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So8res comments on MIRI Update and Fundraising Case - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: So8res 27 October 2016 04:26:22PM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for the response, Gregory. I was hoping to see more questions along these lines in the AMA, so I'm glad you followed up.

Open Phil's grant write-up is definitely quite critical, and not an endorsement. One of Open Phil's main criticisms of MIRI is that they don't think our agent foundations agenda is likely to be useful for AI alignment; but their reasoning behind this is complicated, and neither Open Phil nor MIRI has had time yet to write up our thoughts in any detail. I suggest pinging me to say more about this once MIRI and Open Phil have put up more write-ups on this topic, since the hope is that the write-ups will also help third parties better evaluate our research methods on their merits.

I think Open Phil's assessment that the papers they reviewed were ‘technically unimpressive’ is mainly based on the papers "Asymptotic Convergence in Online Learning with Unbounded Delays" and (to a lesser extent) "Inductive Coherence." These are technically unimpressive, in the sense that they're pretty easy results to get once you're looking for them. (The proof in "Asymptotic Convergence..." was finished in less than a week.) From my perspective the impressive step is Scott Garrabrant (the papers’ primary author) getting from the epistemic state (1) ‘I notice AIXI fails in reflection tasks, and that this failure is deep and can't be easily patched’ to:

  • (2) ‘I notice that one candidate for “the ability AIXI is missing that would fix these deep defects” is “learning mathematical theorems while respecting patterns in whether a given theorem can be used to (dis)prove other theorems.”’
  • (3) ‘I notice that another candidate for “the ability AIXI is missing that would fix these deep defects” is “learning mathematical theorems while respecting empirical patterns in whether a claim looks similar to a set of claims that turned out to be theorems.”’
  • (4) ‘I notice that the two most obvious and straightforward ways to formalize these two abilities don't let you get the other ability for free; in fact, the obvious and straightforward algorithm for the first ability precludes possessing the second ability, and vice versa.’

In contrast, I think the reviewers were mostly assessing how difficult it would be to get from 2/3/4 to a formal demonstration that there’s at least one real (albeit impractical) algorithm that can actually exhibit ability 2, and one that can exhibit ability 3. This is a reasonable question to look at, since it's a lot harder to retrospectively assess how difficult it is to come up with a semiformal insight than how difficult it is to formalize the insight; but those two papers weren't really chosen for being technically challenging or counter-intuitive. They were chosen because they help illustrate two distinct easy/straightforward approaches to LU that turned out to be hard to reconcile, and also because (speaking with the benefit of hindsight) conceptually disentangling these two kinds of approaches turned out to be one of the key insights leading to "Logical Induction."

I confess scepticism at this degree of inferential distance, particularly given the Open Phil staff involved in this report involved several people who previously worked with MIRI.

I wasn't surprised that there's a big inferential gap for most of Open Phil's technical advisors -- we haven't talked much with Chris/Dario/Jacob about the reasoning behind our research agenda. I was surprised by how big the gap was for Daniel Dewey, Open Phil's AI risk program officer. Daniel's worked with us before and has a lot of background in alignment research at FHI, and we spent significant time trying to understand each other’s views, so this was a genuine update for me about how non-obvious our heuristics are to high-caliber researchers in the field, and about how much background researchers at MIRI and FHI have in common. This led to a lot of wasted time: I did a poor job addressing Daniel's questions until late in the review process.

I'm not sure what prior probability you should have assigned to ‘the case for MIRI's research agenda is too complex to be reliably communicated in the relevant timeframe.’ Evaluating how promising basic research is for affecting the long-run trajectory of the field of AI is inherently a lot more complicated than evaluating whether AI risk is a serious issue, for example. I don't have as much experience communicating the former, so the arguments are still rough. There are a couple of other reasons MIRI's research focus might have more inferential distance than the typical alignment research project:

  • (a) We've been thinking about these problems for over a decade, so we've had time to arrive at epistemic states that depend on longer chains of reasoning. Similarly, we've had time to explore and rule out various obvious paths (that turn out to be dead ends).
  • (b) Our focus is on topics we don't expect to jibe well with academia and industry, often because they look relatively intractable and unimportant from standard POVs.
  • (c) ‘High-quality nonstandard formal intuitions’ are what we do. This is what put us ahead of the curve on understanding the AI alignment problem, and the basic case for MIRI (from the perspective of people like Holden who see our early analysis and promotion of the alignment problem as our clearest accomplishment) is that our nonstandard formal intuitions may continue to churn out correct and useful insights about AI alignment when we zero in on subproblems. MIRI and FHI were unusual enough to come up with the idea of AI alignment research in the first place, so they're likely to come up with relatively unusual approaches within AI alignment.

