AI, Minds, Philosophy, Politics

A.I. safety with Democracy?

Common path of discussion:

Alice: A.I. can already be dangerous, even though it’s currently narrow intelligence only. How do we make it safe before it’s general intelligence?

Bob: Democracy!

Alice: That’s a sentence fragment, not an answer. What do you mean?

Bob: Vote for what you want the A.I. to do 🙂

Alice: But people ask for what they think they want instead of what they really want — this leads to misaligned incentives/paperclip optimisers, or pathological focus on universal instrumental goals like money or power.

Bob: Then let’s give the A.I. to everyone, so we’re all equal and anyone who tells their A.I. to do something daft can be countered by everyone else.

Alice: But that assumes the machines operate on the same speed we do. If we assume that an A.G.I. can be made by duplicating a human brain’s connectome in silicon — mapping synapses to transistors — then even with no more Moore’s Law an A.G.I. would be out-pacing our thoughts by the same margin a pack of wolves outpaces continental drift (and the volume of a few dozen grains of sand).

Because we’re much too slow to respond to threats ourselves, any helpful A.G.I. working to stop a harmful A.G.I. would have to know what to do before we told it; yet if we knew how to make them work like that, then we wouldn’t need to, as all A.G.I. would stop themselves from doing anything harmful in the first place.

Bob: Balance of powers, just like governments — no single A.G.I can get too big, because all the other A.G.I. want the same limited resource.

Alice: Keep reading that educational webcomic. Even in the human case (and we can’t trust our intuition about the nature of an arbitrary A.G.I.), separation of powers only works if you can guarantee that those who seek power don’t collude. As humans collude, an A.G.I. (even one which seeks power only as an instrumental goal for some other cause) can be expected to collude with other similar A.G.I. (“A.G.I.s”? How do you pluralise an initialism?)

There’s probably something that should follow this, but I don’t know what as real conversations usually go stale well before my final Alice response (and even that might have been too harsh and conversation-stopping, I’d like to dig deeper and find out what happens next).

I still think we ultimately want “do what I meant not what I said“, but at the very least that’s really hard to specify and at worst I’m starting to worry that some (too many?) people may be unable to cope with the possibility that some of the things they want are incoherent or self-contradictory.

Whatever the solution, I suspect that politics and economics both have a lot of lessons available to help the development of safe A.I. — both limited A.I. that currently exists and also potential future tech such as human-level general A.I. (perhaps even super-intelligence, but don’t count on that).


Cherry-manning? Nut picking

Creating a straw-man by cherry-picking extreme outliers of large data sets, e.g. using Caligula as ‘proof’ that the Roman Empire was uncivilised, and going on from that to say that all ideas and artefacts from the Roman Empire should be discarded.

(I can think of plenty of examples from the modern world, but if I actually name one then someone will misunderstand and/or believe the thing which I would call a straw-man and mistake the cherry-picking for a valid data-point — I’ve seen this happen quite a few times online).

There’s got to be a better name for this — it’s coincidentally the name of at least one real person — but I can’t think of one.

Edit: “Nut picking”, a neologism coined by Kevin Drum, Wikipedia attributes it to The Washington Monthly, (August 11, 2006).


Irish border, WTO rules, Brexit

Disclaimer: I’m neither a lawyer nor involved in international trade, this is based on what I assume to be a massively over-simplified understanding of world trade rules.

The UK wants to leave the EU customs union. They are allowed to do this.

Leaving the EU customs union necessarily means that any goods crossing from the UK into the EU customs union will need to pass through customs checks. To stop this, the UK and the EU would have to agree (some sort of) trade deal — the UK does not have the power or the right to prevent this alone.

The UK has an agreement with the Republic of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, which reportedly means neither party is allowed to install customs checks on the border (does it? I’ve seen people claim that but I’ve not seen details). The terms of the Good Friday Agreement do not make it illegal for the UK to leave the EU customs union regardless, as there are ways to meet both requirements:

  1. The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU.
  2. The border between the EU customs union can be somewhere other than the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border:
    1. The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU.
    2. Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK.
    3. Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves.
    4. There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland.

All of these have problems, the question is which problems you’re willing to deal with.

The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU

World Trade Organisation rules say that (outside of free trade agreements), all trade must be on the same terms as the most favoured nation: if you drop tariffs for one nation, you must drop them for all; if you accept goods from one nation without checking them, you must do so for all; etc.

If the UK accepts all goods from the EU without checking them, then the UK is obliged to also accept all goods from everyone else, also without checking them.

This does not oblige the EU to accept goods coming from the UK, but would allow the UK to be following all the rules.

The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU

The Republic of Ireland has no desire to do this. (It might happen).

Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK / Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves

The UK government will probably fall if this happens. (It might happen).

There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland

I don’t know enough about the politics of Northern Ireland to be sure, but isn’t this sort of thinking exactly what caused all the fireworks between India and Pakistan, between and inside seemingly half of the nations in Africa, the reason the Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Cold War, and one of the main reasons Northern Ireland didn’t immediately become peaceful the moment the Republic of Ireland became independent from the UK?

Obviously, the only acceptable course from the perspective of the UK government is to try to force the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU. Fortunately for the Republic of Ireland, the UK government is wildly incompetent.

Oh, one more problem:

The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t just with the Republic of Ireland, it also involved the total disarming of all paramilitary groups. The paramilitary groups reportedly dragged their feet with that disarming, so even if the governments agree, there may be an undesirable fan-feces interaction.

Advice? I suppose you could invest in armoured reinforcement manufacturers, but this isn’t going to be fun for anyone.



One of my memories growing up was the news of John Major vowing to veto every piece of EU legislation in retaliation for the BSE trade restrictions:

It wasn’t very effective.

My father told me it had failed because it meant the UK was vetoing everything that the UK wanted to do as a member of the EU while also failing to prevent other member states from agreeing with each other to do things that only the UK stood in the way of.

What happens if we leave? Well, we don’t get so many chances to tell the EU decision makers what we want the EU to do while also failing to prevent other member states from agreeing with each other to do whatever they want.

Stay in? Well, a veto can be used more effectively that it was. Vetoing everything is just throwing a temper tantrum no more effective than holding your breath until you go purple — they know you’ll give in without them having to do anything. Vetoing just the stuff you don’t like? That can work.

We can’t just order the EU around like it’s one of our colonies. We can send our representatives there to negotiate our interests on our behalf (and we do), but the difference between a negotiator and a dictator is that negotiators can agree to bear costs — money, changes to the law, to keep troops away from certain places or in other places, and presumably just about anything else.

Claiming the EU “dictates” the laws of the UK is deceptive; we ask our people to negotiate the details of what the entire EU will do. We ask. Our people.

And if the result of that negotiation really sucks, we can say no in a multitude of ways — and I don’t just mean “Non”, “Nein” and so forth. We have vetoes. And we choose the specifics of the laws the negotiations asked for, giving us the power to frustrate the spirit of an agreement while keeping to its letter. And ultimately, we can invoke the same powers that a “leave” vote would invoke.

Of course, some of those ways of saying “no” are rubbish (just ask Major!) but that’s true for much of life: if your boss asks you to go to a conference in Qatar, you could say “No, I quit!” and look for another job, or you could say “I’m openly gay and they have anti-gay laws. Find someone else.”

Brexit? Well, it looks more like a teenager yelling “I hate you!” and slamming the door on their parents than a new graduate moving out of the family home for their first job — strong feelings, no appreciation for the benefits they have enjoyed nor the costs others have borne, and a plan for the future so vague it can only be described as “speculative”.