My thoughts on the social response to AI risk

A common theme implicit in many AI risk stories has been that broader society will either fail to anticipate the risks of AI until it is too late, or do little to address those risks in a serious manner. In my opinion, there are now clear signs that this assumption is false, and that society will address AI with something approaching both the attention and diligence it deserves. For example, one clear sign is Joe Biden’s recent executive order on AI safety[1]. In light of recent news, it is worth comprehensively re-evaluating which sub-problems of AI risk are likely to be solved without further intervention from the AI risk community (e.g. perhaps deceptive alignment), and which ones will require more attention.

While I’m not saying we should now sit back and relax, I think recent evidence has significant implications for designing effective strategies to address AI risk. Since I think substantial AI regulation will likely occur by default, I urge effective altruists to focus more on ensuring that the regulation is thoughtful and well-targeted rather than ensuring that regulation happens at all. Ultimately, I argue in favor of a cautious and nuanced approach towards policymaking, in contrast to broader public AI safety advocacy.[2]

In the past, when I’ve read stories from AI risk adjacent people about what the future could look like, I have often noticed that the author assumes that humanity will essentially be asleep at the wheel with regards to the risks of unaligned AI, and won’t put in place substantial safety regulations on the technology—unless of course EA and LessWrong-aligned researchers unexpectedly upset the gameboard by achieving a pivotal act. We can call this premise the assumption of an inattentive humanity.[3]

While most often implicit, the assumption of an inattentive humanity was sometimes stated explicitly in people’s stories about the future.

For example, in a post from Marius Hobbhahn published last year about a realistic portrayal of the next few decades, Hobbhahn outlines a series of AI failure modes that occur as AI gets increasingly powerful. These failure modes include a malicious actor using an AI model to create a virus that “kills ~1000 people but is stopped in its tracks because the virus kills its hosts faster than it spreads”, an AI model attempting to escape its data center after having “tried to establish a cult to “free” the model by getting access to its model weights”, and a medical AI model that “hacked a large GPU cluster and then tried to contact ordinary people over the internet to participate in some unspecified experiment”. Hobbhahn goes on to say,

People are concerned about this but the news is as quickly forgotten as an oil spill in the 2010s or a crypto scam in 2022. Billions of dollars of property damage have a news lifetime of a few days before they are swamped by whatever any random politician has posted on the internet or whatever famous person has gotten a new partner. The tech changed, the people who consume the news didn’t. The incentives are still the same.

Stefan Schubert subsequently commented that this scenario seems implausible,

I expect that people would freak more over such an incident than they would freak out over an oil spill or a crypto scam. For instance, an oil spill is a well-understood phenomenon, and even though people would be upset about it, it would normally not make them worry about a proliferation of further oil spills. By contrast, in this case the harm would come from a new and poorly understood technology that’s getting substantially more powerful every year. Therefore I expect the reaction to the kind of harm from AI described here to be quite different from the reaction to oil spills or crypto scams.

I believe Schubert’s point has been strengthened by recent events, including Biden’s executive order that touches on many aspects of AI risk[1], the UK AI safety summit, the recent open statement signed by numerous top AI scientists warning about “extinction” from AI, the congressional hearing about AI risk and the discussion of imminent legislation, the widespread media coverage on the rise of GPT-like language models, and the open letter to “pause” model scaling. All of this has occurred despite AI still being relatively harmless, and having—so far—tiny economic impacts, especially compared to the existential threat to humanity that it poses in the long-term. Moreover, the timing of these developments strongly suggests they were mainly prompted by recent impressive developments in language models, rather than any special push from EAs.

In light of these developments, it is worth taking a closer look at how the assumption of an inattentive humanity has pervaded AI risk arguments, and re-evaluate the value of existing approaches to address AI risk in light of recent evidence.

The assumption of an inattentive humanity was perhaps most apparent in stories that posited a fast and local takeoff, in which AI goes from being powerless and hidden in the background, to suddenly achieving a decisive strategic advantage over the rest of the world in a very short period of time.

