Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI)

This post presents thoughts on the Singularity Institute from Holden Karnofsky, Co-Executive Director of GiveWell. Note: Luke Muehlhauser, the Executive Director of the Singularity Institute, reviewed a draft of this post, and commented: “I do generally agree that your complaints are either correct (especially re: past organizational competence) or incorrect but not addressed by SI in clear argumentative writing (this includes the part on ‘tool’ AI). I am working to address both categories of issues.” I take Luke’s comment to be a significant mark in SI’s favor, because it indicates an explicit recognition of the problems I raise, and thus increases my estimate of the likelihood that SI will work to address them.

September 2012 update: responses have been posted by Luke and Eliezer (and I have responded in the comments of their posts). I have also added acknowledgements.

The Singularity Institute (SI) is a charity that GiveWell has been repeatedly asked to evaluate. In the past, SI has been outside our scope (as we were focused on specific areas such as international aid). With GiveWell Labs we are open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector, but we still do not currently plan to recommend SI; given the amount of interest some of our audience has expressed, I feel it is important to explain why. Our views, of course, remain open to change. (Note: I am posting this only to Less Wrong, not to the GiveWell Blog, because I believe that everyone who would be interested in this post will see it here.)

I am currently the GiveWell staff member who has put the most time and effort into engaging with and evaluating SI. Other GiveWell staff currently agree with my bottom-line view that we should not recommend SI, but this does not mean they have engaged with each of my specific arguments. Therefore, while the lack of recommendation of SI is something that GiveWell stands behind, the specific arguments in this post should be attributed only to me, not to GiveWell.

Summary of my views

  • The argument advanced by SI for why the work it’s doing is beneficial and important seems both wrong and poorly argued to me. My sense at the moment is that the arguments SI is making would, if accepted, increase rather than decrease the risk of an AI-related catastrophe. More

  • SI has, or has had, multiple properties that I associate with ineffective organizations, and I do not see any specific evidence that its personnel/​organization are well-suited to the tasks it has set for itself. More

  • A common argument for giving to SI is that “even an infinitesimal chance that it is right” would be sufficient given the stakes. I have written previously about why I reject this reasoning; in addition, prominent SI representatives seem to reject this particular argument as well (i.e., they believe that one should support SI only if one believes it is a strong organization making strong arguments). More

  • My sense is that at this point, given SI’s current financial state, withholding funds from SI is likely better for its mission than donating to it. (I would not take this view to the furthest extreme; the argument that SI should have some funding seems stronger to me than the argument that it should have as much as it currently has.)

  • I find existential risk reduction to be a fairly promising area for philanthropy, and plan to investigate it further. More

  • There are many things that could happen that would cause me to revise my view on SI. However, I do not plan to respond to all comment responses to this post. (Given the volume of responses we may receive, I may not be able to even read all the comments on this post.) I do not believe these two statements are inconsistent, and I lay out paths for getting me to change my mind that are likely to work better than posting comments. (Of course I encourage people to post comments; I’m just noting in advance that this action, alone, doesn’t guarantee that I will consider your argument.) More

Intent of this post

I did not write this post with the purpose of “hurting” SI. Rather, I wrote it in the hopes that one of these three things (or some combination) will happen:

  1. New arguments are raised that cause me to change my mind and recognize SI as an outstanding giving opportunity. If this happens I will likely attempt to raise more money for SI (most likely by discussing it with other GiveWell staff and collectively considering a GiveWell Labs recommendation).

  2. SI concedes that my objections are valid and increases its determination to address them. A few years from now, SI is a better organization and more effective in its mission.

  3. SI can’t or won’t make changes, and SI’s supporters feel my objections are valid, so SI loses some support, freeing up resources for other approaches to doing good.

Which one of these occurs will hopefully be driven primarily by the merits of the different arguments raised. Because of this, I think that whatever happens as a result of my post will be positive for SI’s mission, whether or not it is positive for SI as an organization. I believe that most of SI’s supporters and advocates care more about the former than about the latter, and that this attitude is far too rare in the nonprofit world.

Does SI have a well-argued case that its work is beneficial and important?

I know no more concise summary of SI’s views than this page, so here I give my own impressions of what SI believes, in italics.

  1. There is some chance that in the near future (next 20-100 years), an “artificial general intelligence” (AGI) - a computer that is vastly more intelligent than humans in every relevant way—will be created.

  2. This AGI will likely have a utility function and will seek to maximize utility according to this function.

  3. This AGI will be so much more powerful than humans—due to its superior intelligence—that it will be able to reshape the world to maximize its utility, and humans will not be able to stop it from doing so.

  4. Therefore, it is crucial that its utility function be one that is reasonably harmonious with what humans want. A “Friendly” utility function is one that is reasonably harmonious with what humans want, such that a “Friendly” AGI (FAI) would change the world for the better (by human standards) while an “Unfriendly” AGI (UFAI) would essentially wipe out humanity (or worse).

