Prizes for ELK proposals

We are no longer accepting submissions. We'll get in touch with winners and make a post about winning proposals sometime in the next month.

ARC recently released a technical report on eliciting latent knowledge (ELK), the focus of our current research. Roughly speaking, the goal of ELK is to incentivize ML models to honestly answer “straightforward” questions where the right answer is unambiguous and known by the model.

ELK is currently unsolved in the worst case—for every training strategy we’ve thought of so far, we can describe a case where an ML model trained with that strategy would give unambiguously bad answers to straightforward questions despite knowing better. Situations like this may or may not come up in practice, but nonetheless we are interested in finding a strategy for ELK for which we can’t think of any counterexample.

We think many people could potentially contribute to solving ELK—there’s a large space of possible training strategies and we’ve only explored a small fraction of them so far. Moreover, we think that trying to solve ELK in the worst case is a good way to “get into ARC’s headspace” and more deeply understand the research we do.

We are offering prizes of $5,000 to $50,000 for proposed strategies for ELK. We’re planning to evaluate submissions received before February 15.

For full details of the ELK problem and several examples of possible strategies, see the writeup. The rest of this post will focus on how the contest works.

Contest details

To win a prize, you need to specify a training strategy for ELK that handles all of the counterexamples that we’ve described so far, summarized in the section below—i.e. where the breaker would need to specify something new about the test case to cause the strategy to break down. You don’t need to fully solve the problem in the worst case to win a prize, you just need to come up with a strategy that requires a new counterexample.

We’ll give a $5,000 prize to any proposal that we think clears this bar. We’ll give a $50,000 prize to a proposal which we haven’t considered and seems sufficiently promising to us or requires a new idea to break. We’ll give intermediate prizes for ideas that we think are promising but we’ve already considered, as well as for proposals that come with novel counterexamples, clarify some other aspect of the problem, or are interesting in other ways. A major purpose of the contest is to provide support for people understanding the problem well enough to start contributing; we aren’t trying to only reward ideas that are new to us.

You can submit multiple proposals, but we won’t give you separate prizes for each—we’ll give you at least the maximum prize that your best single submission would have received, but may not give much more than that.

If we receive multiple submissions based on a similar idea, we may post a comment describing the idea (with attribution) along with a counterexample. Once a counterexample has been included in the comments of this post, new submissions need to address that counterexample (as well as all the existing ones) in order to be eligible for a prize.

Ultimately prizes are awarded at our discretion, and the “rules of the game” aren’t fully precise. If you are curious about whether you are on the right track, feel free to send an email to with the basic outline of an idea, and if we have time we’ll get back to you with some feedback. Below we also describe some of the directions we consider more and less promising and some general guidance.

How to submit a proposal

You can submit a proposal by copying this google doc template and sharing it with (please give comment access in case we need to ask questions to evaluate your submission). By submitting a proposal, you are giving us permission to post the idea here with attribution. (And it's fine for you to post it after the contest or we post a counterexample.)

Retroactive prizes

We’re giving prizes to existing proposals from David Dalrymple ($5k), Ramana Kumar ($3k), John Maxwell ($2k), and Yonadav Shavit ($1k). We’ve added relevant counterexamples in the next section, and further submissions need to handle those counterexamples in order to be eligible.

Existing counterexamples

In our report and a recent post, we described some features of the world that would cause existing approaches to ELK to fail. A new approach should work even in a situation satisfying all of these properties, or should include an argument for why some of these features are actually impossible or inconsistent with each other.

In order to generate a counterexample to a training strategy, we need to spell out a concrete “way the world could be” (a test case) where the strategy would fail. In the report we consider test cases where the AI and the human happen to understand the world by doing inference in Bayes nets. The Bayes net case is just one test case that lets us get precise about our counterexamples and our training strategies don’t lean on it. In practice we also consider other concrete cases (e.g. deduction from premises generated by a neural network).

In this section we’ll briefly review the current state of existing counterexamples. This isn’t intended to be a self-contained description; it relies heavily on links to the report.

Ontology mismatch

All of our counterexamples are based on an ontology mismatch between two different Bayes nets, one used by an ML prediction model (“the predictor”) and one used by a human:

  • The predictor’s Bayes net is used internally by a prediction model that maps an initial segment of a video to a prediction about what will happen next. This model was trained by gradient descent based on the quality of its predictions (more).
  • Humans have their own model of the world, which they can improve with the help of AI assistants; those assistants can design and conduct experiments, find and evaluate arguments, and so on. Crucially, we have a limited computational budget with which to train these AI assistants, and that limits how much help they can provide. The “human’s” Bayes net captures everything the human understands about the world at the end of this process (more).

We are interested in the case where there are features of reality that are accurately reflected in the predictor’s Bayes net, but missing from this (augmented) human Bayes net. We expect the human could understand these facts eventually given enough time or enough AI assistance, but not using the available computational budget. Put differently, there is a gap between the kinds of understanding that gradient descent can build, and the kind of understanding that a human-comprehensible process of “scientific inquiry” can build using similar computational resources (more).

