Lex Fridman Podcast - #144 - Michael Littman: Reinforcement Learning and the Future of AI

The following is a conversation with Michael Littman, a computer science professor at Brown

University doing research on and teaching machine learning, reinforcement learning,

and artificial intelligence. He enjoys being silly and lighthearted in conversation,

so this was definitely a fun one. Quick mention of each sponsor,

followed by some thoughts related to the episode. Thank you to SimplySafe, a home security company

I use to monitor and protect my apartment, ExpressVPN, the VPN I’ve used for many years

to protect my privacy on the internet, MasterClass, online courses that I enjoy from

some of the most amazing humans in history, and BetterHelp, online therapy with a licensed

professional. Please check out these sponsors in the description to get a discount and to support

this podcast. As a side note, let me say that I may experiment with doing some solo episodes

in the coming month or two. The three ideas I have floating in my head currently is to use one,

a particular moment in history, two, a particular movie, or three, a book to drive a conversation

about a set of related concepts. For example, I could use 2001, A Space Odyssey, or Ex Machina

to talk about AGI for one, two, three hours. Or I could do an episode on the, yes, rise and fall of

Hitler and Stalin, each in a separate episode, using relevant books and historical moments

for reference. I find the format of a solo episode very uncomfortable and challenging,

but that just tells me that it’s something I definitely need to do and learn from the experience.

Of course, I hope you come along for the ride. Also, since we have all this momentum built up

on announcements, I’m giving a few lectures on machine learning at MIT this January.

In general, if you have ideas for the episodes, for the lectures, or for just short videos on

YouTube, let me know in the comments that I still definitely read, despite my better judgment,

and the wise sage advice of the great Joe Rogan. If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube,

review it with Five Stars and Apple Podcast, follow on Spotify, support on Patreon, or connect

with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman. And now, here’s my conversation with Michael Littman.

I saw a video of you talking to Charles Isbell about Westworld, the TV series. You guys were

doing the kind of thing where you’re watching new things together, but let’s rewind back.

Is there a sci fi movie or book or shows that was profound, that had an impact on you philosophically,

or just specifically something you enjoyed nerding out about?

Yeah, interesting. I think a lot of us have been inspired by robots in movies. One that I really

like is, there’s a movie called Robot and Frank, which I think is really interesting because it’s

very near term future, where robots are being deployed as helpers in people’s homes. And we

don’t know how to make robots like that at this point, but it seemed very plausible. It seemed

very realistic or imaginable. And I thought that was really cool because they’re awkward,

they do funny things that raise some interesting issues, but it seemed like something that would

ultimately be helpful and good if we could do it right.

Yeah, he was an older cranky gentleman, right?

He was an older cranky jewel thief, yeah.

It’s kind of funny little thing, which is, you know, he’s a jewel thief and so he pulls the

robot into his life, which is like, which is something you could imagine taking a home robotics

thing and pulling into whatever quirky thing that’s involved in your existence.

It’s meaningful to you. Exactly so. Yeah. And I think from that perspective, I mean,

not all of us are jewel thieves. And so when we bring our robots into our lives, it explains a

lot about this apartment, actually. But no, the idea that people should have the ability to make

this technology their own, that it becomes part of their lives. And I think it’s hard for us

as technologists to make that kind of technology. It’s easier to mold people into what we need them

to be. And just that opposite vision, I think, is really inspiring. And then there’s a

anthropomorphization where we project certain things on them, because I think the robot was

kind of dumb. But I have a bunch of Roombas I play with and you immediately project stuff onto

them. Much greater level of intelligence. We’ll probably do that with each other too. Much greater

degree of compassion. That’s right. One of the things we’re learning from AI is where we are

smart and where we are not smart. Yeah. You also enjoy, as people can see, and I enjoyed

myself watching you sing and even dance a little bit, a little bit, a little bit of dancing.

A little bit of dancing. That’s not quite my thing. As a method of education or just in life,

you know, in general. So easy question. What’s the definitive, objectively speaking,

top three songs of all time? Maybe something that, you know, to walk that back a little bit,

maybe something that others might be surprised by the three songs that you kind of enjoy.

That is a great question that I cannot answer. But instead, let me tell you a story.

So pick a question you do want to answer. That’s right. I’ve been watching the

presidential debates and vice presidential debates. And it turns out, yeah, it’s really,

you can just answer any question you want. So it’s a related question. Well said.

I really like pop music. I’ve enjoyed pop music ever since I was very young. So 60s music,

70s music, 80s music. This is all awesome. And then I had kids and I think I stopped listening

to music and I was starting to realize that my musical taste had sort of frozen out.

And so I decided in 2011, I think, to start listening to the top 10 billboard songs each week.

So I’d be on the on the treadmill and I would listen to that week’s top 10 songs

so I could find out what was popular now. And what I discovered is that I have no musical

taste whatsoever. I like what I’m familiar with. And so the first time I’d hear a song

is the first week that was on the charts, I’d be like, and then the second week,

I was into it a little bit. And the third week, I was loving it. And by the fourth week is like,

just part of me. And so I’m afraid that I can’t tell you the most my favorite song of all time,

because it’s whatever I heard most recently. Yeah, that’s interesting. People have told me that

there’s an art to listening to music as well. And you can start to, if you listen to a song,

just carefully, like explicitly, just force yourself to really listen. You start to,

I did this when I was part of jazz band and fusion band in college. You start to hear the layers

of the instruments. You start to hear the individual instruments and you start to,

you can listen to classical music or to orchestra this way. You can listen to jazz this way.

I mean, it’s funny to imagine you now to walking that forward to listening to pop hits now as like

a scholar, listening to like Cardi B or something like that, or Justin Timberlake. Is he? No,

not Timberlake, Bieber. They’ve both been in the top 10 since I’ve been listening.

They’re still up there. Oh my God, I’m so cool.

If you haven’t heard Justin Timberlake’s top 10 in the last few years, there was one

song that he did where the music video was set at essentially NeurIPS.

Oh, wow. Oh, the one with the robotics. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yeah, yeah. It’s like at an academic conference and he’s doing a demo.

He was presenting, right?

It was sort of a cross between the Apple, like Steve Jobs kind of talk and NeurIPS.


So, you know, it’s always fun when AI shows up in pop culture.

I wonder if he consulted somebody for that. That’s really interesting. So maybe on that topic,

I’ve seen your celebrity multiple dimensions, but one of them is you’ve done cameos in different

places. I’ve seen you in a TurboTax commercial as like, I guess, the brilliant Einstein character.

And the point is that TurboTax doesn’t need somebody like you. It doesn’t need a brilliant


Very few things need someone like me. But yes, they were specifically emphasizing the

idea that you don’t need to be like a computer expert to be able to use their software.

How did you end up in that world?

I think it’s an interesting story. So I was teaching my class. It was an intro computer

science class for non concentrators, non majors. And sometimes when people would visit campus,

they would check in to say, hey, we want to see what a class is like. Can we sit on your class?

So a person came to my class who was the daughter of the brother of the husband of the best friend

of my wife. Anyway, basically a family friend came to campus to check out Brown and asked to

come to my class and came with her dad. Her dad is, who I’ve known from various

kinds of family events and so forth, but he also does advertising. And he said that he was

recruiting scientists for this ad, this TurboTax set of ads. And he said, we wrote the ad with the

idea that we get like the most brilliant researchers, but they all said no. So can you

help us find like B level scientists? And I’m like, sure, that’s who I hang out with.

So that should be fine. So I put together a list and I did what some people call the Dick Cheney.

So I included myself on the list of possible candidates, with a little blurb about each one

and why I thought that would make sense for them to do it. And they reached out to a handful of

them, but then they ultimately, they YouTube stalked me a little bit and they thought,

oh, I think he could do this. And they said, okay, we’re going to offer you the commercial.

I’m like, what? So it was such an interesting experience because they have another world, the

people who do like nationwide kind of ad campaigns and television shows and movies and so forth.

It’s quite a remarkable system that they have going because they have a set. Yeah. So I went to,

it was just somebody’s house that they rented in New Jersey. But in the commercial, it’s just me

and this other woman. In reality, there were 50 people in that room and another, I don’t know,

half a dozen kind of spread out around the house in various ways. There were people whose job it

was to control the sun. They were in the backyard on ladders, putting filters up to try to make sure

that the sun didn’t glare off the window in a way that would wreck the shot. So there was like

six people out there doing that. There was three people out there giving snacks, the craft table.

There was another three people giving healthy snacks because that was a separate craft table.

There was one person whose job it was to keep me from getting lost. And I think the reason for all

this is because so many people are in one place at one time. They have to be time efficient. They

have to get it done. The morning they were going to do my commercial. In the afternoon, they were

going to do a commercial of a mathematics professor from Princeton. They had to get it done. No wasted

time or energy. And so there’s just a fleet of people all working as an organism. And it was

fascinating. I was just the whole time just looking around like, this is so neat. Like one person

whose job it was to take the camera off of the cameraman so that someone else whose job it was

to remove the film canister. Because every couple’s takes, they had to replace the film because film

gets used up. It was just, I don’t know. I was geeking out the whole time. It was so fun.

How many takes did it take? It looked the opposite. There was more than two people there. It was very

relaxed. Right. Yeah. The person who I was in the scene with is a professional. She’s an improv

comedian from New York City. And when I got there, they had given me a script as such as it was. And

then I got there and they said, we’re going to do this as improv. I’m like, I don’t know how to

improv. I don’t know what you’re telling me to do here. Don’t worry. She knows. I’m like, okay.

I’ll go see how this goes. I guess I got pulled into the story because like, where the heck did

you come from? I guess in the scene. Like, how did you show up in this random person’s house?

Yeah. Well, I mean, the reality of it is I stood outside in the blazing sun. There was someone

whose job it was to keep an umbrella over me because I started to sweat. And so I would wreck

the shot because my face was all shiny with sweat. So there was one person who would dab me off,

had an umbrella. But yeah, like the reality of it, like, why is this strange stalkery person hanging

around outside somebody’s house? We’re not sure when you have to look in,

what the ways for the book, but are you, so you make, you make, like you said, YouTube,

you make videos yourself, you make awesome parody, sort of parody songs that kind of focus on a

particular aspect of computer science. How much those seem really interesting to you?

How much those seem really natural? How much production value goes into that?

Do you also have a team of 50 people? The videos, almost all the videos,

except for the ones that people would have actually seen, are just me. I write the lyrics,

I sing the song. I generally find a, like a backing track online because I’m like you,

can’t really play an instrument. And then I do, in some cases I’ll do visuals using just like

PowerPoint. Lots and lots of PowerPoint to make it sort of like an animation.

The most produced one is the one that people might have seen, which is the overfitting video

that I did with Charles Isbell. And that was produced by the Georgia Tech and Udacity people

because we were doing a class together. It was kind of, I usually do parody songs kind of to

cap off a class at the end of a class. So that one you’re wearing, so it was just a

thriller. You’re wearing the Michael Jackson, the red leather jacket. The interesting thing

with podcasting that you’re also into is that I really enjoy is that there’s not a team of people.

It’s kind of more, because you know, there’s something that happens when there’s more people

involved than just one person that just the way you start acting, I don’t know. There’s a censorship.

