By Michael Nielsen

Attention conservation notice: Rough notes, very rapidly written, by an interested non-expert outsider.

Rich Sutton is an expert on neural networks at the University of Alberta and DeepMind. He’s written a stimulating essay describing what he calls “the bitter lesson”: in AI research it’s extremely seductive to try to build expert domain knowledge into the systems you’re creating, but, according to Sutton, this approach gets beaten again and again by methods leveraging brute force computation, notably search and learning.

Here’s Sutton’s basic description, emphases mine:

The biggest lesson that can be read from 70 years of AI research is that general methods that leverage computation are ultimately the most effective, and by a large margin. The ultimate reason for this is Moore’s law, or rather its generalization of continued exponentially falling cost per unit of computation. Most AI research has been conducted as if the computation available to the agent were constant (in which case leveraging human knowledge would be one of the only ways to improve performance) but, over a slightly longer time than a typical research project, massively more computation inevitably becomes available. Seeking an improvement that makes a difference in the shorter term, researchers seek to leverage their human knowledge of the domain, but the only thing that matters in the long run is the leveraging of computation. […] This is a big lesson. As a field, we still have not thoroughly learned it, as we are continuing to make the same kind of mistakes. To see this, and to effectively resist it, we have to understand the appeal of these mistakes. We have to learn the bitter lesson that building in how we think we think does not work in the long run. The bitter lesson is based on the historical observations that 1) AI researchers have often tried to build knowledge into their agents, 2) this always helps in the short term, and is personally satisfying to the researcher, but 3) in the long run it plateaus and even inhibits further progress, and 4) breakthrough progress eventually arrives by an opposing approach based on scaling computation by search and learning. The eventual success is tinged with bitterness, and often incompletely digested, because it is success over a favored, human-centric approach.

I’ll quote more from the essay later, but I suggest reading the whole thing – it lays out a particular point of view in a powerful and succinct way.

What should we learn from this point of view? Consider his first example, the Deep Blue chess system:

In computer chess, the methods that defeated the world champion, Kasparov, in 1997, were based on massive, deep search. At the time, this was looked upon with dismay by the majority of computer-chess researchers who had pursued methods that leveraged human understanding of the special structure of chess. When a simpler, search-based approach with special hardware and software proved vastly more effective, these human-knowledge-based chess researchers were not good losers. They said that ``brute force” search may have won this time, but it was not a general strategy, and anyway it was not how people played chess. These researchers wanted methods based on human input to win and were disappointed when they did not.

It’s certainly true that Deep Blue used massive search – at its peak, Deep Blue was evaluating roughly 200 million positions per second, using special custom-built chess chips(!) But Deep Blue also built in a great deal of expert domain knowledge. There’s a lovely overview paper describing how Deep Blue worked, written by three of the team behind it (Murray Campbell, A. Joseph Hoane Jr., and Feng-hsiung Hsu). Here’s just one of many examples of crucial expert knowledge used by Deep Blue:

There is an additional factor to consider for rooks on files. Under some circumstances, pawns can be semi-transparent to rooks. For example, if a pawn is “levering”, it is considered semi-transparent to rooks. For this purpose, levering is defined to be having the possibility of capturing an enemy pawn. Under such circumstances, rooks get about half the value of the unblocked file. This feature was of critical importance in Game 2 of the 1997 match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue.

This is part of a much longer description of how Deep Blue evaluates the worth of a rook on a particular file – it involves many ideas, from relatively elementary knowledge (more central files are better), through to more complex chess ideas about king safety, different kinds of traps, and preferred pawn structures.

These ideas are, in turn, just a small fraction of the ideas which go into the roughly 8,000 features which Deep Blue used to evaluate board positions. Many of those features, like that of rooks on a file with a levering pawn, were based on deep domain knowledge of chess. Indeed, many were based on expert analysis of games lost by Deep Blue’s predecessor systems (an earlier version of Deep Blue, Deep Thought, and ChipTest).