Based on the above, I think the lack of mutual understanding is moderately surprising rather than extremely surprising. Regardless, it’s clear that we need to do a better job communicating how we think about choosing open problems to work on.

I note the blogging is by people already in MIRI's sphere of influence/former staff, and MIRI's previous 'blockbuster result' in decision theory has thus far underwhelmed)

I don't think we've ever worked with Scott Aaronson, though we're obviously on good terms with him. Also, our approach to decision theory stirred up a lot of interest from professional decision theorists at last year's Cambridge conference; expect more about this in the next few months.

is not a promissory note that easily justifies an organization with a turnover of $2M/year, nor fundraising for over a million dollars more.

I think this is a reasonable criticism, and I'm hoping our upcoming write-ups will help address this. If your main concern is that Open Phil doesn't think our work on logical uncertainty, reflection, and decision-theoretic counterfactuals is likely to be safety-relevant, keep in mind that Open Phil gave us $500k expecting this to raise our 2016 revenue from $1.6-2 million (the amount of 2016 revenue we projected absent Open Phil's support) to $2.1-2.5 million, in part to observe the ROI of the added $500k. We've received around $384k in our fundraiser so far (with four days to go), which is maybe 35-60% of what we'd expect based on past fundraiser performance. (E.g., we received $597k in our 2014 fundraisers and $955k in our 2015 ones.) Combined with our other non-Open-Phil funding sources, that means we've so far received around $1.02M in 2016 revenue outside Open Phil, which is solidly outside the $1.6-2M range we've been planning around.

There are a lot of reasons donors might be retracting; I’d be concerned if the reason is that they're expecting Open Phil to handle MIRI's funding on their own, or that they're interpreting some action of Open Phil's as a signal that Open Phil wants broadly Open-Phil-aligned donors to scale back support for MIRI.

(In all of the above, I’m speaking only for myself; Open Phil staff and advisors don’t necessarily agree with the above, and might frame things differently.)

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 27 October 2016 07:20:09PM *  2 points [-]

Nate, my thanks for your reply. I regret I may not have expressed myself well enough for your reply to precisely target the worries I expressed; I also regret insofar as you reply overcomes my poor expression, it make my worries grow deeper.

If I read your approach to the Open Phil review correctly, you submitted some of the more technically unimpressive papers for review because they demonstrated the lead author developing some interesting ideas for research direction, and that they in some sense lead up to the 'big result' (Logical Induction). If so, this looks like a pretty surprising error: one of the standard worries facing MIRI given its fairly slender publication record is the technical quality of the work, and it seemed pretty clear that was the objective behind sending them out for evaluation. Under whatever constraints Open Phil provided, I'd have sent the 'best by academic lights' papers I had.

In candour, I think 'MIRI barking up the wrong tree' and/or (worse) 'MIRI not doing that much good research)' is a much better explanation for what is going on than 'inferential distance'. I struggle to imagine a fairer (or more propitious-to-MIRI) hearing than the Open Phil review: it involved two people (Dewey and Christiano) who previously worked with you guys, Dewey spent over 100 hours trying to understand the value of your work, they comissioned external experts in the field to review your work.

Suggesting that the fairly adverse review that results may be a product of lack of understanding makes MIRI seem more like a mystical tradition than a research group. If MIRI is unable to convince someone like Dewey, the prospects of it making the necessary collaborations or partnerships with the wider AI community look grim.

I don't think we've ever worked with Scott Aaronson, though we're obviously on good terms with him. Also, our approach to decision theory stirred up a lot of interest from professional decision theorists at last year's Cambridge conference; expect more about this in the next few months.

I had Aaronson down as within MIRI's sphere of influence, but if I overstate I apologize (I am correct in that Yuan previously worked for you, right?)

I look forward to seeing MIRI producing or germinating some concrete results in decision theory. The 'underwhelming blockbuster' I referred to above was the TDT/UDT etc. stuff, which MIRI widely hyped but has since then languised in obscurity.