You’re not given, especially for like slow thinkers like me, you’re not. And I think most of us are,

if we’re trying to actually think we’re a little bit slow and careful, it kind of large teams get

in the way of that. And I don’t know what to do with that. Like that’s the, to me, like if,

yeah, it’s very popular to criticize quote unquote mainstream media.

But there is legitimacy to criticizing them the same. I love listening to NPR, for example,

but every, it’s clear that there’s a team behind it. There’s a commercial,

there’s constant commercial breaks. There’s this kind of like rush of like,

okay, I have to interrupt you now because we have to go to commercial. Just this whole,

it creates, it destroys the possibility of nuanced conversation. Yeah, exactly. Evian,

which Charles Isbell, who I talked to yesterday told me that Evian is naive backwards, which

the fact that his mind thinks this way is quite brilliant. Anyway, there’s a freedom to this

podcast. He’s Dr. Awkward, which by the way, is a palindrome. That’s a palindrome that I happen to

know from other parts of my life. And I just, well, you know, use it against Charles. Dr. Awkward.

So what was the most challenging parody song to make? Was it the Thriller one?

No, that one was really fun. I wrote the lyrics really quickly and then I gave it over to the

production team. They recruited a acapella group to sing. That went really smoothly. It’s great

having a team because then you can just focus on the part that you really love, which in my case

is writing the lyrics. For me, the most challenging one, not challenging in a bad way, but challenging

in a really fun way, was I did one of the parody songs I did is about the halting problem in

computer science. The fact that you can’t create a program that can tell for any other arbitrary

program whether it actually going to get stuck in infinite loop or whether it’s going to eventually

stop. And so I did it to an 80’s song because I hadn’t started my new thing of learning current

songs. And it was Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Nice. Which is a great song. Sing me a song.

You’re the piano man. Yeah. So the lyrics are great because first of all, it rhymes. Not all

songs rhyme. I’ve done Rolling Stones songs which turn out to have no rhyme scheme whatsoever. They’re

just sort of yelling and having a good time, which makes it not fun from a parody perspective because

like you can say anything. But the lines rhymed and there was a lot of internal rhymes as well.

And so figuring out how to sing with internal rhymes, a proof of the halting problem was really

challenging. And I really enjoyed that process. What about, last question on this topic, what

about the dancing in the Thriller video? How many takes that take? So I wasn’t planning to dance.

They had me in the studio and they gave me the jacket and it’s like, well, you can’t,

if you have the jacket and the glove, like there’s not much you can do. Yeah. So I think I just

danced around and then they said, why don’t you dance a little bit? There was a scene with me

and Charles dancing together. They did not use it in the video, but we recorded it. Yeah. Yeah. No,

it was pretty funny. And Charles, who has this beautiful, wonderful voice doesn’t really sing.

He’s not really a singer. And so that was why I designed the song with him doing a spoken section

and me doing the singing. It’s very like Barry White. Yeah. Smooth baritone. Yeah. Yeah. It’s

great. That was awesome. So one of the other things Charles said is that, you know, everyone

knows you as like a super nice guy, super passionate about teaching and so on. What he said,

don’t know if it’s true, that despite the fact that you’re, you are. Okay. I will admit this

finally for the first time. That was, that was me. It’s the Johnny Cash song. Kill the Manorino just

to watch him die. That you actually do have some strong opinions on some topics. So if this in fact

is true, what strong opinions would you say you have? Is there ideas you think maybe in artificial

intelligence and machine learning, maybe in life that you believe is true that others might,

you know, some number of people might disagree with you on? So I try very hard to see things

from multiple perspectives. There’s this great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where, do you know?

Yeah. Okay. So Calvin’s dad is always kind of a bit of a foil and he talked Calvin into,

Calvin had done something wrong. The dad talks him into like seeing it from another perspective

and Calvin, like this breaks Calvin because he’s like, oh my gosh, now I can see the opposite sides

of things. And so the, it’s, it becomes like a Cubist cartoon where there is no front and back.

Everything’s just exposed and it really freaks him out. And finally he settles back down. It’s

like, oh good. No, I can make that go away. But like, I’m that, I’m that I live in that world where

I’m trying to see everything from every perspective all the time. So there are some things that I’ve

formed opinions about that I would be harder, I think, to disavow me of. One is the super

intelligence argument and the existential threat of AI is one where I feel pretty confident in my

feeling about that one. Like I’m willing to hear other arguments, but like, I am not particularly

moved by the idea that if we’re not careful, we will accidentally create a super intelligence

that will destroy human life. Let’s talk about that. Let’s get you in trouble and record your

video. It’s like Bill Gates, I think he said like some quote about the internet that that’s just

going to be a small thing. It’s not going to really go anywhere. And then I think Steve

Ballmer said, I don’t know why I’m sticking on Microsoft. That’s something that like smartphones

are useless. There’s no reason why Microsoft should get into smartphones, that kind of.

So let’s get, let’s talk about AGI. As AGI is destroying the world, we’ll look back at this

video and see. No, I think it’s really interesting to actually talk about because nobody really

knows the future. So you have to use your best intuition. It’s very difficult to predict it,

but you have spoken about AGI and the existential risks around it and sort of basing your intuition

that we’re quite far away from that being a serious concern relative to the other concerns

we have. Can you maybe unpack that a little bit? Yeah, sure, sure, sure. So as I understand it,

that for example, I read Bostrom’s book and a bunch of other reading material about this sort

of general way of thinking about the world. And I think the story goes something like this, that we

will at some point create computers that are smart enough that they can help design the next version

of themselves, which itself will be smarter than the previous version of themselves and eventually

bootstrapped up to being smarter than us. At which point we are essentially at the mercy of this sort

of more powerful intellect, which in principle we don’t have any control over what its goals are.

And so if its goals are at all out of sync with our goals, for example, the continued existence

of humanity, we won’t be able to stop it. It’ll be way more powerful than us and we will be toast.

So there’s some, I don’t know, very smart people who have signed on to that story. And it’s a

compelling story. Now I can really get myself in trouble. I once wrote an op ed about this,

specifically responding to some quotes from Elon Musk, who has been on this very podcast

more than once. AI summoning the demon. But then he came to Providence, Rhode Island,

which is where I live, and said to the governors of all the states, you know, you’re worried about

entirely the wrong thing. You need to be worried about AI. You need to be very, very worried about

AI. And journalists kind of reacted to that and they wanted to get people’s take. And I was like,

OK, my my my belief is that one of the things that makes Elon Musk so successful and so remarkable

as an individual is that he believes in the power of ideas. He believes that you can have you can

if you know, if you have a really good idea for getting into space, you can get into space.

If you have a really good idea for a company or for how to change the way that people drive,

you just have to do it and it can happen. It’s really natural to apply that same idea to AI.

You see these systems that are doing some pretty remarkable computational tricks, demonstrations,

and then to take that idea and just push it all the way to the limit and think, OK, where does

this go? Where is this going to take us next? And if you’re a deep believer in the power of ideas,

then it’s really natural to believe that those ideas could be taken to the extreme and kill us.

So I think, you know, his strength is also his undoing, because that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Like, it doesn’t mean that that has to happen, but it’s natural for him to think that.

So another way to phrase the way he thinks, and I find it very difficult to argue with that line

of thinking. So Sam Harris is another person from neuroscience perspective that thinks like that

is saying, well, is there something fundamental in the physics of the universe that prevents this

from eventually happening? And Nick Bostrom thinks in the same way, that kind of zooming out, yeah,

OK, we humans now are existing in this like time scale of minutes and days. And so our intuition

is in this time scale of minutes, hours and days. But if you look at the span of human history,

is there any reason you can’t see this in 100 years? And like, is there something fundamental

about the laws of physics that prevent this? And if it doesn’t, then it eventually will happen

or will we will destroy ourselves in some other way. And it’s very difficult, I find,

to actually argue against that. Yeah, me too.

And not sound like. Not sound like you’re just like rolling your eyes like I have like science

fiction, we don’t have to think about it, but even even worse than that, which is like, I don’t have

kids, but like I got to pick up my kids now like this. OK, I see there’s more pressing short. Yeah,

there’s more pressing short term things that like stop over the next national crisis. We have much,

much shorter things like now, especially this year, there’s covid. So like any kind of discussion

like that is like there’s this, you know, this pressing things today is. And then so the Sam

Harris argument, well, like any day the exponential singularity can can occur is very difficult to

argue against. I mean, I don’t know. But part of his story is also he’s not going to put a date on

it. It could be in a thousand years, it could be in a hundred years, it could be in two years. It’s

just that as long as we keep making this kind of progress, it’s ultimately has to become a concern.

I kind of am on board with that. But the thing that the piece that I feel like is missing from

that that way of extrapolating from the moment that we’re in, is that I believe that in the

process of actually developing technology that can really get around in the world and really process

and do things in the world in a sophisticated way, we’re going to learn a lot about what that means,

which that we don’t know now because we don’t know how to do this right now.

If you believe that you can just turn on a deep learning network and eventually give it enough

compute and eventually get there. Well, sure, that seems really scary because we won’t we won’t be

in the loop at all. We won’t we won’t be helping to design or target these kinds of systems.

But I don’t I don’t see that. That feels like it is against the laws of physics,

because these systems need help. Right. They need they need to surpass the the the difficulty,

the wall of complexity that happens in arranging something in the form that that will happen.

Yeah, like I believe in evolution, like I believe that that that there’s an argument. Right. So

there’s another argument, just to look at it from a different perspective, that people say,

why don’t believe in evolution? How could evolution? It’s it’s sort of like a random set of

parts assemble themselves into a 747. And that could just never happen. So it’s like,

OK, that’s maybe hard to argue against. But clearly, 747 do get assembled. They get assembled

by us. Basically, the idea being that there’s a process by which we will get to the point of

making technology that has that kind of awareness. And in that process, we’re going to learn a lot

about that process and we’ll have more ability to control it or to shape it or to build it in our

own image. It’s not something that is going to spring into existence like that 747. And we’re

just going to have to contend with it completely unprepared. That’s very possible that in the

context of the long arc of human history, it will, in fact, spring into existence.

But that springing might take like if you look at nuclear weapons, like even 20 years is a springing

in in the context of human history. And it’s very possible, just like with nuclear weapons,

that we could have I don’t know what percentage you want to put at it, but the possibility could

have knocked ourselves out. Yeah. The possibility of human beings destroying themselves in the 20th

century with nuclear weapons. I don’t know. You can if you really think through it, you could

really put it close to, like, I don’t know, 30, 40 percent, given like the certain moments of

crisis that happen. So, like, I think one, like, fear in the shadows that’s not being acknowledged

is it’s not so much the A.I. will run away is is that as it’s running away,

we won’t have enough time to think through how to stop it. Right. Fast takeoff or FOOM. Yeah.

I mean, my much bigger concern, I wonder what you think about it, which is

we won’t know it’s happening. So I kind of think that there’s an A.G.I. situation already happening

with social media that our minds, our collective intelligence of human civilization is already

being controlled by an algorithm. And like we’re we’re already super like the level of a collective

intelligence, thanks to Wikipedia, people should donate to Wikipedia to feed the A.G.I.

