The Inner Alignment Problem

This is the third of five posts in the Risks from Learned Optimization Sequence based on the paper “Risks from Learned Optimization in Advanced Machine Learning Systems” by Evan Hubinger, Chris van Merwijk, Vladimir Mikulik, Joar Skalse, and Scott Garrabrant. Each post in the sequence corresponds to a different section of the paper.

In this post, we outline reasons to think that a mesa-optimizer may not optimize the same objective function as its base optimizer. Machine learning practitioners have direct control over the base objective function—either by specifying the loss function directly or training a model for it—but cannot directly specify the mesa-objective developed by a mesa-optimizer. We refer to this problem of aligning mesa-optimizers with the base objective as the inner alignment problem. This is distinct from the outer alignment problem, which is the traditional problem of ensuring that the base objective captures the intended goal of the programmers.

Current machine learning methods select learned algorithms by empirically evaluating their performance on a set of training data according to the base objective function. Thus, ML base optimizers select mesa-optimizers according to the output they produce rather than directly selecting for a particular mesa-objective. Moreover, the selected mesa-optimizer’s policy only has to perform well (as scored by the base objective) on the training data. If we adopt the assumption that the mesa-optimizer computes an optimal policy given its objective function, then we can summarize the relationship between the base and mesa- objectives as follows:(17) That is, the base optimizer maximizes its objective by choosing a mesa-optimizer with parameterization based on the mesa-optimizer’s policy , but not based on the objective function that the mesa-optimizer uses to compute this policy. Depending on the base optimizer, we will think of as the negative of the loss, the future discounted reward, or simply some fitness function by which learned algorithms are being selected.

An interesting approach to analyzing this connection is presented in Ibarz et al, where empirical samples of the true reward and a learned reward on the same trajectories are used to create a scatter-plot visualization of the alignment between the two.(18) The assumption in that work is that a monotonic relationship between the learned reward and true reward indicates alignment, whereas deviations from that suggest misalignment. Building on this sort of research, better theoretical measures of alignment might someday allow us to speak concretely in terms of provable guarantees about the extent to which a mesa-optimizer is aligned with the base optimizer that created it.

3.1. Pseudo-alignment

There is currently no complete theory of the factors that affect whether a mesa-optimizer will be pseudo-aligned—that is, whether it will appear aligned on the training data, while actually optimizing for something other than the base objective. Nevertheless, we outline a basic classification of ways in which a mesa-optimizer could be pseudo-aligned:

  1. Proxy alignment,

  2. Approximate alignment, and

  3. Suboptimality alignment.

Proxy alignment. The basic idea of proxy alignment is that a mesa-optimizer can learn to optimize for some proxy of the base objective instead of the base objective itself. We’ll start by considering two special cases of proxy alignment: side-effect alignment and instrumental alignment.

First, a mesa-optimizer is side-effect aligned if optimizing for the mesa-objective has the direct causal result of increasing the base objective in the training distribution, and thus when the mesa-optimizer optimizes it results in an increase in . For an example of side-effect alignment, suppose that we are training a cleaning robot. Consider a robot that optimizes the number of times it has swept a dusty floor. Sweeping a floor causes the floor to be cleaned, so this robot would be given a good score by the base optimizer. However, if during deployment it is offered a way to make the floor dusty again after cleaning it (e.g. by scattering the dust it swept up back onto the floor), the robot will take it, as it can then continue sweeping dusty floors.

Second, a mesa-optimizer is instrumentally aligned if optimizing for the base objective has the direct causal result of increasing the mesa-objective in the training distribution, and thus the mesa-optimizer optimizes as an instrumental goal for the purpose of increasing . For an example of instrumental alignment, suppose again that we are training a cleaning robot. Consider a robot that optimizes the amount of dust in the vacuum cleaner. Suppose that in the training distribution the easiest way to get dust into the vacuum cleaner is to vacuum the dust on the floor. It would then do a good job of cleaning in the training distribution and would be given a good score by the base optimizer. However, if during deployment the robot came across a more effective way to acquire dust—such as by vacuuming the soil in a potted plant—then it would no longer exhibit the desired behavior.

We propose that it is possible to understand the general interaction between side-effect and instrumental alignment using causal graphs, which leads to our general notion of proxy alignment.

Suppose we model a task as a causal graph with nodes for all possible attributes of that task and arrows between nodes for all possible relationships between those attributes. Then we can also think of the mesa-objective and the base objective as nodes in this graph. For to be pseudo-aligned, there must exist some node such that is an ancestor of both and in the training distribution, and such that and increase with . If , this is side-effect alignment, and if , this is instrumental alignment.

