Why I’m Not (Yet) A Full-Time Technical Alignment Researcher

  1. I have bills to pay (rent and food). For those, I need money. Most full-time technical alignment researchers solve this problem by looking for outside funding. (I.e., most researchers are not independently wealthy; they go to someone else to afford to work on alignment full-time.)

  2. To get funding in alignment, you generally apply for a grant or a job. In both cases, anyone who’d give you those things will want to see evidence, beforehand, that you know what you’re doing. To a near-tautological degree, this evidence must be “legible”.

  3. How do I make my skills/​ideas legible? The recommended route is to write my ideas on a blog/​LessWrong, read and interact with other alignment materials, and then… eventually it’s enough, I assume. For reasons I may/​not write about in the near future, many ideas about alignment (especially anything that could be done with today’s systems) could very well accelerate capabilities work. There are at least some types of alignment research that are also easy to use for increasing capabilities. Since I’m especially interested in John Wentworth’s “abstraction” ideas, anything good I come up might also be like that. In other words legibility and security conflict at least some of the time, especially on the sorts of ideas I’m personally likely to have.

  4. OK, fine, maybe it’s hard to publish legible non-exfohazardous original/​smart thoughts about AI alignment. Luckily, funders and hire-ers don’t expect everyrone coming in to have already published papers! Perhaps I can simply demonstrate my skills, instead?

  5. Firstly, many technical skills relevant to AI alignment are hard to demonstrate efficiently. Say you develop a cool new ML algorithm. Did you just speed up capabilities? Okay, just take public notes on a large amount of technical reading… but that mostly signals conscientiousness, not research Talent:tm:! Well, how about you do another technical project… well, now you’re wasting precious time that maybe should’ve been spent on original research. How long are your timelines? (This also applies to the “become independently wealthy to fund yourself” strategy, only more so. I spent an embarrassingly long time on that route in my spare time...)

  6. My skills, themselves, are not always legible!

    Some of my skills are legible enough for my resume: I’ve engineered some software at some companies, I know how to debug things, and I list more in a section below. I’m pretty okay at these things.

    However, I think the stuff I’m best at is currently under-measured. These skills include (but aren’t limited to): fast learning (assuming I have the energy and sleep and hopefully a bit of prior exposure to the topic), some technical intuition, absurdly-general knowledge, a good bit of security mindset, having-read-and-understood-most-of-The-Sequences, thinking clearly (again modulo sleep/​energy), noticing some things, curiosity, and the oft-mocked-but-probably-underrated “creativity” or “idea generation”. I wish there were something like Human Benchmark but for the kinds of “mental motions” needed in AI alignment research.

  7. Even when my skills are legible, they don’t seem to be “world-class” in the way that MIRI or OpenAI seem to select for. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (with a minor in Mathematics) from RIT, in upstate New York. Is that impressive? I got a math-SAT score of over 700, IIRC, and the paper I got back said I was in the 98th or 99th percentile. Is that interesting? I worked with Tensorflow at an internship, and have learned (and often forgotten) the basics of ML coding in classes and online courses. Is that enough for more theoretical/​mathematical/​conceptual work in alignment? I list more of these in a section below, but many of them have caveats that make them even less good at signaling my abilities!

  8. I seem to have a weird sleep cycle. IIRC, Yudkowsky claims to have a non-24-hour sleep-cycle. If I just went to sleep /​ woke up “when I felt like it”, I would probably keep going to bed and waking up later and later, until it loops around again. This is consistent with (though not sufficient for a Full Diagnosis of) a weird sleep cycle. What this means is that I’m tired after work, despite working a comfortable remote programming job full-time. And writing, with anywhere near the thoroughness/​clarity/​etc to help anything around AI alignment, is Work. And it requires thorough/​clear/​etc thinking, which is also work. I enjoy thinking, and I don’t find at least some kinds of “advanced” thought hard (see above), but there are parts that are Work.

  9. I have mostly-inattentive ADHD, and my medication for it (while helpful!) screws up my sleep if I try to use it for after-work activities… like AI alignment research/​upskilling/​signaling. (Did I mention how screwed-up my sleep is?)

  10. Relatedly, my working-memory is either poor, or somehow seems poor to me. I think it’s mostly “brain fog” from the poor sleep.

  11. I don’t know how common this is, but at the risk of saying something common: I’d love to have one of those working-relationships where I talk with another smart person, who knows more formalisms than I do, who could help with the math/​writing. “Isn’t that just ‘I want somebody to do the work while I just have the ideas’?”. A little, sure! Do I think that’s needed to unlock my potential to help AI alignment? Potentially, yeah! Would I get an alignment job or grant based on that? I don’t know!

Despite all of the above, I remain cautiously optimistic about being able to do technical alignment research full-time, hopefully starting within the next year or two. One cause for hope was seeing another researcher, Tamsin Leake, go from indie game dev to being grant-funded and running an alignment nonprofit within a shockingly short timespan.

My legible qualifications so far (as of 24 May 2023):

  • participated in an AGI Safety Fundamentals session. The meetings only, not the project… and I neglected much of the readings because I was busy that summer with...

  • some high-level research/​writing for Nonlinear.

  • That one thingy I wrote for EleutherAI’s lm-evaluation-harness (and which I think had to be rewritten by Leo Gao?)

  • CS degree

  • math minor

  • SAT scores that IIRC corresponded to 125ish IQ (using that one dodgy numerical-table online).

  • some commercial software-engineering/​testing experience, including my current full-time job.

  • Limited experience with TensorFlow and PyTorch. Like, I’ve built a tiny neural net in Python, but I’d be hard-pressed to do it from memory. (I did well in a class assignment of that Kaggle “Titanic” thing, but most of that was data-cleaning, organization, and visuals.)

  • I’m writing posts to enter into the Open Philanthropy AI Worldviews Contest.

  • I’m about to start in the online section of John Wentworth’s “stream” of this summer’s SERI MATS!


What do you recommend? Am I being too paranoid/​modest, am I missing 1-2 key things, or am I doomed to be unhelpful/​annoying to any alignment project I join?

Crossposted from LessWrong (39 points, 21 comments)