. Man, if we had a super intelligence that that was in line with Wikipedia’s values,

that it’s a lot better than a lot of other things I could imagine. I trust Wikipedia more than I

trust Facebook or YouTube as far as trying to do the right thing from a rational perspective.

Yeah. Now, that’s not where you were going. I understand that. But it does strike me that

there’s sort of smarter and less smart ways of exposing ourselves to each other on the Internet.

Yeah. The interesting thing is that Wikipedia and social media have very different forces.

You’re right. I mean, Wikipedia, if A.G.I. was Wikipedia, it’d be just like this cranky, overly

competent editor of articles. You know, there’s something to that. But the social

media aspect is not. So the vision of A.G.I. is as a separate system that’s super intelligent.

That’s super intelligent. That’s one key little thing. I mean, there’s the paperclip argument

that’s super dumb, but super powerful systems. But with social media, you have a relatively like

algorithms we may talk about today, very simple algorithms that when something Charles talks a

lot about, which is interactive A.I., when they start like having at scale, like tiny little

interactions with human beings, they can start controlling these human beings. So a single

algorithm can control the minds of human beings slowly to what we might not realize. It could

start wars. It could start. It could change the way we think about things. It feels like

in the long arc of history, if I were to sort of zoom out from all the outrage and all the tension

on social media, that it’s progressing us towards better and better things. It feels like chaos and

toxic and all that kind of stuff. It’s chaos and toxic. Yeah. But it feels like actually

the chaos and toxic is similar to the kind of debates we had from the founding of this country.

You know, there was a civil war that happened over that period. And ultimately it was all about

this tension of like something doesn’t feel right about our implementation of the core values we

hold as human beings. And they’re constantly struggling with this. And that results in people

calling each other, just being shady to each other on Twitter. But ultimately the algorithm is

managing all that. And it feels like there’s a possible future in which that algorithm

controls us into the direction of self destruction and whatever that looks like.

Yeah. So, all right. I do believe in the power of social media to screw us up royally. I do believe

in the power of social media to benefit us too. I do think that we’re in a, yeah, it’s sort of

almost got dropped on top of us. And now we’re trying to, as a culture, figure out how to cope

with it. There’s a sense in which, I don’t know, there’s some arguments that say that, for example,

I guess college age students now, late college age students now, people who were in middle school

when social media started to really take off, may be really damaged. Like this may have really hurt

their development in a way that we don’t have all the implications of quite yet. That’s the generation

who, and I hate to make it somebody else’s responsibility, but like they’re the ones who

can fix it. They’re the ones who can figure out how do we keep the good of this kind of technology

without letting it eat us alive. And if they’re successful, we move on to the next phase, the next

level of the game. If they’re not successful, then yeah, then we’re going to wreck each other. We’re

going to destroy society. So you’re going to, in your old age, sit on a porch and watch the world

burn because of the TikTok generation that… I believe, well, so this is my kid’s age,

right? And that’s certainly my daughter’s age. And she’s very tapped in to social stuff, but she’s

also, she’s trying to find that balance, right? Of participating in it and in getting the positives

of it, but without letting it eat her alive. And I think sometimes she ventures, I hope she doesn’t

watch this. Sometimes I think she ventures a little too far and is consumed by it. And other

times she gets a little distance. And if there’s enough people like her out there, they’re going to

navigate this choppy waters. That’s an interesting skill actually to develop. I talked to my dad

about it. I’ve now, somehow this podcast in particular, but other reasons has received a

little bit of attention. And with that, apparently in this world, even though I don’t shut up about

love and I’m just all about kindness, I have now a little mini army of trolls. It’s kind of hilarious

actually, but it also doesn’t feel good, but it’s a skill to learn to not look at that, like to

moderate actually how much you look at that. The discussion I have with my dad, it’s similar to,

it doesn’t have to be about trolls. It could be about checking email, which is like, if you’re

anticipating, you know, there’s a, my dad runs a large Institute at Drexel University and there

could be stressful like emails you’re waiting, like there’s drama of some kinds. And so like,

there’s a temptation to check the email. If you send an email and you kind of,

and that pulls you in into, it doesn’t feel good. And it’s a skill that he actually complains that

he hasn’t learned. I mean, he grew up without it. So he hasn’t learned the skill of how to

shut off the internet and walk away. And I think young people, while they’re also being

quote unquote damaged by like, you know, being bullied online, all of those stories, which are

very like horrific, you basically can’t escape your bullies these days when you’re growing up.

But at the same time, they’re also learning that skill of how to be able to shut off the,

like disconnect with it, be able to laugh at it, not take it too seriously. It’s fascinating. Like

we’re all trying to figure this out. Just like you said, it’s been dropped on us and we’re trying to

figure it out. Yeah. I think that’s really interesting. And I guess I’ve become a believer

in the human design, which I feel like I don’t completely understand. Like how do you make

something as robust as us? Like we’re so flawed in so many ways. And yet, and yet, you know,

we dominate the planet and we do seem to manage to get ourselves out of scrapes eventually,

not necessarily the most elegant possible way, but somehow we get, we get to the next step.

And I don’t know how I’d make a machine do that. Generally speaking, like if I train one of my

reinforcement learning agents to play a video game and it works really hard on that first stage

over and over and over again, and it makes it through, it succeeds on that first level.

And then the new level comes and it’s just like, okay, I’m back to the drawing board. And somehow

humanity, we keep leveling up and then somehow managing to put together the skills necessary to

achieve success, some semblance of success in that next level too. And, you know,

I hope we can keep doing that.

You mentioned reinforcement learning. So you’ve had a couple of years in the field. No, quite,

you know, quite a few, quite a long career in artificial intelligence broadly, but reinforcement

learning specifically, can you maybe give a hint about your sense of the history of the field?

And in some ways it’s changed with the advent of deep learning, but as a long roots, like how is it

weaved in and out of your own life? How have you seen the community change or maybe the ideas that

it’s playing with change? I’ve had the privilege, the pleasure of being, of having almost a front

row seat to a lot of this stuff. And it’s been really, really fun and interesting. So when I was

in college in the eighties, early eighties, the neural net thing was starting to happen.

And I was taking a lot of psychology classes and a lot of computer science classes as a college

student. And I thought, you know, something that can play tic tac toe and just like learn to get

better at it. That ought to be a really easy thing. So I spent almost, almost all of my, what would

have been vacations during college, like hacking on my home computer, trying to teach it how to

play tic tac toe and programming language. Basic. Oh yeah. That’s, that’s, I was, I that’s my first

language. That’s my native language. Is that when you first fell in love with computer science,

just like programming basic on that? Uh, what was, what was the computer? Do you remember? I had,

I had a TRS 80 model one before they were called model ones. Cause there was nothing else. Uh,

I got my computer in 1979, uh, instead. So I was, I was, I would have been bar mitzvahed,

but instead of having a big party that my parents threw on my behalf, they just got me a computer.

Cause that’s what I really, really, really wanted. I saw them in the, in the, in the mall and

radio shack. And I thought, what, how are they doing that? I would try to stump them. I would

give them math problems like one plus and then in parentheses, two plus one. And I would always get

it right. I’m like, how do you know so much? Like I’ve had to go to algebra class for the last few

years to learn this stuff and you just seem to know. So I was, I was, I was smitten and, uh,

got a computer and I think ages 13 to 15. I have no memory of those years. I think I just was in

my room with the computer, listening to Billy Joel, communing, possibly listening to the radio,

listening to Billy Joel. That was the one album I had, uh, on vinyl at that time. And, um, and then

I got it on cassette tape and that was really helpful because then I could play it. I didn’t

have to go down to my parents, wifi or hi fi sorry. Uh, and at age 15, I remember kind of

walking out and like, okay, I’m ready to talk to people again. Like I’ve learned what I need to

learn here. And, um, so yeah, so, so that was, that was my home computer. And so I went to college

and I was like, oh, I’m totally going to study computer science. And I opted the college I chose

specifically had a computer science major. The one that I really wanted the college I really wanted

to go to didn’t so bye bye to them. So I went to Yale, uh, Princeton would have been way more

convenient and it was just beautiful campus and it was close enough to home. And I was really

excited about Princeton. And I visited, I said, so computer science majors like, well, we have

computer engineering. I’m like, Oh, I don’t like that word engineering. I like computer science.

I really, I want to do like, you’re saying hardware and software. They’re like, yeah.

I’m like, I just want to do software. I couldn’t care less about hardware. And you grew up in

Philadelphia. I grew up outside Philly. Yeah. Yeah. Uh, so the, you know, local schools were

like Penn and Drexel and, uh, temple. Like everyone in my family went to temple at least at

one point in their lives, except for me. So yeah, Philly, Philly family, Yale had a computer science

department. And that’s when you, it’s kind of interesting. You said eighties and neural

networks. That’s when the neural networks was a hot new thing or a hot thing period. Uh, so what

is that in college when you first learned about neural networks or when she learned, like how did

it was in a psychology class, not in a CS. Yeah. Was it psychology or cognitive science or like,

do you remember like what context it was? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, so I was a, I’ve always been a

bit of a cognitive psychology groupie. So like I’m, I studied computer science, but I like,

I like to hang around where the cognitive scientists are. Cause I don’t know brains, man.

They’re like, they’re wacky. Cool. And they have a bigger picture view of things. They’re a little

less engineering. I would say they’re more, they’re more interested in the nature of cognition and

intelligence and perception and how like the vision system work. Like they’re asking always

bigger questions. Now with the deep learning community there, I think more, there’s a lot of

intersections, but I do find that the neuroscience folks actually in cognitive psychology, cognitive

science folks are starting to learn how to program, how to use neural, artificial neural networks.

And they are actually approaching problems in like totally new, interesting ways. It’s fun to

watch that grad students from those departments, like approach a problem of machine learning.

Right. They come in with a different perspective. Yeah. They don’t care about like your

image net data set or whatever they want, like to understand the, the, the, like the basic

mechanisms at the, at the neuronal level and the functional level of intelligence. It’s kind of,

it’s kind of cool to see them work, but yeah. Okay. So you always love, you’re always a groupie

of cognitive psychology. Yeah. Yeah. And so, so it was in a class by Richard Garrig. He was kind of

like my favorite psych professor in college. And I took like three different classes with him

and yeah. So they were talking specifically the class, I think was kind of a,

there was a big paper that was written by Steven Pinker and Prince. I don’t, I’m blanking on

Prince’s first name, but Prince and Pinker and Prince, they wrote kind of a, they were at that

time kind of like, ah, I’m blanking on the names of the current people. The cognitive scientists

who are complaining a lot about deep networks. Oh, Gary, Gary Marcus, Marcus and who else? I mean,

there’s a few, but Gary, Gary’s the most feisty. Sure. Gary’s very feisty. And with this, with his

coauthor, they, they, you know, they’re kind of doing these kinds of take downs where they say,

okay, well, yeah, it does all these amazing, amazing things, but here’s a shortcoming. Here’s

a shortcoming. Here’s a shortcoming. And so the Pinker Prince paper is kind of like the,

that generation’s version of Marcus and Davis, right? Where they’re, they’re trained as cognitive

scientists, but they’re looking skeptically at the results in the, in the artificial intelligence,

neural net kind of world and saying, yeah, it can do this and this and this, but low,

it can’t do that. And it can’t do that. And it can’t do that maybe in principle or maybe just

in practice at this point. But, but the fact of the matter is you’re, you’ve narrowed your focus

too far to be impressed. You know, you’re impressed with the things within that circle,

but you need to broaden that circle a little bit. You need to look at a wider set of problems.

