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Thanks for this, I've been interested in this area for some time as well. 

Two organizations / researchers in this area that I'd like to highlight (and get others' views on) are Protect Democracy (the executive director is actually a GiveDirectly donor) and Lee Drutman—see e.g. his 2020 book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. For a shorter summary, see Drutman's Vox piece (though Drutman has become less enthusiastic about ranked choice voting and more excited about fusion vorting). 

I'd be excited for someone to write up a really high-quality report on how to best reduce polarization / political dysfunction / democratic backsliding in the US and identify promising grants in this area (if anyone is interested, feel free to contact me as I'm potentially interested in making grants in this area (though I cannot promise anything, obviously)). 



I guess I agree with the gist of your comment. I'm very worried about extremist / fanatical ideologies but more on this below.

because every ideology is dangerous

I guess it depends on how you define "ideology". Let's  say "a system of ideas and ideals". Then it seems evident that some ideologies are less dangerous than others and some seem actually beneficial (e.g., secular humanism, the Enlightenment, or EA). (Arguably, the scientific method itself is an ideology.)

I'd argue that ideologies are dangerous if they are fanatical and extreme. The main characteristics of such fanatical ideologies include dogmatism (extreme irrationality and epistemic & moral certainty), having a dualistic/Manichean worldview that views in-group members as good and everyone who disagrees as irredeemably evil, advocating for the use of violence and unwillingness to compromise, blindly following authoritarian leaders or scriptures (which is necessary since debate, evidence and reason are not allowed), and promising utopia or heaven. Of course, all of this is a continuum. (There is much more that could be said here; I'm working on a post on the subject).

The reason why some autocratic rulers were no malevolent such as Marcus Aurelius, Atatürk, and others is because they followed no ideology. [...] Stoicism was a physicalist philosophy, a realist belief system.

Sounds like an ideology to me but ok. :)


Yes, I think investigative journalism (and especially Kelsey Piper's work on Altman & OpenAI) is immensely valuable. 

In general, I've become more pessimistic about technology-centric/ "galaxy-brained" interventions in this area and more optimistic about "down-to-earth" interventions like, for example, investigative journalism, encouraging whistleblowing (e.g. setting up prizes or funding legal costs), or perhaps psychoeducation / workshops on how to detect malevolent traits and what do when this happens (which requires, in part, courage / the ability to endure social conflict and being socially savvy, arguably not something that most EAs excel in). 

I'm excited about work in this area. 

Somewhat related may also be this recent paper by Costello and colleagues who found that engaging in a dialogue with GPT-4 stably decreased conspiracy beliefs (HT Lucius). 

Perhaps social scientists can help with research on how to best design LLMs to improve people's epistemics; or to make sure that interacting with LLMs at least doesn't worsen people's epistemics. 

Great comment. 

Will says that usually, that most fraudsters aren't just "bad apples" or doing "cost-benefit analysis" on their risk of being punished. Rather, they fail to "conceptualise what they're doing as fraud".

I agree with your analysis but I think Will also sets up a false dichotomy. One's inability to conceptualize or realize that one's actions are wrong is itself a sign of being a bad apple. To simplify a bit, on the one end of the spectrum of the "high integrity to really bad continuum", you have morally scrupulous people who constantly wonder whether their actions are wrong. On the other end of the continuum, you have pathological narcissists whose self-image/internal monologue is so out of whack with reality that they cannot even conceive of themselves doing anything wrong. That doesn't make them great people. If anything, it makes them more scary.

Generally, the internal monologue of the most dangerous types of terrible people (think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc.) doesn't go like "I'm so evil and just love to hurt everyone, hahahaha". My best guess is, that in most cases, it goes more like "I'm the messiah, I'm so great and I'm the only one who can save the world. Everyone who disagrees with me is stupid and/or evil and I have every right to get rid of them." [1]

Of course, there are people whose internal monologues are more straightforwardly evil/selfish (though even here lots of self-delusion is probably going on) but they usually end up being serial killers or the like, not running countries. 

Also, later when Will talks about bad applies, he mentions that “typical cases of fraud [come] from people who are very successful, actually very well admired”, which again suggests that "bad apples" are not very successful or not very well admired. Well, again, many terrible people were extremely successful and admired. Like, you know, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. 

Nor am I implying that improved governance is not a part of the solution.

Yep, I agree. In fact, the whole character vs. governance thing seems like another false dichotomy to me. You want to have good governance structures but the people in relevant positions of influence should also know a little bit about how to evaluate character. 

  1. ^

    In general, bad character is compatible with genuine moral convictions. Hitler, for example, was vegetarian for moral reasons and “used vivid and gruesome descriptions of animal suffering and slaughter at the dinner table to try to dissuade his colleagues from eating meat”. (Fraudster/bad apple vs. person with genuine convictions is another false dichotomy that people keep setting up.)

Thanks Anthony! 

