GPT-3 is the Elephant, not the Rider

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt explains the link between our conscious, calculating mind and our subconscious, instinctive mind with a metaphor: The Elephant and the Rider:

  • The rider is our “conscious”, reasoning mind, which uses explainable logic to reason about the world, our own behavior, and our preferences 
  • The elephant is the momentum of pre-trained and pre-wired preferences with which we make “snap” decisions about preferences or morality.

The rider — homo logicus — believes itself to be in control of the elephant, but this is only about 10% true.  In truth, when the rider and elephant disagree about which direction to ride, the elephant almost always wins.   The rider instead spends time making excuses to justify why it really intended to go that direction all along!

Or, non-metaphorically: the vast majority of the time, we use our “thinking” mind to explain and generate justifications for our snap judgements — but our thinking mind only rarely is able to actually redirect our pre-trained biases into choices we really don’t want to make.  

Occasionally, if it’s a topic we don’t have strong pre-trained preferences about (“What’s your opinion on the gold standard?”), the rider has control — but possibly only until the elephant catches a familiar scent (“The gold standard frees individuals from the control of governmental fiat”) and we fall back to pre-wired beliefs.

Most of the time, the rider (our thinking brain)’s job is to explain why the elephant is walking the direction it is — providing concrete explainable justifications for beliefs whose real foundation is genetic pre-wiring (“Why are spiders scary?”) or decades of imprinting (“Why is incest bad?”)

But even though the rider isn’t, strictly speaking, in control, it’s the glue which helped us level up from smart apes to quasi-hive organisms with cities, indoor plumbing, and senatorial filibusters.  By nudging our elephants in roughly the right direction once in a while, we can build civilizations and only rarely atomize each other.

Traditional visions of AI — and the AI still envisioned by popular culture —  is cold, structured, logic incarnate.  

Most early game AIs performed a minimax search when choosing a move, methodically evaluating the search space.  The AI would calculate for each move how to counter the best possible move the opponent could make, and then would perform these calculations as deep as computing power permitted:

This is still the AI portrayed in popular media.  In a positive portrayal, the AI is precise, logical, and (somewhat) useful:

C-3PO : Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1

Han Solo : Never tell me the odds.

In a negative portrayal, AI is cold and calculating, but never pointlessly cruel.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, if HAL 9000 opened the pod bay doors, it would prove (in worst case) a potential risk to HAL 9000 (itself), and the mission.  The rational move was to eliminate Dave.

Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL 9000: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

HAL 9000 was simply playing chess against Dave.

NLP and structured knowledge extraction operated similarly.  NLP techniques  were built to turn sentences into query-able knowledge bases via structured information extraction.  Facts were extracted from natural-language sentences and stored in knowledge bases:

Decisions made by AI systems which used information extraction techniques were fully explainable, because they were built from explicit extracted facts. 

These visions of AI all envisioned artificial agents as the elephant riders, in which decisions were made upon cold facts.  Perhaps we first tried to build explainable AI because we preferred to see ourselves as the riders — a strictly logical agent in firm control of our legacy animal instincts.

But modern AI is the elephant.

Neural networks have replaced traditional structured AI in almost every real application — in both academia and industry.  These networks are fast, effective, dynamic, easy to train (for enough money), and completely unexplainable.

Neural networks imitate animal cognition by modeling computation as layers of connected neurons, each neuron connected to downstream neurons with varying strength:

There’s a huge amount of active research into how to design more effective neural networks, how to most efficiently train neural networks, and how to build hardware which most effectively simulates neural networks (for example, Google’s Tensor Processor Units).  

But none of this research changes the fact that neural networks are (perhaps by design) not explainable — training produces networks which are able to answer questions quickly and often correctly, but the trained network is just a mathematical array of weighted vectors which cannot be meaningfully translated into human language for inspection.  The only way to evaluate the AI is to see what it does.

This is the elephant.  And it is wildly effective.

