Oracle AI

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An Oracle AI is a regularly proposed solution to the problem of developing Friendly AI. It is conceptualized as a super-intelligent system which is designed for only answering questions, and has no ability to act in the world. The name was first suggested by Nick Bostrom.


Armstrong, Sandberg and Bostrom discuss Oracle AI safety at length in their Thinking inside the box: using and controlling an Oracle AI. The authors propose a conceptual architecture to create such a system, besides reviewing how one might measure it accuracy and shed some light on human level considerations. Among the last are physical security – also known as “boxing” -, the potential for the oracle to use social engineering, which questions may be safe to ask, utility indifference, and many other factors.

The paper’s conclusion that Oracles – or “boxed” AIs - are safer than fully free agent AIs has raised much debate. In Dreams of Friendliness, Eliezer Yudkowsky gives an informal argument stating that all oracles will be agent-like. It rests on the fact that anything considered "intelligent" must be an optimization process. That means that the Oracle will have many possible things to believe and very few correct beliefs. Therefore believing the correct thing means some method was used to select the correct belief from the many incorrect beliefs. By definition, this is an optimization process which has a goal of selecting correct beliefs. After the establishment of a goal, one can imagine things the optimization process might do towards that goal. This means that, for instance, the Oracle could answer more accurately and easily to a certain question if it killed all life on earth or turn all matter outside the box in computronium.


Based on an old draft by Daniel Dewey, Luke Muehlhauser has published a possible taxonomy of Oracle AIs, broadly divided between True Oracular AIs and Oracular non-AIs.

True Oracular AIs

Given that true AIs are goal-oriented agents, it follows that a True Oracular AI has some kind of oracular goals. These act as the motivation system for the Oracle to give us the information we ask and nothing else.

It is first noted that such a True AI is not actually nor causally isolated from the world, as it has at least an input (questions and information) and an output (answers) channel. Since we expect such an intelligent agent to be able to have a deep impact on the world even through these limited channels, it can only be safe if its goals are fully compatible with human goals.

This means that a True Oracular AI has to have a full specification of human values, thus making it a FAI-complete problem – if we could achieve such skill and knowledge we could just build a Friendly AI and bypass the Oracle AI concept.

Oracular non-AIs

Any system that acts only as an informative machine, only answering questions and has no goals is by definition not an AI at all. That means that a non-AI Oracular is but a calculator of outputs based on inputs. Since the term in itself is heterogeneous, the proposals made for a sub-division are merely informal.

An Advisor can be seen as a system that gathers data from the real world and computes the answer to an informal “what we ought to do?” question. They also represent a FAI-complete problem.

A Question-Answerer is a similar system that gathers data from the real world but coupled with a question. It then somehow computes the answer. The difficulty can lay on distinguishing it from an Advisor and controlling the safety of its answers.

Finally, a Predictor is seen as a system that takes a corpus of data and produces a probability distribution over future possible data. There are some proposed dangers with predictors, namely exhibiting goal-seeking behavior which does not converge with humanity goals and the ability to influence us through the predictions.

Further reading & References

See also