There are a lot of reasons donors might be retracting; I’d be concerned if the reason is that they're expecting Open Phil to handle MIRI's funding on their own, or that they're interpreting some action of Open Phil's as a signal that Open Phil wants broadly Open-Phil-aligned donors to scale back support for MIRI.

It may simply be the usual (albeit regrettable) trait of donors jockeying to be 'last resort' - I guess it would depend what the usual distribution of donations are with respect to fundraising deadlines.

If donors are retracting, I would speculate Open Phil's report may be implicated. One potential model would be donors interpreting Open Phil's fairly critical support to be an argument against funding further growth by MIRI, thus pulling back so MIRIs overall revenue hovers at previous year levels (I don't read in the Open Phil a report a particular revenus target they wanted you guys to have). Perhaps a simpler explanation would be having a large and respected org do a fairly in depth review and give a fairly mixed review makes previously enthusiastic donors update to be more tepid, and perhaps direct their donations to other players in the AI space.

With respect, I doubt I will change my mind due to MIRI giving further write-ups, and if donors are pulling back in part 'due to' Open Phil, I doubt it will change their minds either. It may be that 'High quality non-standard formal insights' is what you guys do, but the value of that is pretty illegible on its own: it needs to be converted into tangible accomplishments (e.g. good papers, esteem from others in the field, interactions in industry) first to convince people there is actually something there, but also as this probably the plausible route to this comparative advantage having any impact.

Thus far this has not happened to a degree commensurate with MIRI's funding base. I wrote four-and-a-half years ago that I was disappointed in MIRI's lack of tangible accomplishments: I am even more disappointed that I find my remarks now follow fairly similar lines. Happily it can be fixed - if the logical induction result 'takes off' as I infer you guys hope it does, it will likely fix itself. Unless and until then, I remain sceptical about MIRI's value.

Comment author: So8res 29 October 2016 07:00:23PM *  8 points [-]

Under whatever constraints Open Phil provided, I'd have sent the 'best by academic lights' papers I had.

We originally sent Nick Beckstead what we considered our four most important 2015 results, at his request; these were (1) the incompatibility of the "Inductive Coherence" framework and the "Asymptotic Convergence in Online Learning with Unbounded Delays" framework; (2) the demonstration in "Proof-Producing Reflection for HOL" that a non-pathological form of self-referential reasoning is possible in a certain class of theorem-provers; (3) the reflective oracles result presented in "A Formal Solution to the Grain of Truth Problem," "Reflective Variants of Solomonoff Induction and AIXI," and "Reflective Oracles"; (4) and Vadim Kosoy's "Optimal Predictors" work. The papers we listed under 1, 2, and 4 then got used in an external review process they probably weren't very well-suited for.

I think this was more or less just an honest miscommunication. I told Nick in advance that I only assigned an 8% probability to external reviewers thinking the “Asymptotic Convergence…” result was "good" on its own (and only a 20% probability for "Inductive Coherence"). My impression of what happened is that Open Phil staff interpreted my pushback as saying that I thought the external reviews wouldn’t carry much Bayesian evidence (but that the internal reviews still would), where what I was trying to communicate was that I thought the papers didn’t carry very much Bayesian evidence about our technical output (and that I thought the internal reviewers would need to speak to us about technical specifics in order to understand why we thought they were important). Thus, we were surprised when their grant decision and write-up put significant weight on the internal reviews of those papers (and they were surprised that we were surprised). This is obviously really unfortunate, and another good sign that I should have committed more time and care to clearly communicating my thinking from the outset.

Regarding picking better papers for external review: We only put out 10 papers directly related to our technical agendas between Jan 2015 and Mar 2016, so the option space is pretty limited, especially given the multiple constraints Open Phil wanted to meet. Optimizing for technical impressiveness and non-obviousness as a stand-alone result, I might have instead gone with Critch's bounded Löb paper and the grain of truth problem paper over the AC/IC results. We did submit the grain of truth problem paper to Open Phil, but they decided not to review it because it didn't meet other criteria they were interested in.

If MIRI is unable to convince someone like Dewey, the prospects of it making the necessary collaborations or partnerships with the wider AI community look grim.