Regarding 2: I'm totally no expert but it seems to me that there are other ways of influencing the preferences/dispositions of AI—e.g., i) penalizing, say, malevolent or fanatical reasoning/behavior/attitudes (e.g., by telling RLHF raters to specifically look out for such properties and penalize them), or ii) similarly amending the principles and rules of constitutional AI.  

Great post, thanks for writing! 

I like the idea of trying to shape the "personalities" of AIs. 

Is there a reason to only focus on spite here instead of also trying to make AI personalities less malevolent in general? Malevolent/dark traits, at least in humans, often come together and thus arguably constitute a type of personality (also, spitefulness correlates fairly highly with most other dark traits). (Cf. the dark factor of personality.) I guess we don't fully understand why these traits seem to cluster together in humans but I think we can't rule out that they will also cluster together in AIs. 

Another undesirable (personality?epistemic?) trait or property (in both AIs and humans) that I'm worried about is ideological fanaticism/extremism (see especially footnote 4 of the link for what I mean by that).

My sense is that ideological fanaticism is arguably: 

  • the opposite of wisdom, terrible epistemics, anti-corrigble.
  • very hard to cooperate with (very "fussy" in your terminology), very conflict-seeking, not being willing to compromise, extremely non-pluralistic, arguably scoring very low on "having something to lose" (perhaps partly due to the mistaken belief that history/God is on the fanatics' side and thus even death is not the end). 
  • often goes together with hatred of the outgroup and excessive retributivism (or spite).

It's unclear if this framing is helpful but I find it interesting that ideological fanaticism seems to encompass most of the undesirable attributes that you outline in this post.[1] So it may be a useful umbrella term for many of the things we don't want to see in AIs (or the humans controlling AIs). 

  1. ^

    Also, it sure seems as though ideological fanaticism was responsible for many historical atrocities and we may worry that the future will resemble the past. 

For example, it could hypothetically turn out, just as a brute empirical fact, that the most effective way of aligning AIs is to treat them terribly in some way, e.g. by brainwashing them or subjecting them to painful stimuli. 

Yes, agree. (For this and other reasons, I'm supportive of projects like, e.g., NYU MEP.)

I also agree that there are no strong reasons to think that technological progress improves people's morality.

As you write, my main reason for worrying more about agential s-risks is that the greater the technological power of agents, the more their intrinsic preferences matter in how the universe will look like. To put it differently, actors whose terminal goals put some positive value on suffering (e.g., due to sadism, retributivism or other weird fanatical beliefs) would deliberately aim to arrange matter in such a way that it contains more suffering—this seems extremely worrisome if they have access to advanced technology. 

Altruists would also have a much harder time to trade with such actors, whereas purely selfish actors (who don't put positive value on suffering) could plausibly engage in mutually beneficial trades (e.g., they use (slightly) less efficient AI training/alignment methods which contain much less suffering and altruists give them some of their resources in return). 

But at the very least, incidental s-risks seem plausibly quite bad in expectation regardless.

Yeah, despite what I have written above, I probably worry more about incidental s-risks than the average s-risk reducer. 


Existential risks from within?

(Unimportant discussion of probably useless and confused terminology.)

I sometimes use terms like “inner existential risks” to refer to risk factors like malevolence and fanaticism. Inner existential risks primarily arise from “within the human heart”—that is, they are primarily related to the values, goals and/or beliefs of (some) humans. 

My sense is that most x-risk discourse focuses on outer existential risks, that is, x-risks which primarily arise from outside the human mind. These could be physical or natural processes (asteroids, lethal pathogens) or technological processes that once originated in the human mind but are now out of their control (e.g., AI, nuclear weapons, engineered pandemics).

Of course, most people already believe that the most worrisome existential risks are anthropogenic, that is, caused by humans. One could argue that, say, AI and engineered pandemics are actually inner existential risks because they arose from within the human mind. I agree that the distinction between inner and outer existential risks is not super clear. Still, it seems to me that the distinction between inner and outer existential risks captures something vaguely real and may serve as some kind of intuition pump.

Then there is the related issue of more external or structural risk factors, like political or economic systems. These are systems invented by human minds and which in turn are shaping human minds and values. I will conveniently ignore this further complication.

Other potential terms for inner existential risks could be intraanthropic, idioanthropic, or psychogenic (existential) risks.

Two sources of human misalignment that may resist a long reflection: malevolence and ideological fanaticism

(Alternative title: Some bad human values may corrupt a long reflection[1])

The values of some humans, even if idealized (e.g., during some form of long reflection), may be incompatible with an excellent future. Thus, solving AI alignment will not necessarily lead to utopia.

Others have raised similar concerns before.[2] Joe Carlsmith puts it especially well in the post “An even deeper atheism”:

“And now, of course, the question arises: how different, exactly, are human hearts from each other? And in particular: are they sufficiently different that, when they foom, and even "on reflection," they don't end up pointing in exactly the same direction? After all, Yudkowsky said, above, that in order for the future to be non-trivially "of worth," human hearts have to be in the driver's seat. But even setting aside the insult, here, to the dolphins, bonobos, nearest grabby aliens, and so on – still, that's only to specify a necessary condition. Presumably, though, it's not a sufficient condition? Presumably some human hearts would be bad drivers, too? Like, I dunno, Stalin?”

