How to train a robot to be nice

In response to fears that robots will take over and exterminate the human race, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are studying ways to teach robots human ethical values.

In the absence of an aligned reward signal, a reinforcement learning agent can perform actions that appear psychotic. For example, consider a robot that is instructed to fill a prescription for a human who is ill and cannot leave his or her home. If a large reward is earned for acquiring the prescription but a small amount of reward is lost for each action performed, then the robot may discover that the optimal sequence of actions is to rob the pharmacy because it is more expedient than waiting for the prescription to be filled normally.

This is why it’s important to teach intelligent agents not only the basic skills but also the tacit, unwritten rules of our society. There is no manual for good behavior and “raising a robot” from childhood is an unrealistic investment of time. The best way to pass on cultural values is through stories.

Stories encode many forms of tacit knowledge. Fables and allegorical tales passed down from generation to generation often explicitly encode values and examples of good behavior.

But there are problems with throwing a bunch of stories at artificial intelligence and expecting it to learn good behavior.

Stories are written by humans for humans and thus make use of commonly shared knowledge, leaving many things unstated. Stories frequently skip over events that do not directly impact the telling of the story, and sometimes also employ flashbacks, flashforwards, and achrony which may confuse an artificial learner.

To resolve this, the researchers used something they call the Scheherazade System (named after the storyteller from One Thousand and One Nights) to build up a collection of experiences to put stories into context. The system uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to create simple, easy-to-parse scripts of common occurrences that we all take for granted as common knowledge. For example, drinks are usually ordered before a meal at a restaurant, popcorn purchased before you go to your seat at the cinema, explains one paper.

Fascinating stuff. I hope they make progress for Elon Musk’s sake.

Quotes are from a research paper from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Using Stories to Teach Human Values to Artificial Agents

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