This represents the most generalized form of a relationship between and that can contribute to pseudo-alignment. Specifically, consider the causal graph given in figure 3.1. A mesa-optimizer with mesa-objective will decide to optimize as an instrumental goal of optimizing , since increases . This will then result in increasing, since optimizing for has the side-effect of increasing . Thus, in the general case, side-effect and instrumental alignment can work together to contribute to pseudo-alignment over the training distribution, which is the general case of proxy alignment.

Figure 3.1. A causal diagram of the training environment for the different types of proxy alignment. The diagrams represent, from top to bottom, side-effect alignment (top), instrumental alignment (middle), and general proxy alignment (bottom). The arrows represent positive causal relationships—that is, cases where an increase in the parent causes an increase in the child.

Approximate alignment. A mesa-optimizer is approximately aligned if the mesa-objective and the base objective are approximately the same function up to some degree of approximation error related to the fact that the mesa-objective has to be represented inside the mesa-optimizer rather than being directly programmed by humans. For example, suppose you task a neural network with optimizing for some base objective that is impossible to perfectly represent in the neural network itself. Even if you get a mesa-optimizer that is as aligned as possible, it still will not be perfectly robustly aligned in this scenario, since there will have to be some degree of approximation error between its internal representation of the base objective and the actual base objective.

Suboptimality alignment. A mesa-optimizer is suboptimality aligned if some deficiency, error, or limitation in its optimization process causes it to exhibit aligned behavior on the training distribution. This could be due to computational constraints, unsound reasoning, a lack of information, irrational decision procedures, or any other defect in the mesa-optimizer’s reasoning process. Importantly, we are not referring to a situation where the mesa-optimizer is robustly aligned but nonetheless makes mistakes leading to bad outcomes on the base objective. Rather, suboptimality alignment refers to the situation where the mesa-optimizer is misaligned but nevertheless performs well on the base objective, precisely because it has been selected to make mistakes that lead to good outcomes on the base objective.

For an example of suboptimality alignment, consider a cleaning robot with a mesa-objective of minimizing the total amount of stuff in existence. If this robot has the mistaken belief that the dirt it cleans is completely destroyed, then it may be useful for cleaning the room despite doing so not actually helping it succeed at its objective. This robot will be observed to be a good optimizer of and hence be given a good score by the base optimizer. However, if during deployment the robot is able to improve its world model, it will stop exhibiting the desired behavior.

As another, perhaps more realistic example of suboptimality alignment, consider a mesa-optimizer with a mesa-objective and an environment in which there is one simple strategy and one complicated strategy for achieving . It could be that the simple strategy is aligned with the base optimizer, but the complicated strategy is not. The mesa-optimizer might then initially only be aware of the simple strategy, and thus be suboptimality aligned, until it has been run for long enough to come up with the complicated strategy, at which point it stops exhibiting the desired behavior.

3.2. The task

As in the second post, we will now consider the task the machine learning system is trained on. Specifically, we will address how the task affects a machine learning system’s propensity to produce pseudo-aligned mesa-optimizers.

Unidentifiability. It is a common problem in machine learning for a dataset to not contain enough information to adequately pinpoint a specific concept. This is closely analogous to the reason that machine learning models can fail to generalize or be susceptible to adversarial examples(19)—there are many more ways of classifying data that do well in training than any specific way the programmers had in mind. In the context of mesa-optimization, this manifests as pseudo-alignment being more likely to occur when a training environment does not contain enough information to distinguish between a wide variety of different objective functions. In such a case there will be many more ways for a mesa-optimizer to be pseudo-aligned than robustly aligned—one for each indistinguishable objective function. Thus, most mesa-optimizers that do well on the base objective will be pseudo-aligned rather than robustly aligned. This is a critical concern because it makes every other problem of pseudo-alignment worse—it is a reason that, in general, it is hard to find robustly aligned mesa-optimizers. Unidentifiability in mesa-optimization is partially analogous to the problem of unidentifiability in reward learning, in that the central issue is identifying the “correct” objective function given particular training data.(20) We will discuss this relationship further in the fifth post.

In the context of mesa-optimization, there is also an additional source of unidentifiability stemming from the fact that the mesa-optimizer is selected merely on the basis of its output. Consider the following toy reinforcement learning example. Suppose that in the training environment, pressing a button always causes a lamp to turn on with a ten-second delay, and that there is no other way to turn on the lamp. If the base objective depends only on whether the lamp is turned on, then a mesa-optimizer that maximizes button presses and one that maximizes lamp light will show identical behavior, as they will both press the button as often as they can. Thus, we cannot distinguish these two objective functions in this training environment. Nevertheless, the training environment does contain enough information to distinguish at least between these two particular objectives: since the high reward only comes after the ten-second delay, it must be from the lamp, not the button. As such, even if a training environment in principle contains enough information to identify the base objective, it might still be impossible to distinguish robustly aligned from proxy-aligned mesa-optimizers.