  5. Unless great care is taken specifically to make a utility function “Friendly,” it will be “Unfriendly,” since the things humans value are a tiny subset of the things that are possible.

  6. Therefore, it is crucially important to develop “Friendliness theory” that helps us to ensure that the first strong AGI’s utility function will be “Friendly.” The developer of Friendliness theory could use it to build an FAI directly or could disseminate the theory so that others working on AGI are more likely to build FAI as opposed to UFAI.

From the time I first heard this argument, it has seemed to me to be skipping important steps and making major unjustified assumptions. However, for a long time I believed this could easily be due to my inferior understanding of the relevant issues. I believed my own views on the argument to have only very low relevance (as I stated in my 2011 interview with SI representatives). Over time, I have had many discussions with SI supporters and advocates, as well as with non-supporters who I believe understand the relevant issues well. I now believe—for the moment—that my objections are highly relevant, that they cannot be dismissed as simple “layman’s misunderstandings” (as they have been by various SI supporters in the past), and that SI has not published anything that addresses them in a clear way.

Below, I list my major objections. I do not believe that these objections constitute a sharp/​tight case for the idea that SI’s work has low/​negative value; I believe, instead, that SI’s own arguments are too vague for such a rebuttal to be possible. There are many possible responses to my objections, but SI’s public arguments (and the private arguments) do not make clear which possible response (if any) SI would choose to take up and defend. Hopefully the dialogue following this post will clarify what SI believes and why.

Some of my views are discussed at greater length (though with less clarity) in a public transcript of a conversation I had with SI supporter Jaan Tallinn. I refer to this transcript as “Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011.”

Objection 1: it seems to me that any AGI that was set to maximize a “Friendly” utility function would be extraordinarily dangerous.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that SI manages to create what it believes to be an FAI. Suppose that it is successful in the “AGI” part of its goal, i.e., it has successfully created an intelligence vastly superior to human intelligence and extraordinarily powerful from our perspective. Suppose that it has also done its best on the “Friendly” part of the goal: it has developed a formal argument for why its AGI’s utility function will be Friendly, it believes this argument to be airtight, and it has had this argument checked over by 100 of the world’s most intelligent and relevantly experienced people. Suppose that SI now activates its AGI, unleashing it to reshape the world as it sees fit. What will be the outcome?

I believe that the probability of an unfavorable outcome—by which I mean an outcome essentially equivalent to what a UFAI would bring about—exceeds 90% in such a scenario. I believe the goal of designing a “Friendly” utility function is likely to be beyond the abilities even of the best team of humans willing to design such a function. I do not have a tight argument for why I believe this, but a comment on LessWrong by Wei Dai gives a good illustration of the kind of thoughts I have on the matter:

What I’m afraid of is that a design will be shown to be safe, and then it turns out that the proof is wrong, or the formalization of the notion of “safety” used by the proof is wrong. This kind of thing happens a lot in cryptography, if you replace “safety” with “security”. These mistakes are still occurring today, even after decades of research into how to do such proofs and what the relevant formalizations are. From where I’m sitting, proving an AGI design Friendly seems even more difficult and error-prone than proving a crypto scheme secure, probably by a large margin, and there is no decades of time to refine the proof techniques and formalizations. There’s good recent review of the history of provable security, titled Provable Security in the Real World, which might help you understand where I’m coming from.

I think this comment understates the risks, however. For example, when the comment says “the formalization of the notion of ‘safety’ used by the proof is wrong,” it is not clear whether it means that the values the programmers have in mind are not correctly implemented by the formalization, or whether it means they are correctly implemented but are themselves catastrophic in a way that hasn’t been anticipated. I would be highly concerned about both. There are other catastrophic possibilities as well; perhaps the utility function itself is well-specified and safe, but the AGI’s model of the world is flawed (in particular, perhaps its prior or its process for matching observations to predictions are flawed) in a way that doesn’t emerge until the AGI has made substantial changes to its environment.

By SI’s own arguments, even a small error in any of these things would likely lead to catastrophe. And there are likely failure forms I haven’t thought of. The overriding intuition here is that complex plans usually fail when unaccompanied by feedback loops. A scenario in which a set of people is ready to unleash an all-powerful being to maximize some parameter in the world, based solely on their initial confidence in their own extrapolations of the consequences of doing so, seems like a scenario that is overwhelmingly likely to result in a bad outcome. It comes down to placing the world’s largest bet on a highly complex theory—with no experimentation to test the theory first.

So far, all I have argued is that the development of “Friendliness” theory can achieve at best only a limited reduction in the probability of an unfavorable outcome. However, as I argue in the next section, I believe there is at least one concept—the “tool-agent” distinction—that has more potential to reduce risks, and that SI appears to ignore this concept entirely. I believe that tools are safer than agents (even agents that make use of the best “Friendliness” theory that can reasonably be hoped for) and that SI encourages a focus on building agents, thus increasing risk.

