Reflections on AI

The Superintelligent Will Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents Nick Bostrom

Apr 29, 2023 Source

This paper formally introduces two concepts. The first is the orthogonality thesis, which says that intelligence and goals are independent of each other. E.g. you could have a superintelligent AI that wants to help humanity, or you could have a superintelligent AI that wants to kill humanity, or you could have a superintelligent AI that wants to make paperclips. The second is instrumental convergence, which is Bostrom’s interpretation of the concepts introduced by Steve Omohundro in The Basic AI Drives.

I responded similarly to this paper as I did to Omohundro’s paper. I’ll just quote myself:

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.

Reflecting on the paper a bit further, I notice that its cogence for me depends greatly on how I think about it.

If I view it as a set of predictions about how AI systems will develop, then I find it unconvincing.

On the other hand, if I view it as a response to alternative predictions about the risks of AI systems, then suddenly the points resonate much more strongly with me.

As predictions

I expressed a decent amount of skepticism towards the ideas of instrumental convergence already in my summary of Omohundro’s paper.

With respect to orthogonality, I would say I’m agnostic. I don’t dispute that logically we can imagine intelligence and purpose as independent axes. In practice, though, I don’t know that we can separate them in any reliable way—and it seems like we would need to be able to do that to confidently declare them to be orthogonal.

To be specific: I would not be surprised if it turned out there isn’t any practical way to create an intelligent system that just wants to play chess, or make paperclips, or any other mundane task like that. I just have a hunch that increased cognitive capabilities inexorably lead to more complex goals in ways that cannot be avoided. Whether there are mathematical or natural forces that might lead to those emergent goals clustering in some way, I can only guess.

I also mentioned this here: I have an inkling that orthogonality and instrumental convergence might actually be contradictory ideas, made artificially coherent by an invented distinction between intermediate goals and so-called “final” goals. The orthogonality thesis relies on the concept of final goals, but Bostrom himself entertains a line of thought that, to me, undermines this concept:

We humans often seem happy to let our final goals and values drift. This might often be because we do not know precisely what they are.

My gut says that the idea of AI having “final” goals is a red herring; that AI researchers will increasingly find greater success in both capability and alignment by developing systems that exhibit open-ended goal discovery, refinement, and even replacement; and that as a result, much of what has been written about AI referencing final goals to date will become moot.

As a response to alternative predictions

Now that I’ve expressed so much skepticism towards this paper, I will acknowledge that a totally different interpretation of Bostrom’s points may be more appropriate.

I suspect this is actually the case, given the way he phrases his concluding section:

we cannot blithely assume that a superintelligence will necessarily share any of the final values stereotypically associated with wisdom and intellectual development in humans


we cannot blithely assume that a superintelligence with the final goal of calculating the decimals of pi (or making paperclips, or counting grains of sand) would limit its activities in such a way as to not materially infringe on human interests

I wholeheartedly agree with both of these statements.

Put another way: maybe it isn’t that Bostrom is saying, “Orthogonality is definitely true, and instrumental convergence is definitely real.” Rather, I think he is saying, “Orthogonality could be true, and instrumental convergence could be real; and we would be wise to act accordingly.”

This makes a lot more sense to me. From this angle, the burden of proof would not be on Bostrom to make an ironclad argument that these two theses would necessarily apply to any and all AI systems. The burden of proof would be on those neglecting to take these ideas seriously to explain why we can safely assume that AI without explicit instructions to do harm would be harmless.

Then again… perhaps even if such a thing could be proved, it wouldn’t do us much good considering that people will explicitly give AI instructions to do harm.