And so, so we had, so I was in this seminar in college that was basically a close reading of

the Pinker Prince paper, which was like really thick. There was a lot going on in there. And,

and it, you know, and it talked about the reinforcement learning idea a little bit.

I’m like, oh, that sounds really cool because behavior is what is really interesting to me

about psychology anyway. So making programs that, I mean, programs are things that behave.

People are things that behave. Like I want to make learning that learns to behave.

And which way was reinforcement learning presented? Is this talking about human and

animal behavior or are we talking about actual mathematical construct?

Ah, that’s right. So that’s a good question. Right. So this is, I think it wasn’t actually

talked about as behavior in the paper that I was reading. I think that it just talked about

learning. And to me, learning is about learning to behave, but really neural nets at that point

were about learning like supervised learning. So learning to produce outputs from inputs.

So I kind of tried to invent reinforcement learning. When I graduated, I joined a research

group at Bellcore, which had spun out of Bell Labs recently at that time because of the divestiture

of the long distance and local phone service in the 1980s, 1984. And I was in a group with

Dave Ackley, who was the first author of the Boltzmann machine paper. So the very first neural

net paper that could handle XOR, right? So XOR sort of killed neural nets. The very first,

the zero with the first winter. Yeah. Um, the, the perceptrons paper and Hinton along with his

student, Dave Ackley, and I think there was other authors as well showed that no, no, no,

with Boltzmann machines, we can actually learn nonlinear concepts. And so everything’s back on

the table again. And that kind of started that second wave of neural networks. So Dave Ackley

was, he became my mentor at, at Bellcore and we talked a lot about learning and life and

computation and how all these things fit together. Now Dave and I have a podcast together. So,

so I get to kind of enjoy that sort of his, his perspective once again, even, even all these years

later. And so I said, so I said, I was really interested in learning, but in the concept of

behavior and he’s like, oh, well that’s reinforcement learning here. And he gave me

Rich Sutton’s 1984 TD paper. So I read that paper. I honestly didn’t get all of it,

but I got the idea. I got that they were using, that he was using ideas that I was familiar with

in the context of neural nets and, and like sort of back prop. But with this idea of making

predictions over time, I’m like, this is so interesting, but I don’t really get all the

details I said to Dave. And Dave said, oh, well, why don’t we have him come and give a talk?

And I was like, wait, what, you can do that? Like, these are real people. I thought they

were just words. I thought it was just like ideas that somehow magically seeped into paper. He’s

like, no, I, I, I know Rich like, we’ll just have him come down and he’ll give a talk. And so I was,

you know, my mind was blown. And so Rich came and he gave a talk at Bellcore and he talked about

what he was super excited, which was they had just figured out at the time Q learning. So Watkins

had visited the Rich Sutton’s lab at, at UMass or Andy Bartow’s lab that Rich was a part of.

And, um, he was really excited about this because it resolved a whole bunch of problems that he

didn’t know how to resolve in the, in the earlier paper. And so, um,

For people who don’t know TD, temporal difference, these are all just algorithms

for reinforcement learning.

Right. And TD, temporal difference in particular is about making predictions over time. And you can

try to use it for making decisions, right? Cause if you can predict how good a future action or an

action outcomes will be in the future, you can choose one that has better and, or, but the thing

that’s really cool about Q learning is it was off policy, which meant that you could actually be

learning about the environment and what the value of different actions would be while actually

figuring out how to behave optimally. So that was a revelation.

Yeah. And the proof of that is kind of interesting. I mean, that’s really surprising

to me when I first read that paper. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s,

it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s,

it’s interesting. I mean, that’s really surprising to me when I first read that and then in Richard,

Rich Sutton’s book on the matter, it’s, it’s kind of a beautiful that a single equation can

capture all one line of code and like, you can learn anything. Yeah. Like enough time.

So equation and code, you’re right. Like you can the code that you can arguably, at least

if you like squint your eyes can say,

this is all of intelligence is that you can implement

that in a single one.

I think I started with Lisp, which is a shout out to Lisp

with like a single line of code, key piece of code,

maybe a couple that you could do that.

It’s kind of magical.

It’s feels too good to be true.

Well, and it sort of is.

Yeah, kind of.

It seems to require an awful lot

of extra stuff supporting it.

But nonetheless, the idea is really good.

And as far as we know, it is a very reasonable way

of trying to create adaptive behavior,

behavior that gets better at something over time.

Did you find the idea of optimal at all compelling

that you could prove that it’s optimal?

So like one part of computer science

that it makes people feel warm and fuzzy inside

is when you can prove something like

that a sorting algorithm worst case runs

and N log N, and it makes everybody feel so good.

Even though in reality, it doesn’t really matter

what the worst case is, what matters is like,

does this thing actually work in practice

on this particular actual set of data that I enjoy?

Did you?

So here’s a place where I have maybe a strong opinion,

which is like, you’re right, of course, but no, no.

Like, so what makes worst case so great, right?

If you have a worst case analysis so great

is that you get modularity.

You can take that thing and plug it into another thing

and still have some understanding of what’s gonna happen

when you click them together, right?

If it just works well in practice, in other words,

with respect to some distribution that you care about,

when you go plug it into another thing,

that distribution can shift, it can change,

and your thing may not work well anymore.

And you want it to, and you wish it does,

and you hope that it will, but it might not,

and then, ah.

So you’re saying you don’t like machine learning.

But we have some positive theoretical results

for these things.

You can come back at me with,

yeah, but they’re really weak,

and yeah, they’re really weak.

And you can even say that sorting algorithms,

like if you do the optimal sorting algorithm,

it’s not really the one that you want,

and that might be true as well.

But it is, the modularity is a really powerful statement.

I really like that.

If you’re an engineer, you can then assemble

different things, you can count on them to be,

I mean, it’s interesting.

It’s a balance, like with everything else in life,

you don’t want to get too obsessed.

I mean, this is what computer scientists do,

which they tend to get obsessed,

and they overoptimize things,

or they start by optimizing, and then they overoptimize.

So it’s easy to get really granular about this thing,

but like the step from an n squared to an n log n

sorting algorithm is a big leap for most real world systems.

No matter what the actual behavior of the system is,

that’s a big leap.

And the same can probably be said

for other kind of first leaps

that you would take on a particular problem.

Like it’s picking the low hanging fruit,

or whatever the equivalent of doing the,

not the dumbest thing, but the next to the dumbest thing.

Picking the most delicious reachable fruit.

Yeah, most delicious reachable fruit.

I don’t know why that’s not a saying.


Okay, so then this is the 80s,

and this kind of idea starts to percolate of learning.

At that point, I got to meet Rich Sutton,

so everything was sort of downhill from there,

and that was really the pinnacle of everything.

But then I felt like I was kind of on the inside.

So then as interesting results were happening,

I could like check in with Rich or with Jerry Tesaro,

who had a huge impact on kind of early thinking

in temporal difference learning and reinforcement learning

and showed that you could do,

you could solve problems

that we didn’t know how to solve any other way.

And so that was really cool.

So as good things were happening,

I would hear about it from either the people

who were doing it,

or the people who were talking to the people

who were doing it.

And so I was able to track things pretty well

through the 90s.

So what wasn’t most of the excitement

on reinforcement learning in the 90s era

with, what is it, TD Gamma?

Like what’s the role of these kind of little

like fun game playing things and breakthroughs

about exciting the community?

Was that, like what were your,

because you’ve also built across,

or part of building across a puzzle solver,

solving program called proverb.

So you were interested in this as a problem,

like in forming, using games to understand

how to build intelligence systems.

So like, what did you think about TD Gamma?

Like what did you think about that whole thing in the 90s?

Yeah, I mean, I found the TD Gamma result

really just remarkable.

So I had known about some of Jerry’s stuff

before he did TD Gamma and he did a system,

just more vanilla, well, not entirely vanilla,

but a more classical back proppy kind of network

for playing backgammon,

where he was training it on expert moves.

So it was kind of supervised,

but the way that it worked was not to mimic the actions,

but to learn internally an evaluation function.

So to learn, well, if the expert chose this over this,

that must mean that the expert values this more than this.

And so let me adjust my weights to make it

so that the network evaluates this

as being better than this.

So it could learn from human preferences,

it could learn its own preferences.

And then when he took the step from that

to actually doing it

as a full on reinforcement learning problem,

where you didn’t need a trainer,

you could just let it play, that was remarkable, right?

And so I think as humans often do,

as we’ve done in the recent past as well,

people extrapolate.

It’s like, oh, well, if you can do that,

which is obviously very hard,

then obviously you could do all these other problems

that we wanna solve that we know are also really hard.

And it turned out very few of them ended up being practical,

partly because I think neural nets,

certainly at the time,

were struggling to be consistent and reliable.

And so training them in a reinforcement learning setting

was a bit of a mess.

I had, I don’t know, generation after generation

of like master students

who wanted to do value function approximation,

basically reinforcement learning with neural nets.

And over and over and over again, we were failing.

We couldn’t get the good results that Jerry Tesaro got.

I now believe that Jerry is a neural net whisperer.

He has a particular ability to get neural networks

to do things that other people would find impossible.

And it’s not the technology,

it’s the technology and Jerry together.

Which I think speaks to the role of the human expert

in the process of machine learning.

Right, it’s so easy.

We’re so drawn to the idea that it’s the technology

that is where the power is coming from

that I think we lose sight of the fact

that sometimes you need a really good,

just like, I mean, no one would think,

hey, here’s this great piece of software.

Here’s like, I don’t know, GNU Emacs or whatever.

And doesn’t that prove that computers are super powerful

and basically gonna take over the world?

It’s like, no, Stalman is a hell of a hacker, right?

So he was able to make the code do these amazing things.

He couldn’t have done it without the computer,

but the computer couldn’t have done it without him.

And so I think people discount the role of people

like Jerry who have just a particular set of skills.

On that topic, by the way, as a small side note,

I tweeted Emacs is greater than Vim yesterday

and deleted the tweet 10 minutes later

when I realized it started a war.

I was like, oh, I was just kidding.

I was just being, and I’m gonna walk back and forth.

So people still feel passionately

about that particular piece of good stuff.

Yeah, I don’t get that

because Emacs is clearly so much better, I don’t understand.

But why do I say that?

Because I spent a block of time in the 80s

making my fingers know the Emacs keys

and now that’s part of the thought process for me.

Like I need to express, and if you take that,

if you take my Emacs key bindings away, I become…

I can’t express myself.

I’m the same way with the,

I don’t know if you know what it is,

but it’s a Kinesis keyboard, which is this butt shaped keyboard.

Yes, I’ve seen them.

They’re very, I don’t know, sexy, elegant?

They’re just beautiful.

Yeah, they’re gorgeous, way too expensive.

But the problem with them, similar with Emacs,

is once you learn to use it.

It’s harder to use other things.

It’s hard to use other things.