GPT-3 is the world’s most advanced neural network (developed by the OpenAI consortium), and an API backed by GPT-3 was soft-released over the past couple weeks to high-profile beta users.   GPT-3 is a neural network with 175 billion trained parameters (by far the world’s largest publicly documented neural network).  It was trained on a wide range of internet-available text sources.

GPT-3 is a predictive model — that is, provide it the first part of a block of text, and it will generate the text which it predicts should come next.  The simplest application of text prediction is writing stories, which GPT-3 excels at (the prompt is in bold, generated text below):

But text prediction is equally applicable to everyday conversation.  GPT-3 can, with prompting, answer everyday questions, and even identify when questions are nonsensical (generated answers at the bottom):

Gwern has generated GPT-3 responses on a wide range of prompts, categorizing where it does well and where it does poorly.  Not every response is impressive, but many are, and the conclusion is that GPT-3 is a huge leap forward from GPT-2 (which used 1.5B parameters, vs GPT-3’s 175B).

GPT-2 and GPT-3 have no model of the world, but that doesn’t stop them from having opinions when prompted.

GPT-2/3 are trained on the internet, and are thus the aggregated voice of anyone who has written an opinion on the internet.  So they are very good at quickly generating judgements and opinions, even though they have absolutely no logical or moral framework backing those judgements.

Huggingface provides a publicly-accessible playground to test GPT-2’s predictions on your own text inputs (GPT-3 is, for now, available only to internet celebrities and VCs).  We can prompt GPT-2 for opinions on a variety of emotionally charged topics, like incest:


and other topics likely to provoke an emotional response:

These are elephant responses, generated by volume of training data, not clever logical deduction .  GPT-* has absolutely no model of the world or moral framework by which it generates logical responses — and yet the responses read as plausibly human.

Because, after all, we are 90% elephant.

What does this mean for AI, and for us?

Most people have no idea what modern AI is, and that makes effective oversight of AI research by the public completely impossible.  Media depictions of AI have only shown two plausible futures:

  • Hyper-logical, explainable, “Friendly AI”: Data from Star Trek.  Alien, but because of the absence of emotion
  • Hyper-logical, explainable, “Dangerous AI”: Terminator.  Deadly, but for an explainable reason: the AI is eliminating a threat (us)

These visions are so wildly far from the future we are in, that the public is less informed for having been shown them  

The AIs we’ll actually interact with tomorrow — on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or a MMORPG —  are utterly un-logical.  They are the pure distilled emotions of anyone who has ever voiced their opinions on the internet, amplified a thousandfold (and perhaps filtered for anger or love for particular targets, like China, Russia, or Haribo Gummy Bears). 

If we want the public to have any informed opinion about what, how, and where AI is deployed (and as GPT-3/4/5 seem poised to obviate all creative writing, among other careers, this seems like a reasonable ask), the first step is to stop showing them an inaccurate picture of what Google, Microsoft and OpenAI have actually built.

And second: if we do want to ever get the AI we saw in Star Trek (but hopefully not Terminator), we need to actually build a model-based, logical elephant rider, and not just the elephant itself — even though it’s much, much, harder than downloading 20 billion tweets of training data and throwing them at a trillion parameter neural network.

Or maybe we should figure out how to do it ourselves, first.

Simple Boolean Expression Manipulation in Java

I’ve worked on a couple projects recently where I needed to be able to do some lightweight propositional expression manipulation in Java.  Specifically, I wanted to be able to:

  • Let a user input simple logical expressions, and parse them into Java data structures
  • Evaluate the truth of the statement given values for each variable
  • Incrementally update the expression as values are assigned to the variables
  • If the statement given some variable assignments is not definitively true or false, show which terms remain.
  • Perform basic simplification of redundant terms (full satisfiability is of course NP hard, so this would only include basic simplification)

I couldn’t find a Java library which made this particularly easy; a couple stackoverflow questions I found didn’t have any particularly easy solutions.  I decided to take a shot at implementing a basic library.  The result is on GitHub as the jbool_expressions library.

