Holden Karnofsky: the fast takeoff scenario is a key motivation for preemptive AI safety measures

Holden Karnofsky: One of the reasons I’m so interested in AI safety standards is because kind of no matter what risk you’re worried about, I think you hopefully should be able to get on board with the idea that you should measure the risk, and not unwittingly deploy AI systems that are carrying a tonne of the risk, before you’ve at least made a deliberate informed decision to do so. And I think if we do that, we can anticipate a lot of different risks and stop them from coming at us too fast. Too fast” is the central theme for me.

You know, a common story in some corners of this discourse is this idea of an AI that’s this kind of simple computer program, and it rewrites its own source code, and that’s where all the action is. I don’t think that’s exactly the picture I have in mind, although there’s some similarities.

The kind of thing I’m picturing is maybe more like a months or years time period from getting sort of near-human-level AI systems — and what that means is definitely debatable and gets messy — but near-human-level AI systems to just very powerful ones that are advancing science and technology really fast. And then in science and technology — at least on certain fronts that are the less bottlenecked fronts– you get a huge jump. So I think my view is at least somewhat more moderate than Eliezer’s, and at least has somewhat different dynamics.

But I think both points of view are talking about this rapid change. I think without the rapid change, a) things are a lot less scary generally, and b) I think it is harder to justify a lot of the stuff that AI-concerned people do to try and get out ahead of the problem and think about things in advance. Because I think a lot of people sort of complain with this discourse that it’s really hard to know the future, and all this stuff we’re talking about about what future AI systems are going to do and what we have to do about it today, it’s very hard to get that right. It’s very hard to anticipate what things will be like in an unfamiliar future.

When people complain about that stuff, I’m just very sympathetic. I think that’s right. And if I thought that we had the option to adapt to everything as it happens, I think I would in many ways be tempted to just work on other problems, and in fact adapt to things as they happen and we see what’s happening and see what’s most needed. And so I think a lot of the case for planning things out in advance — trying to tell stories of what might happen, trying to figure out what kind of regime we’re going to want and put the pieces in place today, trying to figure out what kind of research challenges are going to be hard and do them today — I think a lot of the case for that stuff being so important does rely on this theory that things could move a lot faster than anyone is expecting.

I am in fact very sympathetic to people who would rather just adapt to things as they go. I think that’s usually the right way to do things. And I think many attempts to anticipate future problems are things I’m just not that interested in, because of this issue. But I think AI is a place where we have to take the explosive progress thing seriously enough that we should be doing our best to prepare for it

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess if you have this explosive growth, then the very strange things that we might be trying to prepare for might be happening in 2027, or incredibly soon.

Holden Karnofsky: Something like that, yeah. It’s imaginable, right? And it’s all extremely uncertain because we don’t know. In my head, a lot of it is like there’s a set of properties that an AI system could have: roughly being able to do roughly everything humans are able to do to advance science and technology, or at least able to advance AI research. We don’t know when we’ll have that. One possibility is we’re like 30 years away from that. But once we get near that, things will move incredibly fast. And that’s a world we could be in. We could also be in a world where we’re only a few years from that, and then everything’s going to get much crazier than anyone thinks, much faster than anyone thinks.


See also: HK on PASTA.

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