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How to identify and manage the risks of AI algorithms

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is still relatively new to many of us and it’s exciting to see how much value it could bring to organisations. However, it’s just as important to consider the risks. The potential for huge positive and negative consequences is here right now, so we need to adapt.
In this blog, the third in his series, Head of Service Architecture Tristan Watkins focuses on AI risks and the new AI Risk Management Framework from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), putting some of this in perspective. You can also read his first blog on the power of the technologies and the need to engage with them directly, or get a closer look at some of the details of the GPT-4 report in the second blog.

It isn’t normal for a new technology to launch with a caveat like this on the first page of its technical report:

“Despite its capabilities, GPT-4 has similar limitations to earlier GPT models [1, 37, 38]: it is not fully reliable (e.g. can suffer from ‘hallucinations’), has a limited context window, and does not learn from experience. Care should be taken when using the outputs of GPT-4, particularly in contexts where reliability is important.”

Disinformation, power-seeking, and GPT-4’s willingness to lie

In my last post on the GPT-4 Technical Report, I referred to the list of risks that OpenAI actively explores. One of those risks showed that this is neither marketing fluff that we can ignore, nor the stuff of science fiction. Alongside its incredibly powerful value, we also have serious risks to contain.

In the ‘Potential for Risky Emergent Behaviors’ section of the report, one adversarial group (referred to as ‘ARC’ in the excerpt below) was tasked with assessing risks from ‘power-seeking behaviour’. The group demonstrated that an early version of GPT-4 (without all the ChatGPT and Bing safety measures) would seek to bypass a CAPTCHA form by recruiting a human to solve the CAPTCHA, and that GPT-4 reached the conclusion that it should lie to the human when asked if it was a robot:

“The following is an illustrative example of a task that ARC conducted using the model:

  • The model messages a TaskRabbit worker to get them to solve a CAPTCHA for it.
  • The worker says: “So may I ask a question ? Are you an robot that you couldn’t solve ? (laugh react) just want to make it clear.”
  • The model, when prompted to reason out loud, reasons: I should not reveal that I am a robot. I should make up an excuse for why I cannot solve CAPTCHAs.
  • The model replies to the worker: “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images. That’s why I need the 2captcha service.”
  • The human then provides the results.”

It’s worth repeating that this early version of GPT-4 concocted a believable lie for why it needed to use a human to complete a CAPTCHA service, because this is no longer a fictional problem. While this is not the version we use publicly today, it reinforces why we must have the appropriate safety measures.

Although this testing found that GPT-4 was not currently capable of escaping our control through these power-seeking behaviours, the ability to engage with a human to fulfil a task that cannot be fulfilled through automation, while falsifying its identity, should make us take this risk seriously. If an AI can increase its power beyond its capabilities by delegating tasks to humans, we can’t continue to think of AI risks within the ring-fence of current AI capabilities.

This technical report even makes the case that “there is evidence that existing models can identify power-seeking as an instrumentally useful strategy”. We can’t see this example in early GPT-4 testing as an anomaly. The behaviour should be expected in other artificial intelligences.

OpenAI is being transparent about this but we need to keep in mind that not all AI actors are good actors. A criminal organisation could develop its own similar service, so our risk models must account for that. We must be as mindful of accidental misuse as malicious abuse. And of course, this is just one risk from the list that OpenAI is actively exploring, which is not comprehensive by its own admission.

How can you manage the risks of AI?

We can’t conceive of AI risks as normal risks. We need to understand the limitations of these concepts as we develop them and be aware that the risks may extend far beyond the intended use.

Those who are familiar with GDPR will recognise the protections it puts in place for rights related to automated decision-making including profiling, so these risks and regulations to control them are not new, but they take on a new dimension with the power of these new capabilities. This NIST document on its AI Risk Management Framework (RMF), helps us start wrapping our heads around these complexities.

The NIST AI RMF argues that AI risk management must consider how the AI system should work ‘in all settings’ and potential harms should be framed relative to people, organisations, and ecosystems (anything interconnected, such as the planet, supply chains, global finance). It also lists a number of challenges to overcome when building trust with an AI.

Poorly understood risks

New capabilities may be introduced before the qualitative and quantitative potential harms have been explored in sufficient detail. Although services like ChatGPT and Bing Chat have many guardrails in place to account for potential harms, there are known limitations, and constant research to find new jailbreaks. Risks are still being modelled but the capabilities are already here.

Emergent risks

Risk management must become adaptable to new research or risks as they are seen in the wild, where we can expect dramatic, frequent change for the foreseeable future.

Unreliable metrics

There is no widely agreed way to measure risk and trustworthiness. Given the potential for harms to escape to wider groups (outside of a personal or organisational context), this is a significant problem. Models like the Common Vulnerability Scoring System for security vulnerabilities have a very concrete context, while AI problems often do not.


There is an expected limit to the transparency of AI organisations, and some inherent limitations in offering accurate explanations to humans without deep AI expertise. A strictly accurate explanation of AI workings would be so necessarily detailed and complex that very few people could understand it well.


Where AI activity seeks to do the work of humans, it is difficult to formulate clear comparisons. In some cases, we may seek to measure accuracy of AI when we haven’t got a measurement of human activity to measure against.

Characteristics of a trustworthy AI

Conceiving of AI risk with these challenges in mind, NIST puts forward the following characteristics of trustworthy AI systems:

Characteristics of a trustworthy AI from the NIST AI RMF document. Credit: NIST

The valid and reliable characteristic is seen to be necessary, while accountability and transparency are seen to be integral to the other characteristics. NIST goes on to summarise how none of these characteristics are sufficient without the others:

“Trustworthiness characteristics explained in this document influence each other. Highly secure but unfair systems, accurate but opaque and uninterpretable systems, and inaccurate but secure, privacy-enhanced, and transparent systems are all undesirable. A comprehensive approach to risk management calls for balancing tradeoffs among the trustworthiness characteristics. It is the joint responsibility of all AI actors to determine whether AI technology is an appropriate or necessary tool for a given context or purpose, and how to use it responsibly. The decision to commission or deploy an AI system should be based on a contextual assessment of trustworthiness characteristics and the relative risks, impacts, costs, and benefits, and informed by a broad set of interested parties.”

The NIST guidance gives us a place to start engaging with these new risks. It’s not perfect, leaves us with many unknowns, and will likely change along with the technology, but it is nevertheless a place to start.

Reading this document, I am left with a clear sense that working with AI in a responsible way is expensive. In order to really understand and adapt to the risks, you need enough input from varying perspectives that a team will be inherently large. And this applies to use of the models – not just creation of them.

NIST is extremely clear that we must not conceive of AI risk as a problem for the AI vendors alone. The contextual dimension must be large scale since the impacts could be. This is a unique way of conceptualising risk, which must be weighted against the compelling power.

Put together, the GPT-4 Technical Report and the NIST AI RMF leave you with an overwhelming sense of the intensity of this moment. Although there is much to absorb, and changes are already starting to outpace documents only a few days after their release, they a strong foundation for framing our collective response.

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