In his essay from 2017, Eliezer Yudkowsky famously argued that there is “no fire alarm for artificial general intelligence” by which he meant that there will not be an event “producing common knowledge that action [on AI risk] is now due and socially acceptable”.[4] He wrote,

Multiple leading scientists in machine learning have already published articles telling us their criterion for a fire alarm. They will believe Artificial General Intelligence is imminent:

(A) When they personally see how to construct AGI using their current tools. This is what they are always saying is not currently true in order to castigate the folly of those who think AGI might be near.

(B) When their personal jobs do not give them a sense of everything being difficult. This, they are at pains to say, is a key piece of knowledge not possessed by the ignorant layfolk who think AGI might be near, who only believe that because they have never stayed up until 2AM trying to get a generative adversarial network to stabilize.

(C) When they are very impressed by how smart their AI is relative to a human being in respects that still feel magical to them; as opposed to the parts they do know how to engineer, which no longer seem magical to them; aka the AI seeming pretty smart in interaction and conversation; aka the AI actually being an AGI already.

So there isn’t going to be a fire alarm. Period.

There is never going to be a time before the end when you can look around nervously, and see that it is now clearly common knowledge that you can talk about AGI being imminent, and take action and exit the building in an orderly fashion, without fear of looking stupid or frightened.

My understanding is that this thesis was part of a more general view from Yudkowsky that AI would not have any large, visible effects on the world up until the final moments when it takes over the world. In a live debate at Jane Street with Robin Hanson in 2011 he said,

When we try to visualize how all this is likely to go down, we tend to visualize a scenario that someone else once termed “a brain in a box in a basement.” I love that phrase, so I stole it. In other words, we tend to visualize that there’s this AI programming team, a lot like the sort of wannabe AI programming teams you see nowadays, trying to create artificial general intelligence, like the artificial general intelligence projects you see nowadays. They manage to acquire some new deep insights which, combined with published insights in the general scientific community, let them go down into their basement and work in it for a while and create an AI which is smart enough to reprogram itself, and then you get an intelligence explosion.

In that type of scenario, it makes sense that society would not rush to regulate AI, since AI would mainly be a thing done by academics and hobbyists in small labs, with no outsized impacts, up until right before the intelligence explosion, which Yudkowsky predicted would take place within “weeks or hours rather than years or decades”. However, this scenario—at least as it was literally portrayed—now appears very unlikely.

Personally—as I have roughly said for over a year now[5]—I think by far the most likely scenario is that society will adopt broad AI safety regulations as increasingly powerful systems are rolled out on a large scale, just as we have done for many previous technologies. As the capabilities of these systems increase, I expect the regulations to get stricter and become wider in scope, coinciding with popular, growing fears about losing control of the technology. Overall, I suspect governments will be sympathetic to many, but not all, of the concerns that EAs have about AI, including human disempowerment. And while sometimes failing to achieve their stated objectives, I predict governments will overwhelmingly adopt reasonable-looking regulations to stop the most salient risks, such as the risk of an untimely AI coup.

Of course, it still remains to be seen whether US and international regulatory policy will adequately address every essential sub-problem of AI risk. It is still plausible that the world will take aggressive actions to address AI safety, but that these actions will have little effect on the probability of human extinction, simply because they will be poorly designed. One possible reason for this type of pessimism is that the alignment problem might just be so difficult to solve that no “normal” amount of regulation could be sufficient to make adequate progress on the core elements of the problem—even if regulators were guided by excellent advisors—and therefore we need to clamp down hard now and pause AI worldwide indefinitely. That said, I don’t see any strong evidence supporting that position.

Another reason why you might still believe regulatory policy for AI risk will be inadequate is that regulators will adopt sloppy policies that totally miss the “hard bits” of the problem. When I recently asked Oliver Habryka what type of policies he still expects won’t be adopted, he mentioned “Any kind of eval system that’s robust to deceptive alignment.” I believe this opinion is likely shared by many other EAs and rationalists.

In light of recent events, we should question how plausible it is that society will fail to adequately address such an integral part of the problem. Perhaps you believe that policy-makers or general society simply won’t worry much about AI deception. Or maybe people will worry about AI deception, but they will quickly feel reassured by results from superficial eval tests. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical of both of these possibilities, and for basically the same reasons why I was skeptical that there won’t be substantial regulation in the first place:

  1. People think ahead, and frequently—though not always—rely on the advice of well-informed experts who are at least moderately intelligent.

