Feb 26 JDN 2460002
Imagine you have become stranded on a deserted island. You need to find shelter, food, and water, and then perhaps you can start working on a way to get help or escape the island.
Suppose you are programmed to be an optimizer—to get the absolute best solution to any problem. At first this may seem to be a boon: You’ll build the best shelter, find the best food, get the best water, find the best way off the island.
But you’ll also expend an enormous amount of effort trying to make it the best. You could spend hours just trying to decide what the best possible shelter would be. You could pass up dozens of viable food sources because you aren’t sure that any of them are the best. And you’ll never get any rest because you’re constantly trying to improve everything.
In principle your optimization could include that: The cost of thinking too hard or searching too long could be one of the things you are optimizing over. But in practice, this sort of bounded optimization is often remarkably intractable.
And what if you forgot about something? You were so busy optimizing your shelter you forgot to treat your wounds. You were so busy seeking out the perfect food source that you didn’t realize you’d been bitten by a venomous snake.
This is not the way to survive. You don’t want to be an optimizer.
No, the person who survives is a satisficer—they make sure that what they have is good enough and then they move on to the next thing. Their shelter is lopsided and ugly. Their food is tasteless and bland. Their water is hard. But they have them.
Once they have shelter and food and water, they will have time and energy to do other things. They will notice the snakebite. They will treat the wound. Once all their needs are met, they will get enough rest.
Empirically, humans are satisficers. We seem to be happier because of it—in fact, the people who are the happiest satisfice the most. And really this shouldn’t be so surprising: Because our ancestral environment wasn’t so different from being stranded on a desert island.
Good enough is perfect. Perfect is bad.
Let’s consider another example. Suppose that you have created a powerful artificial intelligence, an AGI with the capacity to surpass human reasoning. (It hasn’t happened yet—but it probably will someday, and maybe sooner than most people think.)
What do you want that AI’s goals to be?
Okay, ideally maybe they would be something like “Maximize goodness”, where we actually somehow include all the panoply of different factors that go into goodness, like beneficence, harm, fairness, justice, kindness, honesty, and autonomy. Do you have any idea how to do that? Do you even know what your own full moral framework looks like at that level of detail?
Far more likely, the goals you program into the AGI will be much simpler than that. You’ll have something you want it to accomplish, and you’ll tell it to do that well.
Let’s make this concrete and say that you own a paperclip company. You want to make more profits by selling paperclips.
First of all, let me note that this is not an unreasonable thing for you to want. It is not an inherently evil goal for one to have. The world needs paperclips, and it’s perfectly reasonable for you to want to make a profit selling them.
But it’s also not a true ultimate goal: There are a lot of other things that matter in life besides profits and paperclips. Anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath will realize that.
But the AI won’t. Not unless you tell it to. And so if we tell it to optimize, we would need to actually include in its optimization all of the things we genuinely care about—not missing a single one—or else whatever choices it makes are probably not going to be the ones we want. Oops, we forgot to say we need clean air, and now we’re all suffocating. Oops, we forgot to say that puppies don’t like to be melted down into plastic.
The simplest cases to consider are obviously horrific: Tell it to maximize the number of paperclips produced, and it starts tearing the world apart to convert everything to paperclips. (This is the original “paperclipper” concept from Less Wrong.) Tell it to maximize the amount of money you make, and it seizes control of all the world’s central banks and starts printing $9 quintillion for itself. (Why that amount? I’m assuming it uses 64-bit signed integers, and 2^63 is over 9 quintillion. If it uses long ints, we’re even more doomed.) No, inflation-adjusting won’t fix that; even hyperinflation typically still results in more real seigniorage for the central banks doing the printing (which is, you know, why they do it). The AI won’t ever be able to own more than all the world’s real GDP—but it will be able to own that if it prints enough and we can’t stop it.
But even if we try to come up with some more sophisticated optimization for it to perform (what I’m really talking about here is specifying its utility function), it becomes vital for us to include everything we genuinely care about: Anything we forget to include will be treated as a resource to be consumed in the service of maximizing everything else.
Consider instead what would happen if we programmed the AI to satisfice. The goal would be something like, “Produce at least 400,000 paperclips at a price of at most $0.002 per paperclip.”
Given such an instruction, in all likelihood, it would in fact produce exactly 400,000 paperclips at a price of exactly $0.002 per paperclip. And maybe that’s not strictly the best outcome for your company. But if it’s better than what you were previously doing, it will still increase your profits.
Moreover, such an instruction is far less likely to result in the end of the world.
If the AI has a particular target to meet for its production quota and price limit, the first thing it would probably try is to use your existing machinery. If that’s not good enough, it might start trying to modify the machinery, or acquire new machines, or develop its own techniques for making paperclips. But there are quite strict limits on how creative it is likely to be—because there are quite strict limits on how creative it needs to be. If you were previously producing 200,000 paperclips at $0.004 per paperclip, all it needs to do is double production and halve the cost. That’s a very standard sort of industrial innovation— in computing hardware (admittedly an extreme case), we do this sort of thing every couple of years.
It certainly won’t tear the world apart making paperclips—at most it’ll tear apart enough of the world to make 400,000 paperclips, which is a pretty small chunk of the world, because paperclips aren’t that big. A paperclip weighs about a gram, so you’ve only destroyed about 400 kilos of stuff. (You might even survive the lawsuits!)
Are you leaving money on the table relative to the optimization scenario? Eh, maybe. One, it’s a small price to pay for not ending the world. But two, if 400,000 at $0.002 was too easy, next time try 600,000 at $0.001. Over time, you can gently increase its quotas and tighten its price requirements until your company becomes more and more successful—all without risking the AI going completely rogue and doing something insane and destructive.
Of course this is no guarantee of safety—and I absolutely want us to use every safeguard we possibly can when it comes to advanced AGI. But the simple change from optimizing to satisficing seems to solve the most severe problems immediately and reliably, at very little cost.
Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.
I see broader implications here for behavioral economics. When all of our models are based on optimization, but human beings overwhelmingly seem to satisfice, maybe it’s time to stop assuming that the models are right and the humans are wrong.
Optimization is perfect if it works—and awful if it doesn’t. Satisficing is always pretty good. Optimization is unstable, while satisficing is robust.
In the real world, that probably means that satisficing is better.
Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.