There’s this absurd thing where I have like small, elegant,

lightweight, beautiful little laptops

and I’m sitting there in a coffee shop

with a giant Kinesis keyboard and a sexy little laptop.

It’s absurd, but I used to feel bad about it,

but at the same time, you just kind of have to,

sometimes it’s back to the Billy Joel thing.

You just have to throw that Billy Joel record

and throw Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to the wind.


See, but I like them now because again,

I have no musical taste.

Like now that I’ve heard Justin Bieber enough,

I’m like, I really like his songs.

And Taylor Swift, not only do I like her songs,

but my daughter’s convinced that she’s a genius.

And so now I basically have signed onto that.


So yeah, that speaks to the,

back to the robustness of the human brain.

That speaks to the neuroplasticity

that you can just like a mouse teach yourself to,

or probably a dog teach yourself to enjoy Taylor Swift.

I’ll try it out.

I don’t know.

I try, you know what?

It has to do with just like acclimation, right?

Just like you said, a couple of weeks.


That’s an interesting experiment.

I’ll actually try that.

Like I’ll listen to it.

That wasn’t the intent of the experiment?

Just like social media,

it wasn’t intended as an experiment

to see what we can take as a society,

but it turned out that way.

I don’t think I’ll be the same person

on the other side of the week listening to Taylor Swift,

but let’s try.

No, it’s more compartmentalized.

Don’t be so worried.

Like it’s, like I get that you can be worried,

but don’t be so worried

because we compartmentalize really well.

And so it won’t bleed into other parts of your life.

You won’t start, I don’t know,

wearing red lipstick or whatever.

Like it’s fine.

It’s fine.

It changed fashion and everything.

It’s fine.

But you know what?

The thing you have to watch out for

is you’ll walk into a coffee shop

once we can do that again.

And recognize the song?

And you’ll be, no,

you won’t know that you’re singing along

until everybody in the coffee shop is looking at you.

And then you’re like, that wasn’t me.

Yeah, that’s the, you know,

people are afraid of AGI.

I’m afraid of the Taylor Swift.

The Taylor Swift takeover.

Yeah, and I mean, people should know that TD Gammon was,

I get, would you call it,

do you like the terminology of self play by any chance?

So like systems that learn by playing themselves.

Just, I don’t know if it’s the best word, but.

So what’s the problem with that term?

I don’t know.

So it’s like the big bang,

like it’s like talking to a serious physicist.

Do you like the term big bang?

And when it was early,

I feel like it’s the early days of self play.

I don’t know, maybe it was used previously,

but I think it’s been used by only a small group of people.

And so like, I think we’re still deciding

is this ridiculously silly name a good name

for potentially one of the most important concepts

in artificial intelligence?

Okay, it depends how broadly you apply the term.

So I used the term in my 1996 PhD dissertation.

Wow, the actual terms of self play.

Yeah, because Tesoro’s paper was something like

training up an expert backgammon player through self play.

So I think it was in the title of his paper.

If not in the title, it was definitely a term that he used.

There’s another term that we got from that work is rollout.

So I don’t know if you, do you ever hear the term rollout?

That’s a backgammon term that has now applied

generally in computers, well, at least in AI

because of TD gammon.

That’s fascinating.

So how is self play being used now?

And like, why is it,

does it feel like a more general powerful concept

is sort of the idea of,

well, the machine’s just gonna teach itself to be smart.

Yeah, so that’s where maybe you can correct me,

but that’s where the continuation of the spirit

and actually like literally the exact algorithms

of TD gammon are applied by DeepMind and OpenAI

to learn games that are a little bit more complex

that when I was learning artificial intelligence,

Go was presented to me

with artificial intelligence, the modern approach.

I don’t know if they explicitly pointed to Go

in those books as like unsolvable kind of thing,

like implying that these approaches hit their limit

in this, with these particular kind of games.

So something, I don’t remember if the book said it or not,

but something in my head,

or if it was the professors instilled in me the idea

like this is the limits of artificial intelligence

of the field.

Like it instilled in me the idea

that if we can create a system that can solve the game of Go

we’ve achieved AGI.

That was kind of, I didn’t explicitly like say this,

but that was the feeling.

And so from, I was one of the people that it seemed magical

when a learning system was able to beat

a human world champion at the game of Go

and even more so from that, that was AlphaGo,

even more so with AlphaGo Zero

than kind of renamed and advanced into AlphaZero

beating a world champion or world class player

without any supervised learning on expert games.

We’re doing only through by playing itself.

So that is, I don’t know what to make of it.

I think it would be interesting to hear

what your opinions are on just how exciting,

surprising, profound, interesting, or boring

the breakthrough performance of AlphaZero was.

Okay, so AlphaGo knocked my socks off.

That was so remarkable.

Which aspect of it?

That they got it to work,

that they actually were able to leverage

a whole bunch of different ideas,

integrate them into one giant system.

Just the software engineering aspect of it is mind blowing.

I don’t, I’ve never been a part of a program

as complicated as the program that they built for that.

And just the, like Jerry Tesaro is a neural net whisperer,

like David Silver is a kind of neural net whisperer too.

He was able to coax these networks

and these new way out there architectures

to do these, solve these problems that,

as you said, when we were learning from AI,

no one had an idea how to make it work.

It was remarkable that these techniques

that were so good at playing chess

and that could beat the world champion in chess

couldn’t beat your typical Go playing teenager in Go.

So the fact that in a very short number of years,

we kind of ramped up to trouncing people in Go

just blew me away.

So you’re kind of focusing on the engineering aspect,

which is also very surprising.

I mean, there’s something different

about large, well funded companies.

I mean, there’s a compute aspect to it too.

Like that, of course, I mean, that’s similar

to Deep Blue, right, with IBM.

Like there’s something important to be learned

and remembered about a large company

taking the ideas that are already out there

and investing a few million dollars into it or more.

And so you’re kind of saying the engineering

is kind of fascinating, both on the,

with AlphaGo is probably just gathering all the data,

right, of the expert games, like organizing everything,

actually doing distributed supervised learning.

And to me, see the engineering I kind of took for granted,

to me philosophically being able to persist

in the face of like long odds,

because it feels like for me,

I would be one of the skeptical people in the room

thinking that you can learn your way to beat Go.

Like it sounded like, especially with David Silver,

it sounded like David was not confident at all.

So like it was, like not,

it’s funny how confidence works.

It’s like, you’re not like cocky about it, like, but.

Right, because if you’re cocky about it,

you kind of stop and stall and don’t get anywhere.

But there’s like a hope that’s unbreakable.

Maybe that’s better than confidence.

It’s a kind of wishful hope and a little dream.

And you almost don’t want to do anything else.

You kind of keep doing it.

That’s, that seems to be the story and.

But with enough skepticism that you’re looking

for where the problems are and fighting through them.

Cause you know, there’s gotta be a way out of this thing.

And for him, it was probably,

there’s a bunch of little factors that come into play.

It’s funny how these stories just all come together.

Like everything he did in his life came into play,

which is like a love for video games

and also a connection to,

so the nineties had to happen with TD Gammon and so on.

In some ways it’s surprising,

maybe you can provide some intuition to it

that not much more than TD Gammon was done

for quite a long time on the reinforcement learning front.

Is that weird to you?

I mean, like I said, the students who I worked with,

we tried to get, basically apply that architecture

to other problems and we consistently failed.

There were a couple of really nice demonstrations

that ended up being in the literature.

There was a paper about controlling elevators, right?

Where it’s like, okay, can we modify the heuristic

that elevators use for deciding,

like a bank of elevators for deciding which floors

we should be stopping on to maximize throughput essentially.

And you can set that up as a reinforcement learning problem

and you can have a neural net represent the value function

so that it’s taking where all the elevators,

where the button pushes, you know, this high dimensional,

well, at the time high dimensional input,

you know, a couple of dozen dimensions

and turn that into a prediction as to,

oh, is it gonna be better if I stop at this floor or not?

And ultimately it appeared as though

for the standard simulation distribution

for people trying to leave the building

at the end of the day,

that the neural net learned a better strategy

than the standard one that’s implemented

in elevator controllers.

So that was nice.

There was some work that Satyendra Singh et al

did on handoffs with cell phones,

you know, deciding when should you hand off

from this cell tower to this cell tower.

Oh, okay, communication networks, yeah.

Yeah, and so a couple of things

seemed like they were really promising.

None of them made it into production that I’m aware of.

And neural nets as a whole started

to kind of implode around then.

And so there just wasn’t a lot of air in the room

for people to try to figure out,

okay, how do we get this to work in the RL setting?

And then they found their way back in 10 plus years.

So you said AlphaGo was impressive,

like it’s a big spectacle.

Is there, is that?

Right, so then AlphaZero.

So I think I may have a slightly different opinion

on this than some people.

So I talked to Satyendra Singh in particular about this.

So Satyendra was like Rich Sutton,

a student of Andy Bartow.

So they came out of the same lab,

very influential machine learning,

reinforcement learning researcher.

Now at DeepMind, as is Rich.

Though different sites, the two of them.

He’s in Alberta.

Rich is in Alberta and Satyendra would be in England,

but I think he’s in England from Michigan at the moment.

But the, but he was, yes,

he was much more impressed with AlphaGo Zero,

which is didn’t get a kind of a bootstrap

in the beginning with human trained games.

It just was purely self play.

Though the first one AlphaGo

was also a tremendous amount of self play, right?

They started off, they kickstarted the action network

that was making decisions,

but then they trained it for a really long time

using more traditional temporal difference methods.

So as a result, I didn’t,

it didn’t seem that different to me.

Like, it seems like, yeah, why wouldn’t that work?

Like once you, once it works, it works.

So what, but he found that removal

of that extra information to be breathtaking.

Like that’s a game changer.

To me, the first thing was more of a game changer.

But the open question, I mean,

I guess that’s the assumption is the expert games

might contain within them a humongous amount of information.

But we know that it went beyond that, right?

We know that it somehow got away from that information

because it was learning strategies.

I don’t think AlphaGo is just better

at implementing human strategies.

I think it actually developed its own strategies

that were more effective.

And so from that perspective, okay, well,

so it made at least one quantum leap

in terms of strategic knowledge.

Okay, so now maybe it makes three, like, okay.

But that first one is the doozy, right?

Getting it to work reliably and for the networks

to hold onto the value well enough.

Like that was a big step.

Well, maybe you could speak to this

on the reinforcement learning front.

So starting from scratch and learning to do something,

like the first like random behavior

to like crappy behavior to like somewhat okay behavior.

It’s not obvious to me that that’s not like impossible

to take those steps.

Like if you just think about the intuition,

like how the heck does random behavior

become somewhat basic intelligent behavior?

Not human level, not superhuman level, but just basic.

But you’re saying to you kind of the intuition is like,

if you can go from human to superhuman level intelligence

on this particular task of game playing,

then so you’re good at taking leaps.

So you can take many of them.

That the system, I believe that the system

can take that kind of leap.

Yeah, and also I think that beginner knowledge in go,

like you can start to get a feel really quickly

for the idea that being in certain parts of the board

seems to be more associated with winning, right?

Cause it’s not stumbling upon the concept of winning.

It’s told that it wins or that it loses.