(most of the rest of this is copied from the README, so feel free to read it there.)

Using the library, a basic propositional expression is built out of the types And, Or, Not, Variable and Literal. All of these extend the base type Expression.  An Expression can be built programatically:

    Expression expr = And.of(
        Or.of(Variable.of("C"), Not.of(Variable.of("C"))));

or by parsing a string:

    Expression expr =
        ExprParser.parse("( ( (! C) | C) & A & B)");

The expression is the same either way:

    ((!C | C) & A & B)

We can do some basic simplification to eliminate the redundant terms:

    Expression simplified = RuleSet.simplify(expr);

to see the redundant terms are simplified to “true”:

    (A & B)

We can assign a value to one of the variables, and see that the expression is simplified after assigning “A” a value:

    Expression halfAssigned = RuleSet.assign(
        Collections.singletonMap("A", true)

We can see the remaining expression:


If we assign a value to the remaining variable, we can see the expression evaluate to a literal:

    Expression resolved = RuleSet.assign(
         Collections.singletonMap("B", true)

All expressions are immutable (we got a new expression back each time we performed an operation), so we can see that the original expression is unmodified:

    ((!C | C) & A & B)

Expressions can also be converted to sum-of-products form:

    Expression nonStandard = PrefixParser.parse(
        "(* (+ A B) (+ C D))"


    Expression sopForm = RuleSet.toSop(nonStandard);
    ((A | B) & (C | D))
    ((A & C) | (A & D) | (B & C) | (B & D))

You can build the library yourself or grab it via maven:


Happy to hear any feedback / bugs / improvements etc. I’d also be interested in hearing how other people have dealt with this problem, and if there are any better libraries out there.

Taxi Loading at SFO

I usually avoid catching Taxis whenever possible, but when I arrived in SFO last week the trains were no longer running and I hadn’t arranged for a shuttle, so I ended up waiting in line to catch a Taxi.  The line was structured something like this:

Taxi line 1 (1)

  • There was a loading area about four cars long where Taxis were loading passengers
  • Would-be passengers waited in line along the curb to the left, waiting for a Taxi
  • Likewise, taxis waited in line for passengers on the other side of the curb
  • As people loaded into Taxis and departed, each line advanced to the right, matching the front of the Taxi line with the front of the passenger line
  • An airport employee stood stood near the front of the line, shepherding people and cabs around to enforce this flow

Of course, this felt like an extremely inefficient system; I was waiting next to a cab which was waiting for a passenger; had we been allowed, I would have just jumped in the cab next to me and we both would have been happier.  However, since the line of people was denser than the Taxi line, I would have been cutting in front of other people in line.

In college I took a couple classes where we learned about queuing algorithms and the standard trade-offs involved.  On the ride back I thought about how they applied to the Taxi-loading situation here:

  • Throughput: how many passengers per hour could the system match to Taxis?   This was not being optimized for, or I could have gotten into the Taxi beside me.
  • Fairness: this was pretty clearly what was being optimized for–both the Taxi line and the passenger line were being processed in First-In-First-Out (FIFO) ordering. 
  • Average wait time:  I don’t think wait time was being taken into account, especially since passengers with less luggage (and therefore faster loading) would have been given priority over passengers with many bags.

A couple other issues were specific to this situation:

  • The matching process should not involve an inordinate amount of walking by prospective passengers (a passenger should never have to walk the entire length of the Taxi queue to find a cab)
  • If cabs frequently have to pass other cabs to advance to the head of the queue, it increases the odds of an accident (or of getting run over, if you are loading your bags into the trunk.)

I’d like to think that a better system exists (“there has to be a better way!”), even if it sacrifices some amount of fairness, since clearly this system would scale poorly if the airport was busier.

If anyone knows of airports/malls/etc that do a better job, I’d be interested in knowing how they manage it.  I didn’t waste an enormous amount of time in line (~10 minutes), but if the line is on average 50 people long, that’s actually a huge amount of time being squandered over the course of a year.