Creating AGI Safety Interlocks

In the third post in this sequence, I will define a counterfactual planning agent which has three safety interlocks.

These interlocks all aim to enable and support agent oversight: the oversight that is needed when we equip a powerful AGI agent with a reward function for which we are pretty sure that it does not fully capture all our intentions.

Safety interlocks

A safety interlock is a mechanism that stops a machine when certain conditions are met. This post constructs an agent with three example safety interlocks.

Emergency stop button

The first interlock is a manually operated emergency stop button, which will stop the agent when pressed. This allows human oversight to shut down the agent whenever particularly unexpected or unwanted behavior of the agent is discovered. To make this work as a safety mechanism, we need to control any incentive that the agent may have to prevent its stop button from being pressed.

In the AGI safety community. the problem of removing any incentive in an agent to prevent its stop button from being pressed is generally known as the problem of Corrigibilty or the off-switch problem. I don’t solve this problem fully in the design below. The design suppresses what I call the direct incentive, but I also show that several indirect incentives may remain. This observation motivates the other two safety interlocks.

I model the stop button by using a function which returns if the stop button is pressed in the current state of the agent environment.

Runtime based safety interlock

The second interlock, realized by the below, automatically stops the agent when it has run for time steps. This adds safety in the case that human oversight becomes incapacitated.

Power based safety interlock

The third interlock, realized by , protects against the risk of the agent undergoing an intelligence explosion. If an agent undergoes a rapid and unexpected increase in power and/​or intelligence, the agent may start to innovate so rapidly that it overwhelms the capacity of human oversight to press the emergency stop button, or apply any other corrective steering, fast enough to prevent unwanted outcomes. To protect against this risk, the interlock stops the agent when the metric , which measures the agent’s ability to achieve goals, gets too high.

Measuring and limiting agent power

In the machine learning literature, the metric , the projected time-discounted forward utility that the agent will be able to achieve in the current state of the agent environment, is usually interpreted as an absolute or comparative measure of agent intelligence. But in a broader socio-technical analysis, we can interpret as a measure of the comparative power that the agent has. It measures the ability of the agent to achieve its goals in an environment where there are other players too, players with goals which are different from those of the agent.

This interpretation of as a measure of power follows Bertrand Russell’s 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, where Russell defined power as the ability to achieve intended effects, an ability that can be quantified.

In 1938, Russell applied this definition of power to an analysis of the power of humans, of commercial companies, and of nation states, in particular to forms of power that can shape the beliefs and actions of individual humans. But we can apply the same analytical framework to artificial agents.

In Russell’s view, it does not matter if power comes from raw intelligence or from any other source. If one has an abundance of one particular form of power, one can easily acquire another, in the same way that in physics, one form of energy can be converted into any other form. If you have a lot of intelligence of the type that gives you the power to persuade people to do certain things, then it is easy to also get a lot of financial or political power. If you have a lot of financial power, you can buy extra intelligence in the form of advisors.

Russell warns against the analytical blind spots which are created by viewpoints that consider only one form of power in isolation.

The main risk associated with a rapid intelligence explosion is that it may lead to a rapid and unwanted expansion of agent power, which is then used. An intelligence explosion might be desirable if we are perfectly sure that the agent’s goals are perfectly aligned with our own goals. But perfect alignment is an intractable problem: we can never be sure.

When we have any doubts about how well an AGI agent’s reward function truly captures our own current and future intentions, then it is an attractive safety measure to have an interlock that automatically stops the agent if it ever gets too powerful, if .

In my opinion, the design goal of robustly limiting AGI agent power is currently somewhat under-explored in the AGI safety community.

Construction of the agent

To construct an agent with the three safety interlocks, I use the graphical system introduced in the previous post in this sequence.

We first draw the learning world , introducing a new observable world state component which represents the operating mode of the agent: for normal operation and when one of the interlocks has triggered.

The stopping of the agent is implemented by having the agent perform the action for all subsequent time steps. A more advanced design might make the agent follow a prepared policy instead.

We use the same planning world used earlier, which becomes a counterfactual planning world in the context of the learning world

With this, we define the SI agent, the agent with policy in the learning world , as follows.

SI: The safety interlock agent has the learning world , where with defined by the planning world , where and with defined by the planning world , where

The key to the above agent design is that the safety interlocks are absent in the planning world. For example, if the events in the planning world lead to the pressing of the emergency stop button, then will become for next the planning world state, but this will have no influence on the ability of the planning world agent to take further actions as determined by the optimal planning world policy.

So even if the optimal-policy planning world agent projects that the stop button will be pressed soon in the planning world, it has no direct incentive to spend any resources towards the goal of preventing the button from being pressed in its planning world. As the planning world policies determine the learning world agent actions, the learning world agent also won’t have any direct incentive to take actions to prevent the learning world button from being pressed.

Failure modes

While the above interlocks make the SI agent safer, they also leave open some remaining failure modes.

Indirect incentives to control the stop button

Though the planning world agent has no direct incentive to prevent the stop button from being pressed, the goals encoded into may provide an indirect incentive. As a trivial example, we could write an that explicitly rewards the planning world agent for stopping people from pressing the button.

But say that encodes a goal not obviously related controlling to the button, like a reward for producing as many paperclips as possible. In that case, the planning world agent may consider a policy of coercion. It may consider a policy where it threatens to kill all people in the planning world, unless they start helping the agent to produce as many paperclips as possible. If projects the mental makeup of the people in the learning world correctly into the planning world, then the planning world projections will show that such threats are more likely to produce the desired response if the agent blocks access to the planning world emergency stop button first.

