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.

The flatmate conjecture

In the summer of 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to do research on algorithms that could automatically analyse C. Elegans locomotion. I found a short-term lease for a flat in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh and the whole experience promised to be amazing except for the fact that I didn’t know who I was going to be living with in Marchmont.

Previous flats I’d lived in started fine but flat duties weren’t clearly defined so common goods like the Hallway or Kitchen were eventually neglected. From my conversations with other students, zero flat management is the default option and this inevitably leads to frictions among flat members. For this reason, I wanted to make sure that this time would be different.

Within a couple days I got to meet the three other tenants. Unlike me, they were all PhD students doing research in the areas of Geophysics, Sociology and Philosophy respectively. At first, their relative seniority made the proposals I had in mind seem less likely to succeed. Nevertheless, I offered to make dinner on Thursday night so we could get to know each other better. At this they all agreed.

Everything went well on Thursday evening. I learned that two of the PhD students were trained at ENS and had a French background like myself. The other was a Briton doing research in Philosophy and that evening we had a great time talking about a variety of topics ranging from Mergers and Acquisitions to melting glaciers in the Himalayas.

Now, when dinner was over I explained that we should probably work together to make sure that the flat stayed in good condition. I brought up the subject of a cleaning rota, a flat treasury and the importance of maintaining regular communication in order to avoid frictions which could be achieved by a dinner rota. It wasn’t rocket science but the important part was to make it clear that this system was designed with our common interests in mind. This was followed by a brief discussion of dietary requirements but on the whole everybody agreed that my proposal was a good idea.

Over the weekend I shared my plan with other friends who were in Edinburgh that summer and received interesting responses. Some said it was a bit radical to impose something so rigid on other people and that I shouldn’t expect society to conform to my mathematical frame of mind. Others said that it was a good idea but they doubted it would last more than one week. However, when I pressed them to tell me whether they have actually tried to implement such a simple system none gave me a positive response. I believe this is a very important point. Many people who tell you that X will fail actually have zero experience implementing X.

On the whole, this flat system actually worked out very well. Barring two occasions, every Thursday a different flat member would cook dinner. There was never a problem with deciding who had to buy a basic necessity because our simple treasury system meant that there was always 20 pounds at the beginning of each month to buy light bulbs, sponges…etc. and we never had any problems coordinating what had to be cleaned. This flat experience was without precedent and it meant that each flat member could focus on doing research without dealing with unnecessary frictions.

Now, it’s my final year of university and I can say that I haven’t had a negative flat experience since then. More importantly this experience taught me that social problems can have precise solutions if we are willing to think about them precisely.

Pseudo-anonymous forums

After using the stack-exchange(SE) forums for several years, it’s clear that pseudo-anonymous user profiles are synonymous with lousy user experience. Depending on the stack exchange this manifests itself in different ways but I believe the underlying reasons are the same. 

Consider these two questions:
1. Why don’t hexapods gallop?
2. Rigorous derivation of isoperimetric inequality from ideal gas equation?

In the first case you have a pseudo-anonymous user on the Physics SE with a lot of reputation who tries to reformat the question. He basically says that the question has nothing to do with physics. Eventually, I demonstrate that his claim is baseless and other users on the physics stack exchange support my arguments. A different user with less confidence might have responded differently however.

In the second case, we have a clear question on the Math Overflow that gets a clear answer from an identifiable person. Now, if you check the top users on the MathOverflow you’ll realise that almost every user is identifiable. In fact, among the top 20 users the number of identifiable users among these forums stands at 95% and 75% for the MathOverflow and Physics Stack Exchanges respectively. I believe that the fraction of pseudo-anonymous users is an important indicator of the overall forum experience. 

Pseudo-anonymity is not merely a different type of user setting. It leads to fundamentally different forum interactions for systemic reasons:

1. Users are less inhibited because they won’t be identified. 
2. Users feel less pressure to share good content because any social benefits won’t affect their actual person. 

Due to this reward system, pseudo-anonymous users tend to behave like idiots if they can get away with it and they won’t try as hard to share great content. If you’re Terrence Tao on the MathOverflow the situation is very different. In general, I suspect that the reason for the greater fraction of identifiable MathOverflow users is that they are actually proud of what they share. 

While it’s not clear how the Physics Stack Exchange can incentivise users to use their real names I think they can simply require it. I have no doubt that this would improve the user experience.