SIAI: Why We Exist and Our Short-Term Research Program

From: Tyler Emerson (
Date: Tue Jul 31 2007 - 18:21:28 MDT

Dear all:

Here is a new overview of SIAI, focusing on why we think our mission
is an important one, and where we're looking to focus research efforts
in the short-term.

Let me know what you think: I look forward to
any thoughts you have.

I hope you enjoy it!

Best regards,

Tyler Emerson
Executive Director
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
P.O . Box 50182, Palo Alto, CA 94303 USA
650-353-6063 | |
SIAI: Why We Exist and Our Short-Term Research Program
Why SIAI Exists
As the 21st century progresses, an increasing number of
forward-thinking scientists and technologists are coming to the
conclusion that this will be the century of AI: the century when human
inventions exceed human beings in general intelligence. When exactly
this will happen, no one knows for sure; Ray Kurzweil, for example,
has estimated 2029.
Of course, where the future is concerned, nothing is certain except
surprise; but the mere fact that so many knowledgeable people (such as
Stephen Hawking, Douglas Hofstadter, Bill Joy, and Martin Rees) take
the near advent of advanced AI as a plausible possibility, should
serve as a "wake-up call" to anyone seriously concerned about the
future of humanity.
The potential of advanced AI, for good or evil, has been amply
explored in science fiction literature and cinema. In the early 90's,
Vernor Vinge coined the term "technological singularity" to refer to
the difficulty of predicting or understanding what will happen after
the point at which humans are no longer the most intelligent and
capable minds on Earth.
It's easy to be passive about this issue. Technology is advancing, and
none of us have the power to stop it. There are also plenty of more
pressing issues around us, so there may seem no clear need to worry
about something that may happen in 2029, or 2020, or 2050.
Everyone involved with SIAI, however, believes that this kind of
passivity is both shortsighted and dangerous. As a starting point,
futuristic predictions are not always overoptimistic  sometimes they
wind up overpessimistic instead. Jetsons-style spacecraft aren't here
yet, but the Internet is, and hardly anyone foresaw that until it came
about. It's important to also note that the 22 years until Kurzweil's
2029 prediction is not very long at all. Advanced AI is a big thing to
understand, and it's also something that can be done either safely or
unsafely. The time to start thinking very, very hard about how to do
it safely is this year, not next year, or five years from now. The
potential dangers of creating advanced AI the wrong way are very
severe; and the potential rewards of creating it the right way are at
least equally tremendous.
Our core, long-term mission at the Singularity Institute is to figure
out how to develop advanced AI safely to help bring about a world in
which the vast potential benefits of this technology can be enjoyed by
all of humanity. We want to create a rigorous scientific,
mathematical, and engineering framework to guide the development of
safe advanced AI.
In our view, this is the most critical issue facing humanity. We are
on the verge of creating minds exceeding our own. Unfortunately, the
amount of societal resources presently going into figuring out how to
do this right is absurdly tiny. SIAI is the only organization on the
planet right now that's squarely focused on this incredibly important
problem. By reading this, you are among the .01% who have even heard
about this issue; and that estimate may be high.
The Most Important Question Facing Humanity
There are many ways to work toward figuring out how to develop
advanced AI. Engineering specific AI systems is valuable, as it helps
us gain experimental knowledge of semi-advanced AI systems, while
they're still at an infra-human level. Studying human brain and
cognition is valuable, since after all, at the present time, the human
mind is the only highly generally intelligent system we have at our
disposal to study. Other disciplines like ethical philosophy and
mathematical decisions theory also have a lot to contribute.
However, there is one question we feel is absolutely critical to the
goal of figuring out how to develop advanced AI the right way, which
remains essentially unexplored within academia and industry. SIAI's
short-term research mission is to resolve this one question as
thoroughly as possible. Compactly stated, the question is this:
How can one make an AI system that modifies and improves itself, yet
does not lose track of the top-level goals with which it was
originally supplied?
This question is simple to state but devilishly difficult to resolve 
it's not even an easy thing to formalize in the language of modern
mathematics and AI.
To understand the significance of this question, think about this:
What is the most likely way for humans to create an AI system that's a
lot smarter than humans? The answer is: To create an AI system that's
a little smarter than humans  and ask it to figure out how to make
itself a little bit smarter; and so on, and so on.
This is not an original idea, it's been around since at least the
1930's, in various forms. However, we are approaching a time when it
can actually happen. The pressing question is, then: If we embody the
initial "a little smarter than humans" AI system with some nice goals
(including helping humans rather than harming them), how do we know
the subsequent systems it creates, and the ones its creations create,
etc., will still embody these goals?
The current focus of SIAI's Research Program is to move toward a
rigorous understanding and hopefully a clear resolution of this
SIAI's Short-Term Research Program
We aim to resolve this crucial question by simultaneously proceeding
on two fronts:
1. Experimentation with practical, contemporary AI systems that modify
and improve their own source code.
 2. Extension and refinement of mathematical tools to enable rigorous
formal analysis of advanced self-improving AI's.
These directions are not disjoint; they have great potential to
cross-pollinate each other, just as theoretical and empirical science
have done throughout the ages. On a technical level, part of the
cross-pollination will occur because both our experimental and our
theoretical work is grounded in probability theory: probabilistic AI
and probabilistic mathematics.
A Practical Project in Self-Modifying AI
For the practical aspect of the SIAI Research Program, we intend to
take the MOSES probabilistic evolutionary learning system, which
exists in the public domain and was developed by Dr. Moshe Looks in
his PhD work at Washington University in 2006, and deploy it
self-referentially, in a manner that allows MOSES to improve its own
learning methodology.
MOSES is currently implemented in C++, and is configured to learn
software programs that are expressed in a simple language called
Combo. Deploying MOSES self-referentially will require the
