What it means to optimise

post by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-07-25T09:40:09.616Z · LW · GW · None comments

This is a link post for https://www.neelnanda.io/blog/mini-blog-post-9-what-it-means-to-optimise

(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at neelnanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

If you’ve gotten to my ninth post, it’s probably no surprise to you that I’m a big fan of optimising my life! Optimisation, as I define it, is the process of taking actions that best achieve your goals.

As stated, I consider it pretty tautologically obvious that this is a good idea. You can take actions that bring you closer to your goals, or you can take other actions. But I get into pretty frequent arguments about whether this is a good idea. And it’s easy to get defensive, and fall back to this definition, and argue that optimisation is by definition a good idea. But I think it’s valuable to engage with criticism and take it seriously, and to see what you can learn from it.

My best explanation is that this criticism is really directed at what I’ll call naive optimisation. Like a robot, who’s told to clean the dust in your room, but never told “priceless Ming vases are important”, and smashes the vase to clear the dust beneath it. An approach that’s focused on being cold, calculating, and driving as hard as you can towards a specific utility function, with no regard for restraint or common sense. And I completely agree that it’s dumb to be a naive optimiser - but I think it’s dumb because naive optimisation does not best achieve its goals. And if someone can explain how an approach to optimisation doesn’t best achieve your goals, that’s not a problem with the concept of optimising, it’s a problem with how you are trying to optimise. You shouldn’t aim to “try as hard as you can” or “do the cold, calculated action”, you should aim to do whatever action best achieves your goals. And this includes asking whether what you think your goals are, are truly your goals.

But this is all easier said than done. And especially for the kind of person who enjoys thinking about optimisation, I think there are a lot of ways to accidentally fall into the trap of being a naive optimiser. So the rest of this post will be a list of the most common criticisms, and how best to account for them:

Overall, optimisation is hard. It’s easy to fall into traps, it’s easy to confuse proxies for your true goals, it’s easy to neglect important but abstract ideas. And it takes time and energy to do. But I only have one life, and there are a lot of things in it that matter to me. And if I can spend some of this life making the rest of it better, then that is important to me. And when something is important, it matters all the more to be deliberate, to always drive towards the goal. To strategise and ensure I do it well. And every time this goes wrong, that is a chance to learn, and ensure I achieve my goals even better next time.

It’s easy to consider this too much effort. An obligation to feel guilty about it, or a source of stress to ignore. But every single thing you do is an action that brings you further or closer from your goals. Not optimising is simply trading the resources you could have spent optimising, for the world where you follow the default path. I am not happy with the world where I follow the default path, and I choose to strive to do better.

Perhaps that feels like a good trade for you. And for some people, it probably is the right call! But be aware that it is a trade-off you are making.

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