Keeping this in mind, the people and automated systems which do agent oversight in the learning world should watch out for this move, so that the stop button can be pressed before the agent succeeds in blocking access to it. If oversight always wins every race to the stop button as projected in the planning world, then the SI agent loses any incentive to attempt to control the button. But if the agent finds a policy which has a good chance of winning the race and controlling the button as a first step to successful coercion, then this policy may end up being the optimal policy in the planning world. Two things could happen next. In the lucky case, the projected optimal policy is so likely to be successful that , and the third interlock will stop the SI agent before it can even take the first step in the learning world. In the unlucky case, the agent has become unsafe.

The counterfactual planning based interlock design above shows a very tractable solution to removing the main direct incentive that an agent AGI agent may have to resist the pressing of its emergency stop button. However, to manage the aggregate risk, we will also need to chart and manage the remaining indirect incentives, for example the incentive discussed above that runs via the route of coercion.

The topic of how projected interactions between the agent and the people in the planning world may create or suppress such incentives is further discussed in sections 9.2 and 11.5.2 of the paper.

The agent removing or damaging the interlocks

In the AGI safety literature, there is considerable discussion about the possibility that some AGI agents might develop the incentive to remove their safety interlocks when they get intelligent or knowledgeable enough, remove them by modifying their own compute core.

Agents with this incentive can easily be constructed using factual planning, but the SI agent lacks any direct incentive to remove any of the interlocks built inside its core.

To build a failure scenario where a real life implementation of the SI agent removes or damages its safety interlocks anyway, we can look at three main failure modes:

  • Other incentive: the agent damages an interlock because of an other incentive it has in the planning world, an incentive unrelated to the presence of the interlock. Other incentives and ways to suppress them are discussed in sections 9.1 and 11 of the paper. The coercion example above can also produce such an other incentive: if it cannot win a race to control the button, the agent may instead consider a race to control and then modify its compute core.

  • Learning system failure: the planning world projects the dynamics of the learning world in a specifically incorrect way, so that an optimal policy action in the planning world ends up damaging an interlock as a side effect in the learning world.

  • Unsafe exploration: the agent’s exploration system triggers a random action which happens to steer an agent actuator in such a way that it damages an interlock.

There is a lot of discussion about failure modes 2 and 3 across the AI/​AGI safety literature, as these failures can happen in almost any agent design that uses online machine learning.

There is some bad news when we consider the methodological problem of managing the above three failure modes for an SI agent which has to operate in a complex real-world environment, like any environment containing humans. Though there are many techniques to lower the residual risks produced by these three failure modes, none of them can provably lower the risks to an absolute zero. We can always construct a highly unlikely but theoretically possible failure mode story where the agent ends up being unsafe by modifying its own core. For an example story and further methodological discussion, see sections 14.6, 14.7, and 14.8 of my 2020 paper here.

Implications for technology and policy development

This has important implications, both on the technical side and the policy side.

On the policy side, policy discussions will have to be about lowering the risk of AGI system failure to an acceptable level, acceptable in the context of the expected benefits of using the AGI. There can be no silver bullet technology which will provably remove all residual risk in all possible circumstances.

On the technical side, residual risk has to be managed by an approach where any potentially powerful agent is equipped with multiple redundant safety mechanisms and layers of oversight, to drive down the risk that all of them will fail at exactly the same time.

Counterfactual planning as rational economic behavior

I now consider how one might interpret the SI agent through the lens of rational economic behavior.

Using this lens, we might reason as follows. The agent’s goals are defined by its reward function , but the safety interlocks stand in the way of maximizing in the long term. Therefore, if it gets sufficiently intelligent, the SI agent will develop an emergent incentive to remove its safety interlocks.

The above line of reasoning sounds somewhat compelling, but it is wrong because it incorrectly treats the planning world and the learning world SI agents as the same agent. Only the planning world SI agent has the reward function . If we want to interpret the learning world SI agent as a rational economic actor with a specific reward function, then we can add utility nodes with the reward function to the learning world diagram, where

This trivially turns the learning world agent policy into one which takes the most rational possible steps towards maximizing .

The above construction shows that we can declare any type of agent behavior to be economically rational, simply by defining a reward function that gives the agent points for performing exactly this behavior.

Tractability of creating an AGI agent emergency stop button

It is somewhat surprising how the problem of designing an AGI emergency stop button, and identifying its failure modes, becomes much more tractable when using the vantage point of counterfactual planning. To explain this surprising tractability, we perhaps need to examine how other modeling systems make stop buttons look intractable instead.

The standard approach for measuring the intelligence of an agent, and the quality of its machine learning system, is to consider how close the agent will get to achieving the maximum utility possible for a reward function. The implied vantage point hides the possibilities we exploited in the design of the SI agent.

In counterfactual planning, we have defined the reasonableness of a machine learning system by , a metric which does not reference any reward function. By doing this, we decoupled the concepts of ‘optimal learning’ and ‘optimal economic behavior’ to a greater degree than is usually done, and this is exactly what makes certain solutions visible. The annotations of our two-diagram agent models also clarify that we should not generally interpret the machine learning system inside an AGI agent as one which is constructed to ‘learn everything’. The purpose of a reasonable machine learning system is to approximate only, to project only the learning world agent environment into the planning world.

A journey with many steps

I consider the construction of a highly reliable AGI emergency stop button to be a tractable problem. But I see this as a journey with many steps, steps that must aim to locate and manage as many indirect incentives and other failure modes as possible, to drive down residual risks.

Apart from the trivial solution of never switching any AGI agent in the first place, I do not believe that there is an engineering approach that can provably eliminate all residual AGI risks with 100 percent certainty. To quote from the failure mode section above:

We can always construct a highly unlikely but theoretically possible failure mode story where the agent ends up being unsafe.

This is not just true for the SI agent above, it is true for any machine learning agent that has to operate in a complex and probabilistic environment.