re-implementation of MOSES in Combo, and then the improvement of
several aspects of MOSES's internal learning algorithms.
Hitherto MOSES has proved useful for data mining, biological data
analysis, and the control of simple embodied agents in virtual worlds.
In a current project, Novamente LLC and Electric Sheep Company are
using it to control a simple virtual agent acting in Second Life.
Learning to improve MOSES will be the most difficult task yet posed to
MOSES, but also the most interesting.
Applying MOSES self-referentially will give us a fascinating concrete
example of self-modifying AI software  far short of human-level
general intelligence initially, but nevertheless with many lessons to
teach us about the more ambitious self-modifying AI's that may be
Toward a Rigorous Theory of Self-Modifying AI
Studying self-modification in the context of a particular contemporary
AI algorithm such as MOSEs is important, but ultimately it only takes
you so far. One of the values of mathematics is that it lets you
explore important issues in advance of actually observing them
empirically. For instance, using mathematics, Einstein understood the
nature of black holes long before they were ever empirically observed.
Similarly, we may use mathematics to understand things about advanced
self-modifying probabilistic AI systems, even before we have worked
out the details of how to create them (and before we have sufficient
hardware to run them).
Theoretical computer scientists such as Marcus Hutter and Juergen
Schmidhuber, in recent years, have developed a rigorous mathematical
theory of artificial general intelligence (AGI). While this work is
revolutionary, it has its limitations. Most of its conclusions apply
only to AI systems that use a truly massive amount of computational
resources  more than we could ever assemble in physical reality.
What needs to be done, in order to create a mathematical theory that
is useful for studying the self-modifying AI systems we will build in
the future, is to scale Hutter and Schmidhuber's theory down to deal
with AI systems involving more plausible amounts of computational
resources. This is far from an easy task, but it is a concrete
mathematical task, and we have specific conjectures regarding how to
approach it. The self-referential MOSES implementation, mentioned
above, may serve as an important test case here: if a scaled-down
mathematical theory of AGI is any good, it should be able to tell us
something about self-referential MOSES.
This sort of work is difficult, and the time required for success is
hard to predict. However, we feel very strongly that this sort of
foundational work  inspired by close collaboration with computational
experiment  is the most likely route to achieving true understanding
of the fundamental question posed above: How can one make an AI system
that modifies and improves itself, yet does not lose track of the
top-level goals with which it was originally supplied?
Hiring Plan
SIAI is currently a small organization, with one full-time Research
Fellow (Eliezer Yudkowsky) and part-time involvement by a number of AI
researchers, including Director of Research Dr. Ben Goertzel. We are
seeking additional funding so as to enable, initially, the hiring of
two doctoral or post-doctoral Research Fellows to focus on the above
two areas (practical and theoretical exploration of self-modifying
These two Fellows would work under the supervision of Dr. Ben
Goertzel; and in collaboration with Eliezer Yudkowsky as well. They
would also benefit from interaction with the group of AI luminaries
who are involved with SIAI, including SIAI Director Ray Kurzweil and
SIAI Advisors Neil Jacobstein and Dr. Stephen Omohundro.
Two Research Fellows, of course, represent a rather small allocation
of society's overall resources  one could argue that, in fact, a
substantial percentage of our collective resources should be allocated
to exploring issues such as those that concern SIAI, given their
potentially extreme importance to the future of humankind. But many
great things start from small initiatives, and we believe that the
right two researchers, focused squarely on these issues, can make a
huge difference in advancing knowledge and better directing AI R&D in
the right direction.
Part of our goal is to make progress on these issues ourselves,
in-house within SIAI; and part of our goal is to, by demonstrating
this progress, interest the wider AI R&D community in these
foundational issues. Either way: the goal is to move toward a deeper
understanding of these incredibly important issues.
Toward a Positive Singularity
Advanced self-modifying AI is almost sure to happen in this century 
as Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and others have foreseen. The big question
is whether we succeed in creating it with rigor, care, and foresight.
SIAI doesn't claim to have the answers  not yet, anyway. What we do
have is a systematic, well-defined research program, aimed at focusing
on the most essential questions. With sustained effort, maybe a little
brilliance and luck, and a lot of help, we may well create an
understanding that will help the human race navigate its way in the
coming decades to a positive Singularity. If you are aligned with this
vision, we hope you will help us.
Why is it advantageous to invest in SIAI now rather later? There's a
clear, rational answer to this question: If you invest now, you will
increase the probability that we can scale SIAI and its community of
friends and supporters to a level where there's a sufficiently-sized
body of capable researchers who can work full-time on these critical
issues. SIAI is the only organization focused on these problems right
now, thus we are a nucleus around which a certain amount of talent has
already accrued, and around which additional talent can be accrued
over time. If you invest later, you will likely have reduced the
probability that SIAI will be able to reach a sufficient critical mass
to effectively confront these issues before it's way too late. SIAI
must boot-strap into existence a scientific field and research
community for the study of safe, recursively self-improving systems;
this field and community doesn't exist yet. This is going to be hard;
it's going to take time, but the sooner SIAI can grow, the greater the
chance we'll have of being able to catalyze a critical mass in-time to
deal with these problems before we're in a nose-dive situation that we
can't reverse.
One of the best ways to support SIAI is by contributing to the
Singularity Challenge, which will allow us to grow the organization.
If you donate or email us a pledge by August 6th, we can ensure your
gift is matched. We hope many of you reading will do this; and thank
If you want to get involved with SIAI, or if you have resources to
share (such as expertise, talent, promotion, or contacts), then please
email us:

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