Objection 2: SI appears to neglect the potentially important distinction between “tool” and “agent” AI.

Google Maps is a type of artificial intelligence (AI). It is far more intelligent than I am when it comes to planning routes.

Google Maps—by which I mean the complete software package including the display of the map itself—does not have a “utility” that it seeks to maximize. (One could fit a utility function to its actions, as to any set of actions, but there is no single “parameter to be maximized” driving its operations.)

Google Maps (as I understand it) considers multiple possible routes, gives each a score based on factors such as distance and likely traffic, and then displays the best-scoring route in a way that makes it easily understood by the user. If I don’t like the route, for whatever reason, I can change some parameters and consider a different route. If I like the route, I can print it out or email it to a friend or send it to my phone’s navigation application. Google Maps has no single parameter it is trying to maximize; it has no reason to try to “trick” me in order to increase its utility.

In short, 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.

Every software application I know of seems to work essentially the same way, including those that involve (specialized) artificial intelligence such as Google Search, Siri, Watson, Rybka, etc. Some can be put into an “agent mode” (as Watson was on Jeopardy!) but all can easily be set up to be used as “tools” (for example, Watson can simply display its top candidate answers to a question, with the score for each, without speaking any of them.)

The “tool mode” concept is importantly different from the possibility of Oracle AI sometimes discussed by SI. The discussions I’ve seen of Oracle AI present it as an Unfriendly AI that is “trapped in a box”—an AI whose intelligence is driven by an explicit utility function and that humans hope to control coercively. Hence the discussion of ideas such as the AI-Box Experiment. A different interpretation, given in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011, is an AI with a carefully designed utility function—likely as difficult to construct as “Friendliness”—that leaves it “wishing” to answer questions helpfully. By contrast with both these ideas, Tool-AGI is not “trapped” and it is not Unfriendly or Friendly; it has no motivations and no driving utility function of any kind, just like Google Maps. It scores different possibilities and displays its conclusions in a transparent and user-friendly manner, as its instructions say to do; it does not have an overarching “want,” and so, as with the specialized AIs described above, while it may sometimes “misinterpret” a question (thereby scoring options poorly and ranking the wrong one #1) there is no reason to expect intentional trickery or manipulation when it comes to displaying its results.

Another way of putting this is that a “tool” has an underlying instruction set that conceptually looks like: “(1) Calculate which action A would maximize parameter P, based on existing data set D. (2) Summarize this calculation in a user-friendly manner, including what Action A is, what likely intermediate outcomes it would cause, what other actions would result in high values of P, etc.” An “agent,” by contrast, has an underlying instruction set that conceptually looks like: “(1) Calculate which action, A, would maximize parameter P, based on existing data set D. (2) Execute Action A.” In any AI where (1) is separable (by the programmers) as a distinct step, (2) can be set to the “tool” version rather than the “agent” version, and this separability is in fact present with most/​all modern software. Note that in the “tool” version, neither step (1) nor step (2) (nor the combination) constitutes an instruction to maximize a parameter—to describe a program of this kind as “wanting” something is a category error, and there is no reason to expect its step (2) to be deceptive.

I elaborated further on the distinction and on the concept of a tool-AI in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011.

This is important because an AGI running in tool mode could be extraordinarily useful but far more safe than an AGI running in agent mode. In fact, if developing “Friendly AI” is what we seek, a tool-AGI could likely be helpful enough in thinking through this problem as to render any previous work on “Friendliness theory” moot. Among other things, a tool-AGI would allow transparent views into the AGI’s reasoning and predictions without any reason to fear being purposefully misled, and would facilitate safe experimental testing of any utility function that one wished to eventually plug into an “agent.”

Is a tool-AGI possible? I believe that it is, and furthermore that it ought to be our default picture of how AGI will work, given that practically all software developed to date can (and usually does) run as a tool and given that modern software seems to be constantly becoming “intelligent” (capable of giving better answers than a human) in surprising new domains. In addition, it intuitively seems to me (though I am not highly confident) that intelligence inherently involves the distinct, separable steps of (a) considering multiple possible actions and (b) assigning a score to each, prior to executing any of the possible actions. If one can distinctly separate (a) and (b) in a program’s code, then one can abstain from writing any “execution” instructions and instead focus on making the program list actions and scores in a user-friendly manner, for humans to consider and use as they wish.

