Agent Foundations in AI Alignment: A Technical Overview

The concept of Agent Foundations addresses critical challenges in AI alignment research, focusing on developing robust mathematical formulations for key concepts in artificial intelligence.This approach aims to create AI systems that reliably adhere to human values and intentions, even under intense optimization pressures.

Problem Statement

Naive approaches to AI alignment, such as training systems to optimize for human-labeled “good” outcomes, face two primary failure modes:

  1. Optimization for superficial proxies: AI systems may prioritize actions that appear beneficial to humans without delivering genuine value.
  2. Limited generalization: Strategies developed in training environments may fail to transfer effectively to novel situations.

These issues stem from Goodhart’s Law, which posits that when a metric becomes an optimization target, it ceases to function as an effective measure. In AI contexts, this manifests as proxy measures breaking down under strong optimization pressure.

True Names and Robust Formulations

To mitigate Goodhart’s Law effects, researchers propose identifying “True Names” for fundamental concepts – mathematical formulations that maintain their intended semantics even under extreme optimization. These True Names serve as invariant anchors, ensuring AI systems optimize for genuine objectives rather than superficial approximations.

Key Areas of Focus

Agent Foundations research targets several core concepts:

  1. Optimization: Formalizing improvement metrics and processes.
  2. Goals: Defining objective functions for intelligent agents.
  3. World models: Representing and reasoning about environmental states and dynamics.
  4. Abstraction: Constructing useful simplifications of complex systems.
  5. Counterfactuals: Modeling hypothetical scenarios and causal relationships.
  6. Embeddedness: Formalizing agent self-modeling within environments.

By developing robust formulations for these concepts, researchers aim to establish a solid theoretical foundation for building reliably aligned AI systems.

Generalizability and Scalability

The search for True Names emphasizes generalizability – creating mathematical formulations that preserve their intended semantics across diverse environments and scenarios. This approach addresses the critical need for AI systems that maintain alignment as they encounter novel challenges and expand their capabilities.

Challenges and Debates

Skeptics question the necessity of solving these abstract, foundational problems, suggesting that effective alignment techniques might emerge through empirical trial and error. However, this approach carries significant risks, potentially creating systems with hidden vulnerabilities that could prove catastrophic as AI capabilities increase.

Technical Implications

Developing Agent Foundations requires advances in several technical areas:

  1. Formal verification: Proving properties of AI systems and their decision-making processes.
  2. Causal inference: Understanding and modeling cause-effect relationships in complex environments.
  3. Information theory: Quantifying information flow and mutual information between system components.
  4. Category theory: Formalizing abstract structures and relationships between different mathematical objects.
  5. Decision theory: Modeling rational decision-making under uncertainty.

These technical domains provide tools and frameworks for constructing rigorous formulations of key AI concepts.

Research Directions

Current research in Agent Foundations explores several promising avenues:

  1. Logical induction: Developing formal systems for reasoning about logical uncertainty.
  2. Infra-Bayesianism: Extending Bayesian reasoning to handle non-probabilistic uncertainty.
  3. Embedded agency: Formalizing decision-making for agents that are part of their environments.
  4. Ontology identification: Developing methods for AI systems to construct useful world models from raw sensory data.
  5. Value learning: Creating robust mechanisms for inferring human values and preferences.

These research directions aim to address fundamental challenges in AI alignment, providing a theoretical basis for building safe and reliable AI systems.


Agent Foundations represents a rigorous, principled approach to AI alignment.

By investing in foundational questions and seeking True Names for key concepts, researchers aim to develop a robust framework for creating AI systems that reliably pursue intended goals, even as they grow more powerful and autonomous.

This work addresses the critical need for alignment techniques that scale with advancing AI capabilities, potentially mitigating existential risks associated with misaligned artificial intelligence.


Agent Foundations for Aligning Machine Intelligence with Human Interests:
A Technical Research Agenda

A Brief Introduction to some Approaches to AI Alignment