  2. AI capabilities will increase continuously and noticeably over years rather than appearing suddenly. This will provide us time to become acquainted with the risks from individual models, concretely demonstrate failure modes, and study them empirically.

  3. AI safety, including the problem of having AIs not kill everyone, is a natural thing for people to care about.

Now, I don’t know exactly what Habryka means when he says he doesn’t expect to see eval regulations that are robust to deception. Does that require that the eval tests catch all deception, no matter how minor, or is it fine if we have a suite of tests that work well at detecting the most dangerous forms of deception, most of the time? However, while I agree that we shouldn’t expect regulation to be perfect, I still expect that governments will adopt sensible regulations—roughly the type you’d expect if mainstream LessWrong-aligned AI safety researchers were put in charge of regulatory policy.

To make my prediction about AI deception regulation more precise, I currently assign between 60-90% probability[6] that AI safety regulations will be adopted in the United States before 2035 that include sensible requirements for uncovering deception in the most powerful models, such as rigorously testing the model in a simulation, getting the model “drunk” by modifying its weights and interrogating it under diverse circumstances, asking a separate “lie detector” model to evaluate the model’s responses, applying state-of-the-art mechanistic interpretability methods to unveil latent motives, or creating many slightly different copies of the same model in the hopes that one is honest and successfully identifies and demonstrates deception from the others. I have written a Manifold question about this prediction that specifies these conditions further.

To clarify, I am not making any strong claims about any of these methods being foolproof or robust to AI deception in all circumstances. I am merely suggesting that future AI regulation will likely include sensible precautions against risks like AI deception. If deception turns out to be an obscenely difficult problem, I expect evidence for that view will accumulate over time—for instance because people will build model organisms of misalignment, and show how deception is very hard to catch. As the evidence grows, I think regulators will likely adapt, adjusting policy as the difficulty of the problem becomes clearer.[7]

I’m not saying we should be complacent. Instead, I’m advocating that we should raise the bar for what sub-problems of AI risk we consider worthy of special attention, versus what problems we think will be solved by default in the absence of further intervention from the AI risk community. Of course, it may still be true that AI deception is an extremely hard problem that reliably resists almost all attempted solutions in any “normal” regulatory regime, even as concrete evidence continues to accumulate about its difficulty—although I consider that claim unproven, to say the least.

Rather than asserting “everything is fine, don’t worry about AI risk” my point here is that we should think more carefully about what other people’s incentives actually are, and how others will approach the problem, even without further intervention from this community. Answering these questions critically informs how valuable the actions we take now will be, since it would shed light on the question of which problems will remain genuinely neglected in the future, and which ones won’t be. It’s still necessary for people to work on AI risk, of course. We should just try to make sure we’re spending our time wisely, and focus on improving policy and strategy along the axes on which things are most likely to go poorly.

Edited to add: To give a concrete example of an important problem I think might not be solved by default, several months ago I proposed treating long-term value drift from future AIs as a serious issue. I currently think that value drift is a “hard bit” of the problem that we do not appear to be close to seriously addressing, perhaps because people expect easier problems won’t be solved either without heroic effort. I’m also sympathetic to Dan Hendrycks’ argument about AI evolution. If these problems turn out to be easy or intractable, I think it may be worth turning more of our focus to other important problems, such as improving our institutions or preventing s-risks.

Nothing in this post should be interpreted as indicating that I’m incredibly optimistic about how AI policy will go. Though politicians usually don’t flat-out ignore safety risks, I believe history shows that they can easily mess up tech regulation in subtler ways.

For instance, when the internet was still new, the U.S. Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 to crack down on copyright violators, with strong bipartisan support. While the law had several provisions, one particularly contentious element was its anti-circumvention rule, which made it illegal to bypass digital rights management (DRM) or other technological protection measures. Perversely, this criminalized the act of circumvention even in scenarios where the underlying activity—like copying or sharing—didn’t actually infringe on copyright. Some have argued that because of these provisions, there has been a chilling effect on worldwide cryptography research, arguably making our infrastructure less secure with only a minor impact on copyright infringement.