Well, it’s self play.

So it both wins and loses.

It’s told which side won.

And the information is kind of there

to start percolating around to make a difference as to,

well, these things have a better chance of helping you win.

And these things have a worse chance of helping you win.

And so it can get to basic play, I think pretty quickly.

Then once it has basic play,

well now it’s kind of forced to do some search

to actually experiment with, okay,

well what gets me that next increment of improvement?

How far do you think, okay, this is where you kind of

bring up the Elon Musk and the Sam Harris, right?

How far is your intuition about these kinds

of self play mechanisms being able to take us?

Cause it feels, one of the ominous but stated calmly things

that when I talked to David Silver, he said,

is that they have not yet discovered a ceiling

for Alpha Zero, for example, in the game of Go or chess.

Like it keeps, no matter how much they compute,

they throw at it, it keeps improving.

So it’s possible, it’s very possible that if you throw,

you know, some like 10 X compute that it will improve

by five X or something like that.

And when stated calmly, it’s so like, oh yeah, I guess so.

But like, and then you think like,

well, can we potentially have like continuations

of Moore’s law in totally different way,

like broadly defined Moore’s law,

not the exponential improvement, like,

are we going to have an Alpha Zero that swallows the world?

But notice it’s not getting better at other things.

It’s getting better at Go.

And I think that’s a big leap to say,

okay, well, therefore it’s better at other things.

Well, I mean, the question is how much of the game of life

can be turned into.

Right, so that I think is a really good question.

And I think that we don’t, I don’t think we as a,

I don’t know, community really know the answer to this,

but so, okay, so I went to a talk

by some experts on computer chess.

So in particular, computer chess is really interesting

because for, of course, for a thousand years,

humans were the best chess playing things on the planet.

And then computers like edged ahead of the best person.

And they’ve been ahead ever since.

It’s not like people have overtaken computers.

But computers and people together

have overtaken computers.

So at least last time I checked,

I don’t know what the very latest is,

but last time I checked that there were teams of people

who could work with computer programs

to defeat the best computer programs.

In the game of Go?

In the game of chess.

Right, and so using the information about how,

these things called ELO scores,

this sort of notion of how strong a player are you.

There’s kind of a range of possible scores.

And you increment in score,

basically if you can beat another player

of that lower score 62% of the time or something like that.

Like there’s some threshold

of if you can somewhat consistently beat someone,

then you are of a higher score than that person.

And there’s a question as to how many times

can you do that in chess, right?

And so we know that there’s a range of human ability levels

that cap out with the best playing humans.

And the computers went a step beyond that.

And computers and people together have not gone,

I think a full step beyond that.

It feels, the estimates that they have

is that it’s starting to asymptote.

That we’ve reached kind of the maximum,

the best possible chess playing.

And so that means that there’s kind of

a finite strategic depth, right?

At some point you just can’t get any better at this game.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t, so I’ll actually check that.

I think it’s interesting because if you have somebody

like Magnus Carlsen, who’s using these chess programs

to train his mind, like to learn about chess.

To become a better chess player, yeah.

And so like, that’s a very interesting thing

because we’re not static creatures.

We’re learning together.

I mean, just like we’re talking about social networks,

those algorithms are teaching us

just like we’re teaching those algorithms.

So that’s a fascinating thing.

But I think the best chess playing programs

are now better than the pairs.

Like they have competition between pairs,

but it’s still, even if they weren’t,

it’s an interesting question, where’s the ceiling?

So the David, the ominous David Silver kind of statement

is like, we have not found the ceiling.

Right, so the question is, okay,

so I don’t know his analysis on that.

My, from talking to Go experts,

the depth, the strategic depth of Go

seems to be substantially greater than that of chess.

That there’s more kind of steps of improvement

that you can make, getting better and better

and better and better.

But there’s no reason to think that it’s infinite.

Infinite, yeah.

And so it could be that what David is seeing

is a kind of asymptoting that you can keep getting better,

but with diminishing returns.

And at some point you hit optimal play.

Like in theory, all these finite games, they’re finite.

They have an optimal strategy.

There’s a strategy that is the minimax optimal strategy.

And so at that point, you can’t get any better.

You can’t beat that strategy.

Now that strategy may be,

from an information processing perspective, intractable.

Right, you need, all the situations

are sufficiently different that you can’t compress it at all.

It’s this giant mess of hardcoded rules.

And we can never achieve that.

But that still puts a cap on how many levels of improvement

that we can actually make.

But the thing about self play is if you put it,

although I don’t like doing that,

in the broader category of self supervised learning,

is that it doesn’t require too much or any human input.

Human labeling, yeah.

Yeah, human label or just human effort.

The human involvement passed a certain point.

And the same thing you could argue is true

for the recent breakthroughs in natural language processing

with language models.

Oh, this is how you get to GPT3.

Yeah, see how that did the.

That was a good transition.

Yeah, I practiced that for days leading up to this now.

But like that’s one of the questions is,

can we find ways to formulate problems in this world

that are important to us humans,

like more important than the game of chess,

that to which self supervised kinds of approaches

could be applied?

Whether it’s self play, for example,

for like maybe you could think of like autonomous vehicles

in simulation, that kind of stuff,

or just robotics applications and simulation,

or in the self supervised learning,

where unannotated data,

or data that’s generated by humans naturally

without extra costs, like Wikipedia,

or like all of the internet can be used

to learn something about,

to create intelligent systems that do something

really powerful, that pass the Turing test,

or that do some kind of superhuman level performance.

So what’s your intuition,

like trying to stitch all of it together

about our discussion of AGI,

the limits of self play,

and your thoughts about maybe the limits of neural networks

in the context of language models.

Is there some intuition in there

that might be useful to think about?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

So first of all, the whole Transformer network

family of things is really cool.

It’s really, really cool.

I mean, if you’ve ever,

back in the day you played with,

I don’t know, Markov models for generating texts,

and you’ve seen the kind of texts that they spit out,

and you compare it to what’s happening now,

it’s amazing, it’s so amazing.

Now, it doesn’t take very long interacting

with one of these systems before you find the holes, right?

It’s not smart in any kind of general way.

It’s really good at a bunch of things.

And it does seem to understand

a lot of the statistics of language extremely well.

And that turns out to be very powerful.

You can answer many questions with that.

But it doesn’t make it a good conversationalist, right?

And it doesn’t make it a good storyteller.

It just makes it good at imitating

of things that is seen in the past.

The exact same thing could be said

by people who are voting for Donald Trump

about Joe Biden supporters,

and people voting for Joe Biden

about Donald Trump supporters is, you know.

That they’re not intelligent, they’re just following the.

Yeah, they’re following things they’ve seen in the past.

And it doesn’t take long to find the flaws

in their natural language generation abilities.

Yes, yes.

So we’re being very.

That’s interesting.

Critical of AI systems.

Right, so I’ve had a similar thought,

which was that the stories that GPT3 spits out

are amazing and very humanlike.

And it doesn’t mean that computers are smarter

than we realize necessarily.

It partly means that people are dumber than we realize.

Or that much of what we do day to day is not that deep.

Like we’re just kind of going with the flow.

We’re saying whatever feels like the natural thing

to say next.

Not a lot of it is creative or meaningful or intentional.

But enough is that we actually get by, right?

We do come up with new ideas sometimes,

and we do manage to talk each other into things sometimes.

And we do sometimes vote for reasonable people sometimes.

But it’s really hard to see in the statistics

because so much of what we’re saying is kind of rote.

And so our metrics that we use to measure

how these systems are doing don’t reveal that

because it’s in the interstices that is very hard to detect.

But is your, do you have an intuition

that with these language models, if they grow in size,

it’s already surprising when you go from GPT2 to GPT3

that there is a noticeable improvement.

So the question now goes back to the ominous David Silver

and the ceiling.

Right, so maybe there’s just no ceiling.

We just need more compute.

Now, I mean, okay, so now I’m speculating.


As opposed to before when I was completely on firm ground.

All right, I don’t believe that you can get something

that really can do language and use language as a thing

that doesn’t interact with people.

Like I think that it’s not enough

to just take everything that we’ve said written down

and just say, that’s enough.

You can just learn from that and you can be intelligent.

I think you really need to be pushed back at.

I think that conversations,

even people who are pretty smart,

maybe the smartest thing that we know,

maybe not the smartest thing we can imagine,

but we get so much benefit

out of talking to each other and interacting.

That’s presumably why you have conversations live with guests

is that there’s something in that interaction

that would not be exposed by,

oh, I’ll just write you a story

and then you can read it later.

And I think because these systems

are just learning from our stories,

they’re not learning from being pushed back at by us,

that they’re fundamentally limited

into what they can actually become on this route.

They have to get shut down.

Like we have to have an argument,

they have to have an argument with us

and lose a couple of times

before they start to realize, oh, okay, wait,

there’s some nuance here that actually matters.

Yeah, that’s actually subtle sounding,

but quite profound that the interaction with humans

is essential and the limitation within that

is profound as well because the timescale,

like the bandwidth at which you can really interact

with humans is very low.

So it’s costly.

So you can’t, one of the underlying things about self plays,

it has to do a very large number of interactions.

And so you can’t really deploy reinforcement learning systems

into the real world to interact.

Like you couldn’t deploy a language model

into the real world to interact with humans

because it was just not getting enough data

relative to the cost it takes to interact.

Like the time of humans is expensive,

which is really interesting.

That takes us back to reinforcement learning

and trying to figure out if there’s ways

to make algorithms that are more efficient at learning,

keep the spirit in reinforcement learning

and become more efficient.

In some sense, that seems to be the goal.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.

I don’t know if you got a chance to see

the blog post called Bitter Lesson.

Oh yes.

By Rich Sutton that makes an argument,

hopefully I can summarize it.

Perhaps you can.

Yeah, but do you want?


So I mean, I could try and you can correct me,

which is he makes an argument that it seems

if we look at the long arc of the history

of the artificial intelligence field,

he calls 70 years that the algorithms

from which we’ve seen the biggest improvements in practice

are the very simple, like dumb algorithms

that are able to leverage computation.

And you just wait for the computation to improve.

Like all of the academics and so on have fun

by finding little tricks

and congratulate themselves on those tricks.

And sometimes those tricks can be like big,

that feel in the moment like big spikes and breakthroughs,

but in reality over the decades,

it’s still the same dumb algorithm

that just waits for the compute to get faster and faster.

Do you find that to be an interesting argument

against the entirety of the field of machine learning

as an academic discipline?

That we’re really just a subfield of computer architecture.

We’re just kind of waiting around

for them to do their next thing.

Who really don’t want to do hardware work.

So like.

That’s right.

I really don’t want to think about it.

We’re procrastinating.

Yes, that’s right, just waiting for them to do their jobs

so that we can pretend to have done ours.

So yeah, I mean, the argument reminds me a lot of,

I think it was a Fred Jelinek quote,

early computational linguist who said,

we’re building these computational linguistic systems

and every time we fire a linguist performance goes up

by 10%, something like that.

And so the idea of us building the knowledge in,

in that case was much less,

he was finding it to be much less successful

than get rid of the people who know about language as a,

from a kind of scholastic academic kind of perspective

and replace them with more compute.

