calculation, in which case time is probably nearly always the most constrained resource. (But serious question: will AIs “care” about time? Will they get impatient? It’s hard to say how much our perception of time as a constrained resource is a byproduct of our lifespans relative to our cognitive abilities.)