Of course, there are possible paths to AGI that may rule out a “tool mode,” but it seems that most of these paths would rule out the application of “Friendliness theory” as well. (For example, a “black box” emulation and augmentation of a human mind.) What are the paths to AGI that allow manual, transparent, intentional design of a utility function but do not allow the replacement of “execution” instructions with “communication” instructions? Most of the conversations I’ve had on this topic have focused on three responses:

  • Self-improving AI. Many seem to find it intuitive that (a) AGI will almost certainly come from an AI rewriting its own source code, and (b) such a process would inevitably lead to an “agent.” I do not agree with either (a) or (b). I discussed these issues in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011 and will be happy to discuss them more if this is the line of response that SI ends up pursuing. Very briefly:

    • The idea of a “self-improving algorithm” intuitively sounds very powerful, but does not seem to have led to many “explosions” in software so far (and it seems to be a concept that could apply to narrow AI as well as to AGI).

    • It seems to me that a tool-AGI could be plugged into a self-improvement process that would be quite powerful but would also terminate and yield a new tool-AI after a set number of iterations (or after reaching a set “intelligence threshold”). So I do not accept the argument that “self-improving AGI means agent AGI.” As stated above, I will elaborate on this view if it turns out to be an important point of disagreement.

    • I have argued (in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011) that the relevant self-improvement abilities are likely to come with or after—not prior to—the development of strong AGI. In other words, any software capable of the relevant kind of self-improvement is likely also capable of being used as a strong tool-AGI, with the benefits described above.

    • The SI-related discussions I’ve seen of “self-improving AI” are highly vague, and do not spell out views on the above points.

  • Dangerous data collection. Some point to the seeming dangers of a tool-AI’s “scoring” function: in order to score different options it may have to collect data, which is itself an “agent” type action that could lead to dangerous actions. I think my definition of “tool” above makes clear what is wrong with this objection: a tool-AGI takes its existing data set D as fixed (and perhaps could have some pre-determined, safe set of simple actions it can take—such as using Google’s API—to collect more), and if maximizing its chosen parameter is best accomplished through more data collection, it can transparently output why and how it suggests collecting more data. Over time it can be given more autonomy for data collection through an experimental and domain-specific process (e.g., modifying the AI to skip specific steps of human review of proposals for data collection after it has become clear that these steps work as intended), a process that has little to do with the “Friendly overarching utility function” concept promoted by SI. Again, I will elaborate on this if it turns out to be a key point.

  • Race for power. Some have argued to me that humans are likely to choose to create agent-AGI, in order to quickly gain power and outrace other teams working on AGI. But this argument, even if accepted, has very different implications from SI’s view.

    Conventional wisdom says it is extremely dangerous to empower a computer to act in the world until one is very sure that the computer will do its job in a way that is helpful rather than harmful. So if a programmer chooses to “unleash an AGI as an agent” with the hope of gaining power, it seems that this programmer will be deliberately ignoring conventional wisdom about what is safe in favor of shortsighted greed. I do not see why such a programmer would be expected to make use of any “Friendliness theory” that might be available. (Attempting to incorporate such theory would almost certainly slow the project down greatly, and thus would bring the same problems as the more general “have caution, do testing” counseled by conventional wisdom.) It seems that the appropriate measures for preventing such a risk are security measures aiming to stop humans from launching unsafe agent-AIs, rather than developing theories or raising awareness of “Friendliness.”

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.” The idea that AGI will be driven by a central utility function seems to be simply assumed. Two examples:

  • I have been referred to Muehlhauser and Salamon 2012 as the most up-to-date, clear explanation of SI’s position on “the basics.” This paper states, “Perhaps we could build an AI of limited cognitive ability — say, a machine that only answers questions: an ‘Oracle AI.’ But this approach is not without its own dangers (Armstrong, Sandberg, and Bostrom 2012).” However, the referenced paper (Armstrong, Sandberg and Bostrom 2012) seems to take it as a given that an Oracle AI is an “agent trapped in a box”—a computer that has a basic drive/​utility function, not a Tool-AGI. The rest of Muehlhauser and Salamon 2012 seems to take it as a given that an AGI will be an agent.

  • I have often been referred to Omohundro 2008 for an argument that an AGI is likely to have certain goals. But this paper seems, again, to take it as given that an AGI will be an agent, i.e., that it will have goals at all. The introduction states, “To say that a system of any design is an ‘artificial intelligence’, we mean that it has goals which it tries to accomplish by acting in the world.” In other words, the premise I’m disputing seems embedded in its very definition of AI.

The closest thing I have seen to a public discussion of “tool-AGI” is in Dreams of Friendliness, where Eliezer Yudkowsky considers the question, “Why not just have the AI answer questions, instead of trying to do anything? Then it wouldn’t need to be Friendly. It wouldn’t need any goals at all. It would just answer questions.” His response:

To which the reply is that the AI needs goals in order to decide how to think: that is, the AI has to act as a powerful optimization process in order to plan its acquisition of knowledge, effectively distill sensory information, pluck “answers” to particular questions out of the space of all possible responses, and of course, to improve its own source code up to the level where the AI is a powerful intelligence. All these events are “improbable” relative to random organizations of the AI’s RAM, so the AI has to hit a narrow target in the space of possibilities to make superintelligent answers come out.