Sutton is correct that Deep Blue was a triumph of “massive, deep search”. But it was also a triumph of expert knowledge of chess. It seems to me an example of a hybrid approach: deep domain knowledge and massive search leveraging computational power.

Jump forward more than two decades, and you have DeepMind’s AlphaZero and MuZero systems. AlphaZero taught itself to play chess (and Go and Shogi) using self-play; on top of those games, MuZero added as well 57 Atari video games. Neither system had hand-engineered features – they started solely with the rules of the various games. And they quickly learned to play many of the games (all?) better than any human being.

This supports Sutton’s contention that:

The biggest lesson that can be read from 70 years of AI research is that general methods that leverage computation are ultimately the most effective, and by a large margin.

The trouble with the contention is that “ultimately” isn’t a very informative stance. Does it mean in 5 years? In 20 years? In 100 years? It offers no guidance. In the meantime, even if Sutton’s contention is correct it doesn’t tell us whether the best approach over the next 5-10 years is based on domain knowledge, leveraging computation, or a hybrid approach.

My guess, unbacked by any actual evidence: if you tried AlphaZero or MuZero’s approach in 1997, the system would have been trounced by Deep Blue. At the time, a hybrid system was the way to go.

Many other examples illustrate this:

  • The best neural networks for image recognition typically leverage quite a number of image-specific ideas. For a long time they used ideas about symmetry and pooling, inspired (it is often said) by results in neuroscience about the structure of mammalian visual cortices. I haven’t been following recent work on image recognition, but my understanding is that modern approaches use somewhat different ideas, but nonetheless still use specialized architectures employing image-specific ideas. People occasionally try using much more generic approaches – here’s one I like, using multi-layer perceptrons to attack MNIST. But while such papers are fun and stimulating, they also seem like stunts, and certainly aren’t state-of-the-art.

  • On Twitter, the high-energy physicist Kyle Cranmer, who has used machine learning extensively in science, points out:

We have a few examples of problems (Eg lattice field theory) that are ~hopeless with traditional deep learning, but work when you bake in / enforce symmetries. It seems to take much (exponentially?) more data and compute to learn without that inductive bias.

This is followed up by DeepMind’s Danilo Rezende:

Agree! The rapid progress of ML applied to LQCD [lattice quantum chromodynamics], mol. dyn., protein folding and computer graphics is the result of the combining domain knowledge (e.g. symmetries) with ML The “bitter lesson” applies more to domains where domain knowledge is weak or hard to express mathematically.

If you take Sutton’s point of view seriously, the response might seem to be: well, maybe in the short run hybrid approaches will often win, but over the long run the less opinionated and more general computationally intensive systems will win. That is, Deep Blue-like hybrid systems will ultimately be displaced by more purely compute-oriented approaches like AlphaZero.

Sutton gives other examples of what we might dub the “MOAR Compute” approach. They’re good as far as they go. But he ignores many other things computers do. No-one uses deep learning to build operating systems or pocket calculators. Those are done using classic symbolic techniques. Might such things ever routinely be done using deep learning? If so, it’s decades off. You might object that “oh, those aren’t AI, while Sutton’s examples are”. But that seems like definining the problem away, defining AI problems to be those which traditional symbolic, human-understanding based approaches have trouble with. I think it’s fairer (and makes more sense) to consider computational problems in general. And in that case for each example like AlphaZero it seems you also have an example like (say) integer factorization, where algorithmic progress based on human understanding has been far greater than progress according to Moore’s Law.

Isn’t Moore’s Law over? So isn’t the Bitter Lesson on its way out?