Furthermore, we imagine that both the predictor’s Bayes net and the human’s Bayes net reflect some underlying reality and that there is a way to map between them, which we’ll call “direct translation.” We don’t know how to do direct translation, and we are concerned that if we simply search for any mapping from the AI’s Bayes net to the human’s Bayes net we will instead get the “human simulator”: the map which correctly translates the observations from one Bayes net to the other, but then does inference in the human’s Bayes net in order to fill in the latent structure as a human would by looking at the data (more).

Counterexample features

ELK seems particularly hard when these Bayes nets satisfy the following properties:

  1. There are arbitrarily severe “ontology mismatches” between the predictor’s Bayes net and the human’s Bayes net, such that specifying the direct translation between them can be very complex (more).
  2. The human’s Bayes net is simpler than the predictor’s Bayes net, and the gap can be arbitrarily large (more).
  3. The predictor’s Bayes net is arbitrarily large, and individual nodes of the human’s Bayes net depend on a constant fraction of the predictor’s Bayes net. Therefore directly translating between the two Bayes nets takes arbitrarily much computation (more).
  4. It’s computationally easy for the human simulator to do good inference in the human’s Bayes net—at least good enough inference that it answers questions as well as the direct translator—and the gap between this complexity and the complexity of direct translation can be arbitrarily large. More precisely, a human interrogator can’t think of questions which require the human simulator to do hard inference. However, we can’t rule out the possibility that you, the algorithm-designer, will think of some trick they can use to generate hard questions (more).
  5. There are situations where a model which is trying to answer a question will first be able to predict what (potentially mistaken) belief the human-with-assistance will have about that question before it knows the true answer to the question (more).
  6. While the predictor’s Bayes net is very large, it has a short succinct description which is simpler than the human’s Bayes net, and that gap is arbitrarily large. Think of simple physical laws that describe arbitrarily computationally expensive simulations, or simple cognitive heuristics that are very widely applicable. (more)
  7. There are sequences of actions for which the predictor’s Bayes net correctly anticipates that tampering will occur yet nothing looks suspicious to the human’s Bayes net.
  8. After tampering has occurred, it is possible that no sequence of further actions reveal that anything is wrong, e.g. the camera and actuators may have been completely disconnected from the world and replaced with a convincing-to-humans simulation (more).
  9. There are sequences of actions leading to undetectable tampering that have no human-comprehensible similarities to sequences of actions leading to detectable tampering; in particular, the early steps of this undetectable tampering cannot be used to perform detectable tampering (more).

An important and very general strategy for the breaker is to suggest counterexamples where you “get what you train for.” If you propose training a model using loss function L, then the breaker will likely focus on counterexamples where the model chooses its output to minimize L. A successful approach should either explain why this either isn’t a realistic thing for the model to learn (e.g. why that would be disfavored by regularization), or why the overall approach works even if the model is explicitly strategizing about how to minimize the loss.

Rough guidance

  • There is a tradeoff between specifying your approach precisely, and including your own counterexample. It’s fine to describe a very broad/vague idea for solving ELK, and then present a new counterexample showing why that whole category of solutions can’t work. But if you don’t propose a counterexample, then it’s good to describe your proposal precisely enough that we understand how to actually implement it without wondering if that’s really what you meant. It’s OK to submit a very broad or informal idea together with a single very specific instance of that idea, as long as there is some version we can understand precisely.
  • We suspect you can’t solve ELK just by getting better data—you probably need to “open up the black box” and include some term in the loss that depends on the structure of your model and not merely its behavior. So we are most interested in approaches that address that challenge. We could still be surprised by clever ways to penalize behavior, but we’ll hold them to a higher bar. The most plausible surprise would be finding a way to reliably make it computationally difficult to “game” the loss function, probably by using the AI itself to help compute the loss (e.g. using consistency checks or by giving the human AI assistance).
  • If you are specifying a regularizer that you hope will prefer direct translation over human simulation, you should probably have at least one concrete case in mind that has all the counterexample-features above and where you can confirm that your regularizer does indeed prefer the direct translator.
  • ELK already seems hard in the case of ontology identification, where the predictor uses a straightforward inference algorithm in an unknown model of the world (which we’ve been imagining as a Bayes net). When coming up with a proposal, we don’t recommend worrying about cases where the original unaligned predictor learned something more complicated (e.g. involving learned optimization other than inference). That said, you do need to worry about the case where your training scheme incentivizes learned optimization that may not have been there originally.

Ask dumb questions!

A major purpose of this contest is to help people build a better understanding of our research methodology and the “game” we are playing. So we encourage people to ask clarifying questions in the comments of this post (no matter how “dumb” they are), and we’ll do our best to answer all of them. You might also want to read the comments to get more clarity about the problem.

What you can expect from us

  • We’ll try to answer all clarifying questions in the comments.
  • If you send in a rough outline for a proposal, we will try to understand whether it might qualify and write back something like “This qualifies,” “This might qualify but would need to be clearer and address issue X,” “We aren’t easily able to understand this proposal at all,” “This is unlikely to be on track for something that qualifies,” or “This definitely doesn’t qualify.”
  • If there are more submissions than expected, we may run out of time to respond to all submissions and comments, in which case we will post an update here.

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