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On the Limitations of Compute Thresholds as a Governance Strategy


Sara Hooker


At face value, this essay is about understanding a fairly esoteric governance tool called compute thresholds. However, in order to grapple with whether these thresholds will achieve anything, we must first understand how they came to be. This requires engaging with a decades-old debate at the heart of computer science progress, namely, is “bigger always better?” Hence, this essay may be of interest not only to policymakers and the wider public but also to computer scientists interested in understanding the role of compute in unlocking breakthroughs. Does a certain inflection point of compute result in changes to the risk profile of a model? This discussion is increasingly urgent given the wide adoption of governance approaches that suggest greater compute equates with higher propensity for harm. Several leading frontier AI companies have released responsible scaling policies. Both the White House Executive Orders on AI Safety (EO) and the EU AI Act encode the use of FLOP or “floating-point operations” as a way to identify more powerful systems. What is striking about the choice of compute thresholds to-date is that no models currently deployed in the wild fulfill the current criteria set by the EO. This implies that the emphasis is often not on auditing the risks and harms incurred by currently deployed models – but rather is based upon the belief that future levels of compute will introduce unforeseen new risks. A key conclusion of this essay is that compute thresholds as currently implemented are shortsighted and likely to fail to mitigate risk. Governance that is overly reliant on compute fails to understand that the relationship between compute and risk is highly uncertain and rapidly changing. It also overestimates our ability to predict what abilities emerge at different scales. This essay ends with recommendations for a better way forward.