This passage appears vague and does not appear to address the specific “tool” concept I have defended above (in particular, it does not address the analogy to modern software, which challenges the idea that “powerful optimization processes” cannot run in tool mode). The rest of the piece discusses (a) psychological mistakes that could lead to the discussion in question; (b) the “Oracle AI” concept that I have outlined above. The comments contain some more discussion of the “tool” idea (Denis Bider and Shane Legg seem to be picturing something similar to “tool-AGI”) but the discussion is unresolved and I believe the “tool” concept defended above remains essentially unaddressed.

In sum, SI appears to encourage a focus on building and launching “Friendly” agents (it is seeking to do so itself, and its work on “Friendliness” theory seems to be laying the groundwork for others to do so) while not addressing the tool-agent distinction. It seems to assume that any AGI will have to be an agent, and to make little to no attempt at justifying this assumption. The result, in my view, is that it is essentially advocating for a more dangerous approach to AI than the traditional approach to software development.

Objection 3: SI’s envisioned scenario is far more specific and conjunctive than it appears at first glance, and I believe this scenario to be highly unlikely.

SI’s scenario concerns the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI): a computer that is vastly more intelligent than humans in every relevant way. But we already have many computers that are vastly more intelligent than humans in some relevant ways, and the domains in which specialized AIs outdo humans seem to be constantly and continuously expanding. I feel that the relevance of “Friendliness theory” depends heavily on the idea of a “discrete jump” that seems unlikely and whose likelihood does not seem to have been publicly argued for.

One possible scenario is that at some point, we develop powerful enough non-AGI tools (particularly specialized AIs) that we vastly improve our abilities to consider and prepare for the eventuality of AGI—to the point where any previous theory developed on the subject becomes useless. Or (to put this more generally) non-AGI tools simply change the world so much that it becomes essentially unrecognizable from the perspective of today—again rendering any previous “Friendliness theory” moot. As I said in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011, some of SI’s work “seems a bit like trying to design Facebook before the Internet was in use, or even before the computer existed.”

Perhaps there will be a discrete jump to AGI, but it will be a sort of AGI that renders “Friendliness theory” moot for a different reason. For example, in the practice of software development, there often does not seem to be an operational distinction between “intelligent” and “Friendly.” (For example, my impression is that the only method programmers had for evaluating Watson’s “intelligence” was to see whether it was coming up with the same answers that a well-informed human would; the only way to evaluate Siri’s “intelligence” was to evaluate its helpfulness to humans.) “Intelligent” often ends up getting defined as “prone to take actions that seem all-around ‘good’ to the programmer.” So the concept of “Friendliness” may end up being naturally and subtly baked in to a successful AGI effort.

The bottom line is that we know very little about the course of future artificial intelligence. I believe that the probability that SI’s concept of “Friendly” vs. “Unfriendly” goals ends up seeming essentially nonsensical, irrelevant and/​or unimportant from the standpoint of the relevant future is over 90%.

Other objections to SI’s views

There are other debates about the likelihood of SI’s work being relevant/​helpful; for example,

  • It isn’t clear whether the development of AGI is imminent enough to be relevant, or whether other risks to humanity are closer.

  • It isn’t clear whether AGI would be as powerful as SI’s views imply. (I discussed this briefly in Karnofsky/​Tallinn 2011.)

  • It isn’t clear whether even an extremely powerful UFAI would choose to attack humans as opposed to negotiating with them. (I find it somewhat helpful to analogize UFAI-human interactions to human-mosquito interactions. Humans are enormously more intelligent than mosquitoes; humans are good at predicting, manipulating, and destroying mosquitoes; humans do not value mosquitoes’ welfare; humans have other goals that mosquitoes interfere with; humans would like to see mosquitoes eradicated at least from certain parts of the planet. Yet humans haven’t accomplished such eradication, and it is easy to imagine scenarios in which humans would prefer honest negotiation and trade with mosquitoes to any other arrangement, if such negotiation and trade were possible.)

Unlike the three objections I focus on, these other issues have been discussed a fair amount, and if these other issues were the only objections to SI’s arguments I would find SI’s case to be strong (i.e., I would find its scenario likely enough to warrant investment in).


  • I believe the most likely future scenarios are the ones we haven’t thought of, and that the most likely fate of the sort of theory SI ends up developing is irrelevance.

  • I believe that unleashing an all-powerful “agent AGI” (without the benefit of experimentation) would very likely result in a UFAI-like outcome, no matter how carefully the “agent AGI” was designed to be “Friendly.” I see SI as encouraging (and aiming to take) this approach.

  • I believe that the standard approach to developing software results in “tools,” not “agents,” and that tools (while dangerous) are much safer than agents. A “tool mode” could facilitate experiment-informed progress toward a safe “agent,” rather than needing to get “Friendliness” theory right without any experimentation.