I’m less pessimistic about building collaborations and partnerships, in part because we’re already on pretty good terms with other folks in the community, and in part because I think we have different models of how technical ideas spread. Regardless, I expect that with more and better communication, we can (upon re-evaluation) raise the probability of Open Phil staff that the work we’re doing is important.

More generally, though, I expect this task to get easier over time as we get better at communicating about our research. There's already a body of AI alignment research (and, perhaps, methodology) that requires the equivalent of multiple university courses to understand, but there aren't curricula or textbooks for teaching it. If we can convince a small pool of researchers to care about the research problems we think are important, this will let us bootstrap to the point where we have more resources for communicating information that requires a lot of background and sustained scholarship, as well as more of the institutional signals that this stuff warrants a time investment.

I can maybe make the time expenditure thus far less mysterious if I mention a couple more ways I erred in trying to communicate my model of MIRI's research agenda:

  1. My early discussion with Daniel was framed around questions like "What specific failure mode do you expect to be exhibited by advanced AI systems iff their programmers don't understand logical uncertainty?” I made the mistake of attempting to give straight/non-evasive answers to those sorts of questions and let the discussion focus on that evaluation criterion, rather than promptly saying “MIRI's research directions mostly aren't chosen to directly address a specific failure mode in a notional software system” and “I don't think that's a good heuristic for identifying research that's likely to be relevant to long-run AI safety.”

  2. I fell prey to the transparency illusion pretty hard, and that was completely my fault. Mid-way through the process, Daniel made a write-up of what he had gathered so far; this write-up revealed a large number of miscommunications and places where I thought I had transmitted a concept of mine but Daniel had come away with a very different concept. It’s clear in retrospect that we should have spent a lot more time with me having Daniel try to explain what he thought I meant, and I had all the tools to predict this in foresight; but I foolishly assumed that wouldn’t be necessary in this case.

(I plan to blog more about the details of these later.)

I think these are important mistakes that show I hadn't sufficiently clarified several concepts in my own head, or spent enough time understanding Daniel's position. My hope is that I can do a much better job of avoiding these sorts of failures in the next round of discussion, now that I have a better model of where Open Phil’s staff and advisors are coming from and what the review process looks like.

(I am correct in that Yuan previously worked for you, right?)

Yeah, though that was before my time. He did an unpaid internship with us in the summer of 2013, and we’ve occasionally contracted him to tutor MIRI staff. Qiaochu's also a lot socially closer to MIRI; he attended three of our early research workshops.

Unless and until then, I remain sceptical about MIRI's value.

I think that's a reasonable stance to take, and that there are other possible reasonable stances here too. Some of the variables I expect EAs to vary on include “level of starting confidence in MIRI's mathematical intuitions about complicated formal questions” and “general risk tolerance.” A relatively risk-intolerant donor is right to wait until we have clearer demonstrations of success; and a relatively risk-tolerant donor who starts without a very high confidence in MIRI's intuitions about formal systems might be pushed under a donation threshold by learning that an important disagreement has opened up between us and Daniel Dewey (or between us and other people at Open Phil).

Also, thanks for laying out your thinking in so much detail -- I suspect there are other people who had more or less the same reaction to Open Phil's grant write-up but haven't spoken up about it. I'd be happy to talk more about this over email, too, including answering Qs from anyone else who wants more of my thoughts on this.

Comment author: RobBensinger 20 December 2016 01:47:57AM *  2 points [-]

Relevant update: Daniel Dewey and Nick Beckstead of Open Phil have listed MIRI as one of ten "reasonably strong options in causes of interest" for individuals looking for places to donate this year.

Comment author: Sean_o_h 27 October 2016 05:29:58PM 2 points [-]

"Also, our approach to decision theory stirred up a lot of interest from professional decision theorists at last year's Cambridge conference; expect more about this in the next few months." A quick note to say that comments that have made their way back to me from relevant circles agree with this. Also, my own impression - from within academia, but outside decision theory and AI - is that the level of recognition of, and respect for, MIRI's work is steadily rising in academia, although inferential gaps like what nate describes certainly exist, plus more generic cultural gaps. I've heard positive comments about MIRI's work from academics I wouldn't have expected even to have heard of MIRI. And my impression, from popping by things like Cambridge's MIRIx discussion group, is that they're populated for the most part by capable people with standard academic backgrounds who have become involved based on the merits of the work rather than any existing connection to MIRI (although I imagine some are or were lesswrong readers).