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This post is one part of the sequence Understanding the diffusion of large language models.  As context for this post, I strongly recommend reading at least the 5-minute summary of the sequence.


In this sequence I presented key findings from case studies on the diffusion of eight language models that are similar to GPT-3. The phenomenon of diffusion has broad relevance to risks from TAI:

  1. The diffusion of AI technology affects when TAI will be developed, and which actors will lead AI development by what margin. This in turn affects how safe the TAI systems are, how the systems are used, and what the state of global politics and economics is like when the systems are used.
  2. Diffusion can have benefits, such as helping less-resourced actors to scrutinize leading AI developers, and supporting AI alignment research outside of leading industry AI labs.

GPT-3-like models are quite a specific domain, and may seem far from TAI. Nonetheless, I centered my research on case studies of GPT-3-like models because I think they are relatively informative about how diffusion will impact TAI development. In particular:

  1. The way that diffusion works today (in broad terms) might persist until the development of TAI, especially if TAI is developed relatively soon (e.g., in the next 10 years).
  2. TAI systems (or components of them) might resemble today’s best-performing language models, especially if the scaling hypothesis is true. So the implications of diffusion related to such models may be similar to the implications of diffusion related to transformative AI systems.
  3. Even if a lot changes between now and TAI, the history of diffusion improves our understanding of what could happen.

My research has strong limitations, including that:

  1. Much of the data from my case studies is highly uncertain, with quantitative estimates often spanning an order of magnitude.
  2. I often generalize from a small set of case studies in a narrow domain. Some of my conclusions are not robust to counterexamples that I might discover in the future. However, I have tried my best to factor this possibility into my confidence levels.
  3. Many of my bottom-line conclusions are not supported by much hard evidence, and are instead based on a combination of logical arguments and intuitions.

I think that the concept of diffusion is a productive framing to study competition, publication strategy, and other important dynamics of AI development. I’m excited for other researchers to continue work on diffusion. These are some of my recommended topics for future work (see this previous post for more):

  1. Further evaluation of my proposals to limit access to datasets and algorithmic insights
  2. The relevance and importance of diffusion mechanisms that were not involved in my case studies.
    1. These mechanisms include theft or the leaking of information.
  3. Case studies in other domains of AI.
    1. This would be useful both to expand the overall amount of empirical data on diffusion, and to make comparisons to my existing case studies.
    2. Notable candidates for study are AlphaGo Zero (game playing domain) and DALL-E (text-image domain).
  4. How the publication strategy of emerging AI developers will shift as they grow.
  5. How much deployment costs (rather than development costs) will limit the diffusion of (transformative) AI capabilities.
  6. How much different inputs to AI development contribute to AI progress.
    1. At various points in this sequence I presented my best guesses about the relative importance of different inputs to AI development, but I still have a lot of uncertainty that warrants further research.


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In addition to feedback-givers, I'd like to thank:

  • My manager at Rethink Priorities, Michael Aird, for helping me become a better researcher throughout this project. Michael’s support, advice, and feedback were crucial to improving and finishing this sequence.
  • Rethink Priorities for supporting me to do this project.
  • All of the experts who responded to my questions.
  • Adam Papineau for copyediting.

This research is a project of Rethink Priorities. It was written by Ben Cottier. Thanks to Alexis Carlier, Amanda El-Dakhakhni, Ashwin Acharya, Ben Snodin, Bill Anderson-Samways, Erich Grunewald, Jack Clark, Jaime Sevilla, Jenny Xiao, Lennart Heim, Lewis Ho, Lucy Lim, Luke Muehlhauser, Markus Anderljung, Max Räuker, Micah Musser, Michael Aird, Miles Brundage, Oliver Guest, Onni Arne, Patrick Levermore, Peter Wildeford, Remco Zwetsloot, Renan Araújo, Shaun Ee, Tamay Besiroglu, and Toby Shevlane for helpful feedback. If you like our work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can explore our completed public work here.

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