Proxy choice as pre-computation. Proxy alignment can be seen as a form of pre-computation by the base optimizer. Proxy alignment allows the base optimizer to save the mesa-optimizer computational work by pre-computing which proxies are valuable for the base objective and then letting the mesa-optimizer maximize those proxies.

Without such pre-computation, the mesa-optimizer has to infer at runtime the causal relationship between different input features and the base objective, which might require significant computational work. Moreover, errors in this inference could result in outputs that perform worse on the base objective than if the system had access to pre-computed proxies. If the base optimizer precomputes some of these causal relationships—by selecting the mesa-objective to include good proxies—more computation at runtime can be diverted to making better plans instead of inferring these relationships.

The case of biological evolution may illustrate this point. The proxies that humans care about—food, resources, community, mating, etc.—are relatively computationally easy to optimize directly, while correlating well with survival and reproduction in our ancestral environment. For a human to be robustly aligned with evolution would have required us to instead care directly about spreading our genes, in which case we would have to infer that eating, cooperating with others, preventing physical pain, etc. would promote genetic fitness in the long run, which is not a trivial task. To infer all of those proxies from the information available to early humans would have required greater (perhaps unfeasibly greater) computational resources than to simply optimize for them directly. As an extreme illustration, for a child in this alternate universe to figure out not to stub its toe, it would have to realize that doing so would slightly diminish its chances of reproducing twenty years later.

For pre-computation to be beneficial, there needs to be a relatively stable causal relationship between a proxy variable and the base objective such that optimizing for the proxy will consistently do well on the base objective. However, even an imperfect relationship might give a significant performance boost over robust alignment if it frees up the mesa-optimizer to put significantly more computational effort into optimizing its output. This analysis suggests that there might be pressure towards proxy alignment in complex training environments, since the more complex the environment, the more computational work pre-computation saves the mesa-optimizer. Additionally, the more complex the environment, the more potential proxy variables are available for the mesa-optimizer to use.

Furthermore, in the context of machine learning, this analysis suggests that a time complexity penalty (as opposed to a description length penalty) is a double-edged sword. In the second post, we suggested that penalizing time complexity might serve to reduce the likelihood of mesa-optimization. However, the above suggests that doing so would also promote pseudo-alignment in those cases where mesa-optimizers do arise. If the cost of fully modeling the base objective in the mesa-optimizer is large, then a pseudo-aligned mesa-optimizer might be preferred simply because it reduces time complexity, even if it would underperform a robustly aligned mesa-optimizer without such a penalty.

Compression of the mesa-optimizer. The description length of a robustly aligned mesa-optimizer may be greater than that of a pseudo-aligned mesa-optimizer. Since there are more pseudo-aligned mesa-objectives than robustly aligned mesa-objectives, pseudo-alignment provides more degrees of freedom for choosing a particularly simple mesa-objective. Thus, we expect that in most cases there will be several pseudo-aligned mesa-optimizers that are less complex than any robustly aligned mesa-optimizer.

This description cost is especially high if the learned algorithm’s input data does not contain easy-to-infer information about how to optimize for the base objective. Biological evolution seems to differ from machine learning in this sense, since evolution’s specification of the brain has to go through the information funnel of DNA. The sensory data that early humans received didn’t allow them to infer the existence of DNA, nor the relationship between their actions and their genetic fitness. Therefore, for humans to have been aligned with evolution would have required them to have an innately specified model of DNA, as well as the various factors influencing their inclusive genetic fitness. Such a model would not have been able to make use of environmental information for compression, and thus would have required a greater description length. In contrast, our models of food, pain, etc. can be very short since they are directly related to our input data.

3.3. The base optimizer

We now turn to how the base optimizer is likely to affect the propensity for a machine learning system to produce pseudo-aligned mesa-optimizers.

Hard-coded optimization. In the second post, we suggested that hard-coding an optimization algorithm—that is to say, choosing a model with built-in optimization—could be used to remove some of the incentives for mesa-optimization. Similarly, hard-coded optimization may be used to prevent some of the sources of pseudo-alignment, since it may allow one to directly specify or train the mesa-objective. Reward-predictive model-based reinforcement learning might be one possible way of accomplishing this.(21) For example, an ML system could include a model directly trained to predict the base objective together with a powerful hard-coded optimization algorithm. Doing this bypasses some of the problems of pseudo-alignment: if the mesa-optimizer is trained to directly predict the base reward, then it will be selected to make good predictions even if a bad prediction would result in a good policy. However, a learned model of the base objective will still be underdetermined off-distribution, so this approach by itself does not guarantee robust alignment.