What makes human hearts bad? 

What, exactly, makes some human hearts bad drivers? If we better understood what makes hearts go bad, perhaps we could figure out how to make bad hearts good or at least learn how to prevent hearts from going bad. It would also allow us better spot potentially bad hearts and coordinate our efforts to prevent them from taking the driving seat.

As of now, I’m most worried about malevolent personality traits and fanatical ideologies.[3]

Malevolence: dangerous personality traits

Some human hearts may be corrupted due to elevated malevolent traits like psychopathy, sadism, narcissism, Machiavellianism, or spitefulness.

Ideological fanaticism: dangerous belief systems

There are many suitable definitions of “ideological fanaticism”. Whatever definition we are going to use, it should describe ideologies that have caused immense harm historically, such as fascism (Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini), (extreme) communism (the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao), religious fundamentalism (ISIS, the Inquisition), and most cults. 

See this footnote[4] for a preliminary list of defining characteristics.

Malevolence and fanaticism seem especially dangerous

Of course, there are other factors that could corrupt our hearts or driving ability. For example, cognitive biases, limited cognitive ability, philosophical confusions, or plain old selfishness.[5] I’m most concerned about malevolence and ideological fanaticism for two reasons.   

Deliberately resisting reflection and idealization

First, malevolence—if reflectively endorsed[6]—and fanatical ideologies deliberately resist being changed and would thus plausibly resist idealization even during a long reflection. The most central characteristic of fanatical ideologies is arguably that they explicitly forbid criticism, questioning, and belief change and view doubters and disagreement as evil. 

Putting positive value on creating harm

Second, malevolence and ideological fanaticism would not only result in the future not being as good as it possibly could—they might actively steer the future in bad directions and, for instance, result in astronomical amounts of suffering

The preferences of malevolent humans (e.g., sadists) may be such that they intrinsically enjoy inflicting suffering on others. Similarly, many fanatical ideologies sympathize with excessive retributivism and often demonize the outgroup. Enabled by future technology, preferences for inflicting suffering on the outgroup may result in enormous disvalue—cf. concentration camps, the Gulag, or hell[7].

In the future, I hope to write more about all of this, especially long-term risks from ideological fanaticism. 

Thanks to Pablo and Ruairi for comments and valuable discussions. 

  1. ^

    “Human misalignment” is arguably a confusing (and perhaps confused) term. But it sounds more sophisticated than “bad human values”. 

  2. ^

    For example, Matthew Barnett in “AI alignment shouldn't be conflated with AI moral achievement”, Geoffrey Miller in “AI alignment with humans... but with which humans?”, lc in “Aligned AI is dual use technology”. Pablo Stafforini has called this the “third alignment problem”. And of course, Yudkowsky’s concept of CEV is meant to address these issues. 

  3. ^

    These factors may not be clearly separable. Some humans may be more attracted to fanatical ideologies due to their psychological traits and malevolent humans are often leading fanatical ideologies. Also, believing and following a fanatical ideology may not be good for your heart.

  4. ^

    Below are some typical characteristics (I’m no expert in this area):

    Unquestioning belief, absolute certainty and rigid adherence. The principles and beliefs of the ideology are seen as absolute truth and questioning or critical examination is forbidden.

    Inflexibility and refusal to compromise

    Intolerance and hostility towards dissent. Anyone who disagrees or challenges the ideology is seen as evil; as enemies, traitors, or heretics.

    Ingroup superiority and outgroup demonization. The in-group is viewed as superior, chosen, or enlightened. The out-group is often demonized and blamed for the world's problems. 

    Authoritarianism. Fanatical ideologies often endorse (or even require) a strong, centralized authority to enforce their principles and suppress opposition, potentially culminating in dictatorship or totalitarianism.

    Militancy and willingness to use violence.

    Utopian vision. Many fanatical ideologies are driven by a vision of a perfect future or afterlife which can only be achieved through strict adherence to the ideology. This utopian vision often justifies extreme measures in the present. 

    Use of propaganda and censorship

  5. ^

    For example, Barnett argues that future technology will be primarily used to satisfy economic consumption (aka selfish desires). That seems even plausible to me, however, I’m not that concerned about this causing huge amounts of future suffering (at least compared to other s-risks). It seems to me that most humans place non-trivial value on the welfare of (neutral) others such as animals. Right now, this preference (for most people) isn’t strong enough to outweigh the selfish benefits of eating meat. However, I’m relatively hopeful that future technology would make such types of tradeoffs much less costly. 

  6. ^

    Some people (how many?) with elevated malevolent traits don’t reflectively endorse their malevolent urges and would change them if they could. However, some of them do reflectively endorse their malevolent preferences and view empathy as weakness. 

  7. ^

    Some quotes from famous Christian theologians: 

    Thomas Aquinas:  "the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked." "In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned". 

    Samuel Hopkins:  "Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed.”

    Jonathan Edwards:  "The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever."

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