  • Therefore, I believe that the approach SI advocates and aims to prepare for is far more dangerous than the standard approach, so if SI’s work on Friendliness theory affects the risk of human extinction one way or the other, it will increase the risk of human extinction. Fortunately I believe SI’s work is far more likely to have no effect one way or the other.

For a long time I refrained from engaging in object-level debates over SI’s work, believing that others are better qualified to do so. But after talking at great length to many of SI’s supporters and advocates and reading everything I’ve been pointed to as relevant, I still have seen no clear and compelling response to any of my three major objections. As stated above, there are many possible responses to my objections, but SI’s current arguments do not seem clear on what responses they wish to take and defend. At this point I am unlikely to form a positive view of SI’s work until and unless I do see such responses, and/​or SI changes its positions.

Is SI the kind of organization we want to bet on?

This part of the post has some risks. For most of GiveWell’s history, sticking to our standard criteria—and putting more energy into recommended than non-recommended organizations—has enabled us to share our honest thoughts about charities without appearing to get personal. But when evaluating a group such as SI, I can’t avoid placing a heavy weight on (my read on) the general competence, capability and “intangibles” of the people and organization, because SI’s mission is not about repeating activities that have worked in the past. Sharing my views on these issues could strike some as personal or mean-spirited and could lead to the misimpression that GiveWell is hostile toward SI. But it is simply necessary in order to be fully transparent about why I hold the views that I hold.

Fortunately, SI is an ideal organization for our first discussion of this type. I believe the staff and supporters of SI would overwhelmingly rather hear the whole truth about my thoughts—so that they can directly engage them and, if warranted, make changes—than have me sugar-coat what I think in order to spare their feelings. People who know me and my attitude toward being honest vs. sparing feelings know that this, itself, is high praise for SI.

One more comment before I continue: our policy is that non-public information provided to us by a charity will not be published or discussed without that charity’s prior consent. However, none of the content of this post is based on private information; all of it is based on information that SI has made available to the public.

There are several reasons that I currently have a negative impression of SI’s general competence, capability and “intangibles.” My mind remains open and I include specifics on how it could be changed.

  • Weak arguments. SI has produced enormous quantities of public argumentation, and I have examined a very large proportion of this information. Yet I have never seen a clear response to any of the three basic objections I listed in the previous section. One of SI’s major goals is to raise awareness of AI-related risks; given this, the fact that it has not advanced clear/​concise/​compelling arguments speaks, in my view, to its general competence.

  • Lack of impressive endorsements. I discussed this issue in my 2011 interview with SI representatives and I still feel the same way on the matter. I feel that given the enormous implications of SI’s claims, if it argued them well it ought to be able to get more impressive endorsements than it has.

    I have been pointed to Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil as examples of impressive SI supporters, but I have not seen any on-record statements from either of these people that show agreement with SI’s specific views, and in fact (based on watching them speak at Singularity Summits) my impression is that they disagree. Peter Thiel seems to believe that speeding the pace of general innovation is a good thing; this would seem to be in tension with SI’s view that AGI will be catastrophic by default and that no one other than SI is paying sufficient attention to “Friendliness” issues. Ray Kurzweil seems to believe that “safety” is a matter of transparency, strong institutions, etc. rather than of “Friendliness.” I am personally in agreement with the things I have seen both of them say on these topics. I find it possible that they support SI because of the Singularity Summit or to increase general interest in ambitious technology, rather than because they find “Friendliness theory” to be as important as SI does.

    Clear, on-record statements from these two supporters, specifically endorsing SI’s arguments and the importance of developing Friendliness theory, would shift my views somewhat on this point.

  • Resistance to feedback loops. I discussed this issue in my 2011 interview with SI representatives and I still feel the same way on the matter. SI seems to have passed up opportunities to test itself and its own rationality by e.g. aiming for objectively impressive accomplishments. This is a problem because of (a) its extremely ambitious goals (among other things, it seeks to develop artificial intelligence and “Friendliness theory” before anyone else can develop artificial intelligence); (b) its view of its staff/​supporters as having unusual insight into rationality, which I discuss in a later bullet point.

    SI’s list of achievements is not, in my view, up to where it needs to be given (a) and (b). Yet I have seen no declaration that SI has fallen short to date and explanation of what will be changed to deal with it. SI’s recent release of a strategic plan and monthly updates are improvements from a transparency perspective, but they still leave me feeling as though there are no clear metrics or goals by which SI is committing to be measured (aside from very basic organizational goals such as “design a new website” and very vague goals such as “publish more papers”) and as though SI places a low priority on engaging people who are critical of its views (or at least not yet on board), as opposed to people who are naturally drawn to it.