And so I think this is kind of a modern version

of that story, which is, okay,

we want to do better on machine vision.

You could build in all these,

motivated part based models that,

that just feel like obviously the right thing

that you have to have,

or we can throw a lot of data at it

and guess what we’re doing better with a lot of data.

So I hadn’t thought about it until this moment in this way,

but what I believe, well, I’ve thought about what I believe.

What I believe is that, you know, compositionality

and what’s the right way to say it,

the complexity grows rapidly

as you consider more and more possibilities,

like explosively.

And so far Moore’s law has also been growing explosively


And so it really does seem like, well,

we don’t have to think really hard about the algorithm

design or the way that we build the systems,

because the best benefit we could get is exponential.

And the best benefit that we can get from waiting

is exponential.

So we can just wait.

It’s got, that’s gotta end, right?

And there’s hints now that,

that Moore’s law is starting to feel some friction,

starting to, the world is pushing back a little bit.

One thing that I don’t know, do lots of people know this?

I didn’t know this, I was trying to write an essay

and yeah, Moore’s law has been amazing

and it’s enabled all sorts of things,

but there’s also a kind of counter Moore’s law,

which is that the development cost

for each successive generation of chips also is doubling.

So it’s costing twice as much money.

So the amount of development money per cycle or whatever

is actually sort of constant.

And at some point we run out of money.

So, or we have to come up with an entirely different way

of doing the development process.

So like, I guess I always a bit skeptical of the look,

it’s an exponential curve, therefore it has no end.

Soon the number of people going to NeurIPS

will be greater than the population of the earth.

That means we’re gonna discover life on other planets.

No, it doesn’t.

It means that we’re in a sigmoid curve on the front half,

which looks a lot like an exponential.

The second half is gonna look a lot like diminishing returns.

Yeah, I mean, but the interesting thing about Moore’s law,

if you actually like look at the technologies involved,

it’s hundreds, if not thousands of S curves

stacked on top of each other.

It’s not actually an exponential curve,

it’s constant breakthroughs.

And then what becomes useful to think about,

which is exactly what you’re saying,

the cost of development, like the size of teams,

the amount of resources that are invested

in continuing to find new S curves, new breakthroughs.

And yeah, it’s an interesting idea.

If we live in the moment, if we sit here today,

it seems to be the reasonable thing

to say that exponentials end.

And yet in the software realm,

they just keep appearing to be happening.

And it’s so, I mean, it’s so hard to disagree

with Elon Musk on this.

Because it like, I’ve, you know,

I used to be one of those folks,

I’m still one of those folks that studied

autonomous vehicles, that’s what I worked on.

And it’s like, you look at what Elon Musk is saying

about autonomous vehicles, well, obviously,

in a couple of years, or in a year, or next month,

we’ll have fully autonomous vehicles.

Like there’s no reason why we can’t.

Driving is pretty simple, like it’s just a learning problem

and you just need to convert all the driving

that we’re doing into data and just having you all know

with the trains on that data.

And like, we use only our eyes, so you can use cameras

and you can train on it.

And it’s like, yeah, that should work.

And then you put that hat on, like the philosophical hat,

and but then you put the pragmatic hat and it’s like,

this is what the flaws of computer vision are.

Like, this is what it means to train at scale.

And then you put the human factors, the psychology hat on,

which is like, it’s actually driving us a lot,

the cognitive science or cognitive,

whatever the heck you call it, it’s really hard,

it’s much harder to drive than we realize,

there’s a much larger number of edge cases.

So building up an intuition around this is,

around exponentials is really difficult.

And on top of that, the pandemic is making us think

about exponentials, making us realize that like,

we don’t understand anything about it,

we’re not able to intuit exponentials,

we’re either ultra terrified, some part of the population

and some part is like the opposite of whatever

the different carefree and we’re not managing it very well.

Blase, well, wow, is that French?

I assume so, it’s got an accent.

So it’s fascinating to think what the limits

of this exponential growth of technology,

not just Moore’s law, it’s technology,

how that rubs up against the bitter lesson

and GPT three and self play mechanisms.

Like it’s not obvious, I used to be much more skeptical

about neural networks.

Now I at least give a slither of possibility

that we’ll be very much surprised

and also caught in a way that like,

we are not prepared for.

Like in applications of social networks, for example,

cause it feels like really good transformer models

that are able to do some kind of like very good

natural language generation of the same kind of models

that can be used to learn human behavior

and then manipulate that human behavior

to gain advertisers dollars and all those kinds of things

through the capitalist system.

And they arguably already are manipulating human behavior.

But not for self preservation, which I think is a big,

that would be a big step.

Like if they were trying to manipulate us

to convince us not to shut them off,

I would be very freaked out.

But I don’t see a path to that from where we are now.

They don’t have any of those abilities.

That’s not what they’re trying to do.

They’re trying to keep people on the site.

But see the thing is, this is the thing about life on earth

is they might be borrowing our consciousness

and sentience like, so like in a sense they do

because the creators of the algorithms have,

like they’re not, if you look at our body,

we’re not a single organism.

We’re a huge number of organisms

with like tiny little motivations

were built on top of each other.

In the same sense, the AI algorithms that are,

they’re not like.

It’s a system that includes companies and corporations,

because corporations are funny organisms

in and of themselves that really do seem

to have self preservation built in.

And I think that’s at the design level.

I think they’re designed to have self preservation

to be a focus.

So you’re right.

In that broader system that we’re also a part of

and can have some influence on,

it is much more complicated, much more powerful.

Yeah, I agree with that.

So people really love it when I ask,

what three books, technical, philosophical, fiction

had a big impact on your life?

Maybe you can recommend.

We went with movies, we went with Billy Joe

and I forgot what music you recommended, but.

I didn’t, I just said I have no taste in music.

I just like pop music.

That was actually really skillful

the way you avoided that question.

Thank you, thanks.

I’m gonna try to do the same with the books.

So do you have a skillful way to avoid answering

the question about three books you would recommend?

I’d like to tell you a story.

So my first job out of college was at Bellcore.

I mentioned that before, where I worked with Dave Ackley.

The head of the group was a guy named Tom Landauer.

And I don’t know how well known he’s known now,

but arguably he’s the inventor

and the first proselytizer of word embeddings.

So they developed a system shortly before I got to the group

that was called latent semantic analysis

that would take words of English

and embed them in multi hundred dimensional space

and then use that as a way of assessing

similarity and basically doing reinforcement learning,

I’m sorry, not reinforcement, information retrieval,

sort of pre Google information retrieval.

And he was trained as an anthropologist,

but then became a cognitive scientist.

So I was in the cognitive science research group.

Like I said, I’m a cognitive science groupie.

At the time I thought I’d become a cognitive scientist,

but then I realized in that group,

no, I’m a computer scientist,

but I’m a computer scientist who really loves

to hang out with cognitive scientists.

And he said, he studied language acquisition in particular.

He said, you know, humans have about this number of words

of vocabulary and most of that is learned from reading.

And I said, that can’t be true

because I have a really big vocabulary and I don’t read.

He’s like, you must.

I’m like, I don’t think I do.

I mean like stop signs, I definitely read stop signs,

but like reading books is not a thing that I do a lot of.

Do you really though?

It might be just visual, maybe the red color.

Do I read stop signs?

No, it’s just pattern recognition at this point.

I don’t sound it out.

So now I do.

I wonder what that, oh yeah, stop the guns.


That’s fascinating.

So you don’t.

So I don’t read very, I mean, obviously I read

and I’ve read plenty of books,

but like some people like Charles,

my friend Charles and others,

like a lot of people in my field, a lot of academics,

like reading was really a central topic to them

in development and I’m not that guy.

In fact, I used to joke that when I got into college,

that it was on kind of a help out the illiterate

kind of program because I got to,

like in my house, I wasn’t a particularly bad

or good reader, but when I got to college,

I was surrounded by these people that were just voracious

in their reading appetite.

And they would like, have you read this?

Have you read this?

And I’m like, no, I’m clearly not qualified

to be at this school.

Like there’s no way I should be here.

Now I’ve discovered books on tape, like audio books.

And so I’m much better.

I’m more caught up.

I read a lot of books.

The small tangent on that,

it is a fascinating open question to me

on the topic of driving.

Whether, you know, supervised learning people,

machine learning people think you have to like drive

to learn how to drive.

To me, it’s very possible that just by us humans,

by first of all, walking,

but also by watching other people drive,

not even being inside cars as a passenger,

but let’s say being inside the car as a passenger,

but even just like being a pedestrian and crossing the road,

you learn so much about driving from that.

It’s very possible that you can,

without ever being inside of a car,

be okay at driving once you get in it.

Or like watching a movie, for example.

I don’t know, something like that.

Have you taught anyone to drive?

No, except myself.

I have two children.

And I learned a lot about car driving

because my wife doesn’t want to be the one in the car

while they’re learning.

So that’s my job.

So I sit in the passenger seat and it’s really scary.

You know, I have wishes to live

and they’re figuring things out.

Now, they start off very much better

than I imagine like a neural network would, right?

They get that they’re seeing the world.

They get that there’s a road that they’re trying to be on.

They get that there’s a relationship

between the angle of the steering,

but it takes a while to not be very jerky.

And so that happens pretty quickly.

Like the ability to stay in lane at speed,

that happens relatively fast.

It’s not zero shot learning, but it’s pretty fast.

The thing that’s remarkably hard,

and this is I think partly why self driving cars

are really hard,

is the degree to which driving

is a social interaction activity.

And that blew me away.

I was completely unaware of it

until I watched my son learning to drive.

And I was realizing that he was sending signals

to all the cars around him.

And those in his case,

he’s always had social communication challenges.

He was sending very mixed confusing signals

to the other cars.

And that was causing the other cars

to drive weirdly and erratically.

And there was no question in my mind

that he would have an accident

because they didn’t know how to read him.

There’s things you do with the speed that you drive,

the positioning of your car,

that you’re constantly like in the head

of the other drivers.

And seeing him not knowing how to do that

and having to be taught explicitly,

okay, you have to be thinking

about what the other driver is thinking,

was a revelation to me.

I was stunned.

So creating kind of theories of mind of the other.

Theories of mind of the other cars.

Yeah, yeah.

Which I just hadn’t heard discussed

in the self driving car talks that I’ve been to.

Since then, there’s some people who do consider

those kinds of issues,

but it’s way more subtle than I think

there’s a little bit of work involved with that

when you realize like when you especially focus

not on other cars, but on pedestrians, for example,

it’s literally staring you in the face.

So then when you’re just like,

how do I interact with pedestrians?

Pedestrians, you’re practically talking

to an octopus at that point.

They’ve got all these weird degrees of freedom.

You don’t know what they’re gonna do.

They can turn around any second.

But the point is, we humans know what they’re gonna do.

Like we have a good theory of mind.

We have a good mental model of what they’re doing.

And we have a good model of the model they have a view

and the model of the model of the model.

Like we’re able to kind of reason about this kind of,

the social like game of it all.

The hope is that it’s quite simple actually,

that it could be learned.

That’s why I just talked to the Waymo.

I don’t know if you know that company.

It’s Google South Africa.

They, I talked to their CTO about this podcast

and they like, I rode in their car

and it’s quite aggressive and it’s quite fast

and it’s good and it feels great.