Algorithmic range. We hypothesize that a model’s algorithmic range will have implications for how likely it is to develop pseudo-alignment. One possible source of pseudo-alignment that could be particularly difficult to avoid is approximation error—if a mesa-optimizer is not capable of faithfully representing the base objective, then it can’t possibly be robustly aligned, only approximately aligned. Even if a mesa-optimizer might theoretically be able to perfectly capture the base objective, the more difficult that is for it to do, the more we might expect it to be approximately aligned rather than robustly aligned. Thus, a large algorithmic range may be both a blessing and a curse: it makes it less likely that mesa-optimizers will be approximately aligned, but it also increases the likelihood of getting a mesa-optimizer in the first place.[1]

Subprocess interdependence. There are some reasons to believe that there might be more initial optimization pressure towards proxy aligned than robustly aligned mesa-optimizers. In a local optimization process, each parameter of the learned algorithm (e.g. the parameter vector of a neuron) is adjusted to locally improve the base objective conditional on the other parameters. Thus, the benefit for the base optimizer of developing a new subprocess will likely depend on what other subprocesses the learned algorithm currently implements. Therefore, even if some subprocess would be very beneficial if combined with many other subprocesses, the base optimizer may not select for it until the subprocesses it depends on are sufficiently developed. As a result, a local optimization process would likely result in subprocesses that have fewer dependencies being developed before those with more dependencies.

In the context of mesa-optimization, the benefit of a robustly aligned mesa-objective seems to depend on more subprocesses than at least some pseudo-aligned mesa-objectives. For example, consider a side-effect aligned mesa-optimizer optimizing for some set of proxy variables. Suppose that it needs to run some subprocess to model the relationship between its actions and those proxy variables. If we assume that optimizing the proxy variables is necessary to perform well on the base objective, then for a mesa-optimizer to be robustly aligned, it would also need to model the causal relationship between those proxy variables and the base objective, which might require additional subprocesses. Moreover, the benefit to the base optimizer of adding those subprocesses depends on the mesa-optimizer having additional subprocesses to model the relationship between its actions and those proxy variables. This informal argument suggests that if a mesa-optimizer’s computation neatly factors in this way, then developing a robustly aligned mesa-objective may require strictly more subprocesses than developing a pseudo-aligned mesa-objective.

This suggests that, at least in a local optimization process, mesa-optimizers might tend to start their development as proxy aligned before becoming robustly aligned. In other words, rather than simultaneously gaining competence and becoming aligned, we might expect such a system to first become competent at optimizing proxies, then possibly start becoming more robustly aligned.

Internals-based selection. In current machine learning systems, learned algorithms are selected primarily based on how their policies perform on the base objective. There is often some selection based on the internal structure of the learned algorithm, such as weight regularization, but such selection is usually very coarse. One possible idea for addressing pseudo-alignment could be to use a selection method based on a more sophisticated function of a learned algorithm’s internal workings. This approach is similar in spirit to hard-coded optimization: we use knowledge of the system’s internal workings to prevent it from being proxy-aligned.

One possibility might be to develop a meta-learner that is specifically trained to prevent pseudo-alignment. While this seems beyond current meta-learning techniques, the basic principle is similar to existing meta-learners designed to optimize for robustness. An extreme form of internals-based selection might have the base optimizer reason about or prove properties of the learned algorithm as part of its selection process.

While desirable, such methods are currently out of reach primarily due to the limitations of current transparency methods. One possible concern with all of these approaches, however, is that they might require the base optimizer to be better at searching for problems than the mesa-optimizer is at hiding them. Furthermore, in order to create a base optimizer that can do this, we may need to first train it using a third optimizer, which might result in the same problem at this second layer.

Adversarial training. One possible method to alleviate some of these concerns might be to sample environments adversarially from a very wide distribution. With such adversarial training, it might be possible to overcome these hurdles and make the robustly aligned objective the most reachable one. This would require making it so that, for every mesa-objective that is more reachable than the base objective , there is some situation where and disagree and the mesa-optimizer is incentivized to agree with .

If we model reachability of an objective as simply its length in bits, then distinguishing from every single more reachable gets exponentially harder as gets more complex. Thus, for a very complicated , sufficiently incentivizing the base optimizer to find a mesa-optimizer with that is likely to be very difficult, though not impossible.

Even in such a case, however, there would likely still be a period of time where the learned algorithm is a misaligned mesa-optimizer, leaving open an ominous possibility: the misaligned mesa-optimizer could figure out the correct actions to take based on while its objective function was still . We will call this situation deceptive alignment and will discuss it at greater length in the next post.

The fourth post in the Risks from Learned Optimization Sequence, titled “Deceptive Alignment,” can be found here.

Glossary | Bibliography

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    Though a large algorithmic range seems to make approximate alignment less likely, it is unclear how it might affect other forms of pseudo-alignment such as deceptive alignment.