In an interview I recently watched, Elon Musk put forward the case of a utility (objective) function for a hypothetical advanced A.I. (basically an AGI) and how special attention must be given to such a task to avoid undesirable results. So, he suggested we use some utility function some person had recommended (probably an A.I. expert), namely that of maximizing “freedom of action for everyone,” something that’s quite reasonable and perhaps even profound if you think about it. However, if you think more about it, it becomes evident that it’s a terrible, terrible idea!
First of all, I mean no disrespect to Elon Musk. I think many of the things he’s created are great, even if some of his ideas are somewhat extreme. So even if he is not a role model of mine, I admire him as a tech entrepreneur and find that he has a lot to offer to the world through his businesses and his ideas for a better world. Except of course his idea for a utility function; that would be catastrophic, though I’m sure that in his mind it’s a brilliant solution to the utility function problem.
For starters, freedom is a very abstract concept even if it’s made more specific by the term “of action” to clarify it. How do you measure freedom of action? How would an A.I. understand this concept, especially if it never gets to experience it? Then, would maximum freedom be a good thing necessarily? Isn’t that a form of anarchy in a way? These are things that need to be addressed before asking an A.I. engineer to implement such a function for this hypothetical A.I. So, unless we figure this out, we cannot be sure that this A.I. will be benign, even if its creators have the best intentions in the world for it.
For example, an A.I. that makes use of this utility function may accelerate the depletion of natural resources of this planet (and any other planet it has access to), in order to ensure that everyone, even some random criminal on the streets or an inmate in a high security prison, has as much freedom of action as possible. Do you see where I’m going with this? Perhaps I’d better stop here before this whole post turns into some dystopian scenario or something.
The utility function problem is a difficult one and in all fairness Elon Musk is not someone knowledgeable enough in A.I. to be able to provide a bullet-proof solution to it. He may know a lot about the topic but I doubt he’s ever created an A.I. system from scratch. And unless you are close to the metal about these things, any ideas you have about how things should be regarding the high-level aspects of such complex systems is just an opinion on the matter, not a serious candidate for a solution to the problem at hand. The latter would be something that has legs and right now it seems that Mr. Musk’s suggestion is floating in the clouds just like many futurists when they talk about A.I. Perhaps that’s why many people don’t take Elon Musk’s warnings about A.I. very seriously, although I believe that’s one of the things he’s got right.
Despite the inevitable risks such an endeavor has, I’ll venture to make a suggestion of my own for a utility function, namely one that evolves over time. In other words, I propose a narrow A.I. whose sole purpose is to optimize the utility function of the AGI, perhaps in a Reinforcement Learning fashion, based on the feedback it receives from other people, while it starts with a utility function that’s as risk-free as possible (based on some simulations we run before we deploy it to the AGI). Some core heuristics may be in place to ensure a large enough diversity of signals that this A.I. will take into account, coordinating the various objectives / values that the AGI will have to uphold. Besides, it would be naive to assume that a human being, no matter how knowledgeable, can be in a position to come up with a utility function that can apply to some creature more intelligent than all the people in the world, forever.
If our own evolution has taught as anything is that there are no absolutes in nature and that we evolve to become better and adjust our values according to the circumstances we face and the challenges we wish to overcome. Why should an AGI be any different, considering that it’s created in our own image?
Zacharias Voulgaris, PhD
Passionate data scientist with a foxy approach to technology, particularly related to A.I.