It also, just like Tesla,

Waymo made me change my mind about like,

maybe driving is easier than I thought.

Maybe I’m just being speciest, human centric, maybe.

It’s a speciest argument.

Yeah, so I don’t know.

But it’s fascinating to think about like the same

as with reading, which I think you just said.

You avoided the question,

though I still hope you answered it somewhat.

You avoided it brilliantly.

It is, there’s blind spots as artificial intelligence,

that artificial intelligence researchers have

about what it actually takes to learn to solve a problem.

That’s fascinating.

Have you had Anca Dragan on?



She’s one of my favorites.

So much energy.

She’s right.

Oh, yeah.

She’s amazing.


And in particular, she thinks a lot about this kind of,

I know that you know that I know kind of planning.

And the last time I spoke with her,

she was very articulate about the ways

in which self driving cars are not solved.

Like what’s still really, really hard.

But even her intuition is limited.

Like we’re all like new to this.

So in some sense, the Elon Musk approach

of being ultra confident and just like plowing.

Put it out there.

Putting it out there.

Like some people say it’s reckless and dangerous and so on.

But like, partly it’s like, it seems to be one

of the only ways to make progress

in artificial intelligence.

So it’s, you know, these are difficult things.

You know, democracy is messy.

Implementation of artificial intelligence systems

in the real world is messy.

So many years ago, before self driving cars

were an actual thing you could have a discussion about,

somebody asked me, like, what if we could use

that robotic technology and use it to drive cars around?

Like, isn’t that, aren’t people gonna be killed?

And then it’s not, you know, blah, blah, blah.

I’m like, that’s not what’s gonna happen.

I said with confidence, incorrectly, obviously.

What I think is gonna happen is we’re gonna have a lot more,

like a very gradual kind of rollout

where people have these cars in like closed communities,

right, where it’s somewhat realistic,

but it’s still in a box, right?

So that we can really get a sense of what,

what are the weird things that can happen?

How do we, how do we have to change the way we behave

around these vehicles?

Like, it’s obviously requires a kind of co evolution

that you can’t just plop them in and see what happens.

But of course, we’re basically popping them in

and see what happens.

So I was wrong, but I do think that would have been

a better plan.

So that’s, but your intuition, that’s funny,

just zooming out and looking at the forces of capitalism.

And it seems that capitalism rewards risk takers

and rewards and punishes risk takers, like,

and like, try it out.

The academic approach to let’s try a small thing

and try to understand slowly the fundamentals

of the problem.

And let’s start with one, then do two, and then see that.

And then do the three, you know, the capitalist

like startup entrepreneurial dream is let’s build a thousand

and let’s.

Right, and 500 of them fail, but whatever,

the other 500, we learned from them.

But if you’re good enough, I mean, one thing is like,

your intuition would say like, that’s gonna be

hugely destructive to everything.

But actually, it’s kind of the forces of capitalism,

like people are quite, it’s easy to be critical,

but if you actually look at the data at the way

our world has progressed in terms of the quality of life,

it seems like the competent good people rise to the top.

This is coming from me from the Soviet Union and so on.

It’s like, it’s interesting that somebody like Elon Musk

is the way you push progress in artificial intelligence.

Like it’s forcing Waymo to step their stuff up

and Waymo is forcing Elon Musk to step up.

It’s fascinating, because I have this tension in my heart

and just being upset by the lack of progress

in autonomous vehicles within academia.

So there’s a huge progress in the early days

of the DARPA challenges.

And then it just kind of stopped like at MIT,

but it’s true everywhere else with an exception

of a few sponsors here and there is like,

it’s not seen as a sexy problem, Thomas.

Like the moment artificial intelligence starts approaching

the problems of the real world,

like academics kind of like, all right, let the…

They get really hard in a different way.

In a different way, that’s right.

I think, yeah, right, some of us are not excited

about that other way.

But I still think there’s fundamentals problems

to be solved in those difficult things.

It’s not, it’s still publishable, I think.

Like we just need to, it’s the same criticism

you could have of all these conferences in Europe, CVPR,

where application papers are often as powerful

and as important as like a theory paper.

Even like theory just seems much more respectable and so on.

I mean, machine learning community is changing

that a little bit.

I mean, at least in statements,

but it’s still not seen as the sexiest of pursuits,

which is like, how do I actually make this thing

work in practice as opposed to on this toy data set?

All that to say, are you still avoiding

the three books question?

Is there something on audio book that you can recommend?

Oh, yeah, I mean, yeah, I’ve read a lot of really fun stuff.

In terms of books that I find myself thinking back on

that I read a while ago,

like that stood the test of time to some degree.

I find myself thinking of program or be programmed a lot

by Douglas Roschkopf, which was,

it basically put out the premise

that we all need to become programmers

in one form or another.

And it was an analogy to once upon a time

we all had to become readers.

We had to become literate.

And there was a time before that

when not everybody was literate,

but once literacy was possible,

the people who were literate had more of a say in society

than the people who weren’t.

And so we made a big effort to get everybody up to speed.

And now it’s not 100% universal, but it’s quite widespread.

Like the assumption is generally that people can read.

The analogy that he makes is that programming

is a similar kind of thing,

that we need to have a say in, right?

So being a reader, being literate, being a reader means

you can receive all this information,

but you don’t get to put it out there.

And programming is the way that we get to put it out there.

And that was the argument that he made.

I think he specifically has now backed away from this idea.

He doesn’t think it’s happening quite this way.

And that might be true that it didn’t,

society didn’t sort of play forward quite that way.

I still believe in the premise.

I still believe that at some point,

the relationship that we have to these machines

and these networks has to be one of each individual

can, has the wherewithal to make the machines help them.

Do the things that that person wants done.

And as software people, we know how to do that.

And when we have a problem, we’re like, okay,

I’ll just, I’ll hack up a Pearl script or something

and make it so.

If we lived in a world where everybody could do that,

that would be a better world.

And computers would be, have, I think less sway over us.

And other people’s software would have less sway over us

as a group.

In some sense, software engineering, programming is power.

Programming is power, right?

Yeah, it’s like magic.

It’s like magic spells.

And it’s not out of reach of everyone.

But at the moment, it’s just a sliver of the population

who can commune with machines in this way.

So I don’t know, so that book had a big impact on me.

Currently, I’m reading The Alignment Problem,

actually by Brian Christian.

So I don’t know if you’ve seen this out there yet.

Is this similar to Stuart Russell’s work

with the control problem?

It’s in that same general neighborhood.

I mean, they have different emphases

that they’re concentrating on.

I think Stuart’s book did a remarkably good job,

like just a celebratory good job

at describing AI technology and sort of how it works.

I thought that was great.

It was really cool to see that in a book.

I think he has some experience writing some books.

You know, that’s probably a possible thing.

He’s maybe thought a thing or two

about how to explain AI to people.

Yeah, that’s a really good point.

This book so far has been remarkably good

at telling the story of sort of the history,

the recent history of some of the things

that have happened.

I’m in the first third.

He said this book is in three thirds.

The first third is essentially AI fairness

and implications of AI on society

that we’re seeing right now.

And that’s been great.

I mean, he’s telling the stories really well.

He went out and talked to the frontline people

whose names were associated with some of these ideas

and it’s been terrific.

He says the second half of the book

is on reinforcement learning.

So maybe that’ll be fun.

And then the third half, third third,

is on the super intelligence alignment problem.

And I suspect that that part will be less fun

for me to read.


Yeah, it’s an interesting problem to talk about.

I find it to be the most interesting,

just like thinking about whether we live

in a simulation or not,

as a thought experiment to think about our own existence.

So in the same way,

talking about alignment problem with AGI

is a good way to think similar

to like the trolley problem with autonomous vehicles.

It’s a useless thing for engineering,

but it’s a nice little thought experiment

for actually thinking about what are like

our own human ethical systems, our moral systems

to by thinking how we engineer these things,

you start to understand yourself.

So sci fi can be good at that too.

So one sci fi book to recommend

is Exhalations by Ted Chiang,

bunch of short stories.

This Ted Chiang is the guy who wrote the short story

that became the movie Arrival.

And all of his stories just from a,

he was a computer scientist,

actually he studied at Brown.

And they all have this sort of really insightful bit

of science or computer science that drives them.

And so it’s just a romp, right?

To just like, he creates these artificial worlds

with these by extrapolating on these ideas

that we know about,

but hadn’t really thought through

to this kind of conclusion.

And so his stuff is, it’s really fun to read,

it’s mind warping.

So I’m not sure if you’re familiar,

I seem to mention this every other word

is I’m from the Soviet Union and I’m Russian.

Way too much to see us.

My roots are Russian too,

but a couple generations back.

Well, it’s probably in there somewhere.

So maybe we can pull at that thread a little bit

of the existential dread that we all feel.

You mentioned that you,

I think somewhere in the conversation you mentioned

that you don’t really pretty much like dying.

I forget in which context,

it might’ve been a reinforcement learning perspective.

I don’t know.

No, you know what it was?

It was in teaching my kids to drive.

That’s how you face your mortality, yes.

From a human beings perspective

or from a reinforcement learning researchers perspective,

let me ask you the most absurd question.

What do you think is the meaning of this whole thing?

The meaning of life on this spinning rock.

I mean, I think reinforcement learning researchers

maybe think about this from a science perspective

more often than a lot of other people, right?

As a supervised learning person,

you’re probably not thinking about the sweep of a lifetime,

but reinforcement learning agents

are having little lifetimes, little weird little lifetimes.

And it’s hard not to project yourself

into their world sometimes.

But as far as the meaning of life,

so when I turned 42, you may know from,

that is a book I read,

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

that that is the meaning of life.

So when I turned 42, I had a meaning of life party

where I invited people over

and everyone shared their meaning of life.

We had slides made up.

And so we all sat down and did a slide presentation

to each other about the meaning of life.

And mine was balance.

I think that life is balance.

And so the activity at the party,

for a 42 year old, maybe this is a little bit nonstandard,

but I found all the little toys and devices that I had

where you had to balance on them.

You had to like stand on it and balance,

or a pogo stick I brought,

a rip stick, which is like a weird two wheeled skateboard.

I got a unicycle, but I didn’t know how to do it.

I now can do it.

I would love watching you try.

Yeah, I’ll send you a video.

I’m not great, but I managed.

And so balance, yeah.

So my wife has a really good one that she sticks to

and is probably pretty accurate.

And it has to do with healthy relationships

with people that you love and working hard for good causes.

But to me, yeah, balance, balance in a word.

That works for me.

Not too much of anything,

because too much of anything is iffy.

That feels like a Rolling Stones song.

I feel like they must be.

You can’t always get what you want,

but if you try sometimes, you can strike a balance.

Yeah, I think that’s how it goes, Michael.

I’ll write you a parody.

It’s a huge honor to talk to you.

This is really fun.

Oh, no, the honor’s mine.

I’ve been a big fan of yours,

so can’t wait to see what you do next

in the world of education, in the world of parody,

in the world of reinforcement learning.

Thanks for talking to me.

My pleasure.

Thank you for listening to this conversation

with Michael Littman, and thank you to our sponsors,

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If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.

Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.

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