The coordination problem

During the summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to intern at Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. It was a stimulating experience which made me think carefully about the challenges posed by human-level AI. In particular, it led me to draw interesting parallels with the present day challenge of coordinating the actions of 7 billion human-level AIs. No pun intended. 

At Hanson Robotics the core belief is that by giving robots a human form they would experience the human condition like we do and as a result our relationship with robots will be one of empathy and understanding. The androids would have similar goals to humans and this would reduce the likelihood of conflict. In some sense the future wouldn’t look too different from the present and so to understand this version of the future, I had to reflect upon modern day reality.

What does goal alignment look like in modern human societies? Have we solved the problem of coordinating the actions of 7 billion human-level AIs? These questions are especially pertinent at a time when DIY weapons of mass destruction are on the horizon. By this I mean bioweapons that can potentially allow a few people to eliminate an entire ethnic group, effectively committing genocide.

It’s interesting to think about our attempted solutions to these problems in the context of the human-level AIs we’re familiar with given that the task of coordinating the actions of beyond-human AIs will probably be much harder. In general if your solution can’t solve a simple variant, it’s unlikely to solve the more general problem.

Here are two attempts to answer the questions I raised:

  1. The Point:

    This is a platform launched by Andrew Mason in 2006 with the help of Eric Lefkosky in order to ‘kickstart’ social good. It experienced modest success before morphing into Groupon and then inspiring the founders of Kickstarter.I think this is an important partial solution to the coordination problem as it allows people to update their beliefs in real-time about the beliefs of other people on an issue they consider important. In some sense, it allows democratic institutions to be setup on the fly within small communities and I believe this deals with the ‘tyranny of the majority’ problem that often arises in a democracy.

  2. Democracy Earth:

    The notion of a decentralised, peer-to-peer democracy sounds very attractive and I think it’s a solution that works with platforms like ‘The Point’ in the sense that it serves small communities very well. However, I don’t see how a peer-to-peer democracy would be able to address a national security risk, environmental disaster, or the issue of maintaining cultural institutions. I imagine that the founders of this group are reasonable and don’t expect full decentralisation.

Now, the issue I have with both ‘The Point’ and ‘Democracy Earth’ is that while they both attempt to tackle the issue of coordinating small communities, it’s not clear to me how they would scale to massive communities. In fact, I don’t believe they can and this point is very important as without large-scale(i.e. global) coordination conflict is inevitable.

Consider the European Union for example. Many brilliant people including Dr. Stiglitz and Dr. Varoufakis have laid out careful plans for solving the European coordination problem. However, there’s little political will among politicians to execute a trans-national strategy that will fundamentally change the way the EU functions. This might have devastating consequences but I’m not here to encourage pessimism. On the contrary, I believe that a large-scale technological solution to  goal-alignment(i.e. coordination) might be possible.

The exact form of this solution isn’t clear to me right now although I believe that higher social network connectivity might be part of the solution. For this reason, I’d like to invite my readers to share their own solutions to this problem as I believe this would make it more likely that we discover a practical solution.

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