    I believe that one of the primary obstacles to being impactful as a nonprofit is the lack of the sort of helpful feedback loops that lead to success in other domains. I like to see groups that are making as much effort as they can to create meaningful feedback loops for themselves. I perceive SI as falling well short on this front. Pursuing more impressive endorsements and developing benign but objectively recognizable innovations (particularly commercially viable ones) are two possible ways to impose more demanding feedback loops. (I discussed both of these in my interview linked above).

  • Apparent poorly grounded belief in SI’s superior general rationality. Many of the things that SI and its supporters and advocates say imply a belief that they have special insights into the nature of general rationality, and/​or have superior general rationality, relative to the rest of the population. (Examples here, here and here). My understanding is that SI is in the process of spinning off a group dedicated to training people on how to have higher general rationality.

    Yet I’m not aware of any of what I consider compelling evidence that SI staff/​supporters/​advocates have any special insight into the nature of general rationality or that they have especially high general rationality.

    I have been pointed to the Sequences on this point. The Sequences (which I have read the vast majority of) do not seem to me to be a demonstration or evidence of general rationality. They are about rationality; I find them very enjoyable to read; and there is very little they say that I disagree with (or would have disagreed with before I read them). However, they do not seem to demonstrate rationality on the part of the writer, any more than a series of enjoyable, not-obviously-inaccurate essays on the qualities of a good basketball player would demonstrate basketball prowess. I sometimes get the impression that fans of the Sequences are willing to ascribe superior rationality to the writer simply because the content seems smart and insightful to them, without making a critical effort to determine the extent to which the content is novel, actionable and important.

    I endorse Eliezer Yudkowsky’s statement, “Be careful … any time you find yourself defining the [rationalist] as someone other than the agent who is currently smiling from on top of a giant heap of utility.” To me, the best evidence of superior general rationality (or of insight into it) would be objectively impressive achievements (successful commercial ventures, highly prestigious awards, clear innovations, etc.) and/​or accumulation of wealth and power. As mentioned above, SI staff/​supporters/​advocates do not seem particularly impressive on these fronts, at least not as much as I would expect for people who have the sort of insight into rationality that makes it sensible for them to train others in it. I am open to other evidence that SI staff/​supporters/​advocates have superior general rationality, but I have not seen it.

    Why is it a problem if SI staff/​supporter/​advocates believe themselves, without good evidence, to have superior general rationality? First off, it strikes me as a belief based on wishful thinking rather than rational inference. Secondly, I would expect a series of problems to accompany overconfidence in one’s general rationality, and several of these problems seem to be actually occurring in SI’s case:

    • Insufficient self-skepticism given how strong its claims are and how little support its claims have won. Rather than endorsing “Others have not accepted our arguments, so we will sharpen and/​or reexamine our arguments,” SI seems often to endorse something more like “Others have not accepted their arguments because they have inferior general rationality,” a stance less likely to lead to improvement on SI’s part.

    • Being too selective (in terms of looking for people who share its preconceptions) when determining whom to hire and whose feedback to take seriously.

    • Paying insufficient attention to the limitations of the confidence one can have in one’s untested theories, in line with my Objection 1.

  • Overall disconnect between SI’s goals and its activities. SI seeks to build FAI and/​or to develop and promote “Friendliness theory” that can be useful to others in building FAI. Yet it seems that most of its time goes to activities other than developing AI or theory. Its per-person output in terms of publications seems low. Its core staff seem more focused on Less Wrong posts, “rationality training” and other activities that don’t seem connected to the core goals; Eliezer Yudkowsky, in particular, appears (from the strategic plan) to be focused on writing books for popular consumption. These activities seem neither to be advancing the state of FAI-related theory nor to be engaging the sort of people most likely to be crucial for building AGI.

    A possible justification for these activities is that SI is seeking to promote greater general rationality, which over time will lead to more and better support for its mission. But if this is SI’s core activity, it becomes even more important to test the hypothesis that SI’s views are in fact rooted in superior general rationality—and these tests don’t seem to be happening, as discussed above.

  • Theft. I am bothered by the 2009 theft of $118,803.00 (as against a $541,080.00 budget for the year). In an organization as small as SI, it really seems as though theft that large relative to the budget shouldn’t occur and that it represents a major failure of hiring and/​or internal controls.

    In addition, I have seen no public SI-authorized discussion of the matter that I consider to be satisfactory in terms of explaining what happened and what the current status of the case is on an ongoing basis. Some details may have to be omitted, but a clear SI-authorized statement on this point with as much information as can reasonably provided would be helpful.

A couple positive observations to add context here:

  • I see significant positive qualities in many of the people associated with SI. I especially like what I perceive as their sincere wish to do whatever they can to help the world as much as possible, and the high value they place on being right as opposed to being conventional or polite. I have not interacted with Eliezer Yudkowsky but I greatly enjoy his writings.