While it is unclear what direct lessons we should draw from incidents like this one, I think a basic takeaway is that it is easy for legislators to get things wrong when they don’t fully understand a technology. Since it seems likely that there will be strong AI regulations in the future regardless of what the AI risk community does, I am far more concerned about making sure the regulations are thoughtful, well-targeted, and grounded in the best evidence available, rather than making sure they happen at all.

Instead of worrying that the general public and policy-makers won’t take AI risks very seriously, I tend to be more worried that we will hastily implement poorly thought-out regulations that are based on inaccurate risk models or limited evidence about our situation. These regulations might marginally reduce some aspects of AI risk, but at great costs to the world in other respects. For these reasons, I favor nuanced messaging and pushing for cautious, expert-guided policymaking, rather than blanket public advocacy.

  1. ^

    In response to Biden’s executive order on AI safety, Aaron Bergman wrote,

    Am I crazy for thinking the ex ante probability of something at least this good by the US federal government relative to AI progress, from the perspective of 5 years ago was ~1% Ie this seems 99th-percentile-in-2018 good to me

    David Manheim replied,

    I’m in the same boat. (In the set of worlds without near-term fast takeoff, and where safe AI is possible at all,) I’m increasingly convinced that the world is getting into position to actually address the risks robustly—though it’s still very possible we fail.

    Peter Wildeford also replied,

    This checks out with me

    AI capabilities is going faster than expected, but the policy response is much better than expected

    Stefan Schubert also commented,

    Yeah, if people think the policy response is “99th-percentile-in-2018”, then that suggests their models have been seriously wrong.

    That could have further implications, meaning these issues should be comprehensively rethought.

  2. ^

    To give one example of an approach I’m highly skeptical of in light of these arguments, I’ll point to this post from last year, which argued that we should try to “Slow down AI with stupid regulations”, apparently because the author believed that strategy may be the best hope we have to make things go well.

  3. ^

    Stefan Schubert calls the tendency to assume that humanity will be asleep at the wheel with regards to large-scale risks “sleepwalk bias”. He wrote about this bias in 2016, making many similar points to the ones I make here.

  4. ^

    Further supporting my interpretation, in a 2013 essay, Yudkowsky states the following:

    In general and across all instances I can think of so far, I do not agree with the part of your futurological forecast in which you reason, “After event W happens, everyone will see the truth of proposition X, leading them to endorse Y and agree with me about policy decision Z.”


    Example 2: “As AI gets more sophisticated, everyone will realize that real AI is on the way and then they’ll start taking Friendly AI development seriously.”

    Alternative projection: As AI gets more sophisticated, the rest of society can’t see any difference between the latest breakthrough reported in a press release and that business earlier with Watson beating Ken Jennings or Deep Blue beating Kasparov; it seems like the same sort of press release to them. The same people who were talking about robot overlords earlier continue to talk about robot overlords. The same people who were talking about human irreproducibility continue to talk about human specialness. Concern is expressed over technological unemployment the same as today or Keynes in 1930, and this is used to fuel someone’s previous ideological commitment to a basic income guarantee, inequality reduction, or whatever. The same tiny segment of unusually consequentialist people are concerned about Friendly AI as before. If anyone in the science community does start thinking that superintelligent AI is on the way, they exhibit the same distribution of performance as modern scientists who think it’s on the way, e.g. Hugo de Garis, Ben Goertzel, etc.

  5. ^

    See also this thread from me on X from earlier this year. I’ve made various other comments saying that I expect AI regulation for a few years now, but they’ve mostly been fragmented across the internet.

  6. ^

    Conditioning on transformative AI arriving before 2035, my credence range is somewhat higher, at around 75-94%. We can define transformative AI in the same way I defined it in here.

  7. ^

    This points to one reason why clamping down hard now might be unjustified, and why I prefer policies that start modest but adjust their strictness according to the best evidence about model capabilities and the difficulty of alignment.

Crossposted to EA Forum (116 points, 17 comments)