  • I’m aware that SI has relatively new leadership that is attempting to address the issues behind some of my complaints. I have a generally positive impression of the new leadership; I believe the Executive Director and Development Director, in particular, to represent a step forward in terms of being interested in transparency and in testing their own general rationality. So I will not be surprised if there is some improvement in the coming years, particularly regarding the last couple of statements listed above. That said, SI is an organization and it seems reasonable to judge it by its organizational track record, especially when its new leadership is so new that I have little basis on which to judge these staff.


While SI has produced a lot of content that I find interesting and enjoyable, it has not produced what I consider evidence of superior general rationality or of its suitability for the tasks it has set for itself. I see no qualifications or achievements that specifically seem to indicate that SI staff are well-suited to the challenge of understanding the key AI-related issues and/​or coordinating the construction of an FAI. And I see specific reasons to be pessimistic about its suitability and general competence.

When estimating the expected value of an endeavor, it is natural to have an implicit “survivorship bias”—to use organizations whose accomplishments one is familiar with (which tend to be relatively effective organizations) as a reference class. Because of this, I would be extremely wary of investing in an organization with apparently poor general competence/​suitability to its tasks, even if I bought fully into its mission (which I do not) and saw no other groups working on a comparable mission.

But if there’s even a chance …

A common argument that SI supporters raise with me is along the lines of, “Even if SI’s arguments are weak and its staff isn’t as capable as one would like to see, their goal is so important that they would be a good investment even at a tiny probability of success.”

I believe this argument to be a form of Pascal’s Mugging and I have outlined the reasons I believe it to be invalid in two posts (here and here). There have been some objections to my arguments, but I still believe them to be valid. There is a good chance I will revisit these topics in the future, because I believe these issues to be at the core of many of the differences between GiveWell-top-charities supporters and SI supporters.

Regardless of whether one accepts my specific arguments, it is worth noting that the most prominent people associated with SI tend to agree with the conclusion that the “But if there’s even a chance …” argument is not valid. (See comments on my post from Michael Vassar and Eliezer Yudkowsky as well as Eliezer’s interview with John Baez.)

Existential risk reduction as a cause

I consider the general cause of “looking for ways that philanthropic dollars can reduce direct threats of global catastrophic risks, particularly those that involve some risk of human extinction” to be a relatively high-potential cause. It is on the working agenda for GiveWell Labs and we will be writing more about it.

However, I don’t think that “Cause X is the one I care about and Organization Y is the only one working on it” to be a good reason to support Organization Y. For donors determined to donate within this cause, I encourage you to consider donating to a donor-advised fund while making it clear that you intend to grant out the funds to existential-risk-reduction-related organizations in the future. (One way to accomplish this would be to create a fund with “existential risk” in the name; this is a fairly easy thing to do and one person could do it on behalf of multiple donors.)

For one who accepts my arguments about SI, I believe withholding funds in this way is likely to be better for SI’s mission than donating to SI—through incentive effects alone (not to mention my specific argument that SI’s approach to “Friendliness” seems likely to increase risks).

How I might change my views

My views are very open to revision.

However, I cannot realistically commit to read and seriously consider all comments posted on the matter. The number of people capable of taking a few minutes to write a comment is sufficient to swamp my capacity. I do encourage people to comment and I do intend to read at least some comments, but if you are looking to change my views, you should not consider posting a comment to be the most promising route.

Instead, what I will commit to is reading and carefully considering up to 50,000 words of content that are (a) specifically marked as SI-authorized responses to the points I have raised; (b) explicitly cleared for release to the general public as SI-authorized communications. In order to consider a response “SI-authorized and cleared for release,” I will accept explicit communication from SI’s Executive Director or from a majority of its Board of Directors endorsing the content in question. After 50,000 words, I may change my views and/​or commit to reading more content, or (if I determine that the content is poor and is not using my time efficiently) I may decide not to engage further. SI-authorized content may improve or worsen SI’s standing in my estimation, so unlike with comments, there is an incentive to select content that uses my time efficiently. Of course, SI-authorized content may end up including excerpts from comment responses to this post, and/​or already-existing public content.

I may also change my views for other reasons, particularly if SI secures more impressive achievements and/​or endorsements.

One more note: I believe I have read the vast majority of the Sequences, including the AI-foom debate, and that this content—while interesting and enjoyable—does not have much relevance for the arguments I’ve made.

Again: I think that whatever happens as a result of my post will be positive for SI’s mission, whether or not it is positive for SI as an organization. I believe that most of SI’s supporters and advocates care more about the former than about the latter, and that this attitude is far too rare in the nonprofit world.


Thanks to the following people for reviewing a draft of this post and providing thoughtful feedback (this of course does not mean they agree with the post or are responsible for its content): Dario Amodei, Nick Beckstead, Elie Hassenfeld, Alexander Kruel, Tim Ogden, John Salvatier, Jonah Sinick, Cari Tuna, Stephanie Wykstra.