Reports of Moore’s Law’s death have often been prematurely circulated, if not greatly exaggerated. It does seem very likely that Moore’s Law will continue its gradual decline over the next few decades. In that sense we can expect the Bitter Lesson to gradually lose power. Still, my guess is that there may well be a factor of a million or more to go, in computational power per unit cost, over the next few decades. The following factors are all at play:

  • Better-adapted dedicated hardware – later versions of TPUs and the like

  • The ongoing gradual extrusion of semiconductor manufacture into the third dimension, giving more scope for parallel computing. My (very limited, non-expert) understanding is this is held in check by heat dissipation concerns, but it nonetheless may buy us an order of magnitude or more

  • Whatever remains to be eked out in chip manufacture

  • Economic incentives: at the moment only a few organizations will pay more than few thousand dollars to train a network; in the future, I won’t be surprised if many organizations are willing to pay many millions of dollars. This isn’t strictly relevant to the “per unit cost” argument, but as a practical matter it will work in favour of the argument in “The Bitter Lesson”

So: yes, there will be a gradual slowing of Moore’s Law, and this will lessen the force of the Bitter Lesson. But it will remain a strong force for several decades.


We’ve taken the pleasing clarity of Sutton’s essay and turned it into a much vaguer “well, it depends”. That’s rarely satisfying! It’s tempting to conclude that one should be flexible, and leave it at that, having learned little. But Sutton points out that while in practice one might try to use both strategies flexibly, in practice there are psychological and expertise-related reasons it may be easier to pick one or the other:

These two need not run counter to each other, but in practice they tend to. Time spent on one is time not spent on the other. There are psychological commitments to investment in one approach or the other. And the human-knowledge approach tends to complicate methods in ways that make them less suited to taking advantage of general methods leveraging computation.

Gwern Branwen makes a similar point, but at the level of organizational strategy. In particular, he gives OpenAI (OA, in his account) as an example of an organization which has placed a very strong bet on compute-heavy approaches. They’re taking the Bitter Lesson very seriously! This has implications for how and who they hire, for internal organization, and for their business model as a whole:

OA, lacking anything like DM’s long-term funding from Google or its enormous headcount, is making a startup-like bet that they know an important truth which is a secret: “the scaling hypothesis is true!” So, simple DRL algorithms like PPO on top of large simple architectures like RNNs or Transformers can emerge, exploiting the blessings of scale, and meta-learn their way to powerful capabilities, enabling further funding for still more compute & scaling, in a virtuous cycle. This is why OA had to revise its corporate form: lacking any enormous endowment or extremely deep-pocketed patron like Google, where does it get the money to scale (or hire machine learning engineer/researchers who can command salaries in the millions)? OA has to earn the necessary money, so in a move like Mozilla Foundation owning Mozilla Corporation (to sell Firefox search engine placement), or the Hershey orphanage owning Hershey Chocolate or the Girl Scouts licensing their cookies, OpenAI switched from a pure nonprofit funded by donations to a nonprofit which owns a for-profit subsidiary/startup, “OpenAI LP”, which can take investments and engage in for-profit activities. OA LP, while controlled by OA, can then shoot for the moon. And if OA is wrong to trust in the God of Straight Lines On Graphs⁠, well, they never could compete with DM directly using DM’s favored approach, and were always going to be an also-ran footnote, so they have no regret.

Alright, here’s a few tentative conclusions. Much less sharp than the Bitter Lesson, alas:

  • Humans are (quite reasonably!) attached to understanding things from first principles. This causes them to mistakenly confuse “I would enjoy trying to understand this problem, and then program a solution” with “this is the best way to attack the problem”. Gradient descent, as Andrej Karpathy has noted, is often a better programmer than you.

  • At the same time, we often understimate the benefits of Moore’s Law as a force making compute-heavy search-and-learning methods simply improve, as if by magic. This is likely to continue for several more decades, albeit gradually getting slower. At some point the shoe may well be on the other foot.

  • Hybrid approaches often seem better than either pure approach. But the teams making the hybrids often involve people who’ve specialized in relatively pure approaches (in both directions) in the past.

  • I think it’s a mistake to expect to reason about this from first principles and arrive at reliable conclusions. The Bitter Lesson is a heuristic model and set of arguments to keep in mind, not a reliable argument that applies in all circumstances. You need to proceed empirically. Keep the Bitter Lesson in mind, yes, but also keep in mind that your OS wasn’t produced by training TPUs for a decade.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to everyone who commented on Twitter and elsewhere about this. The above was written mostly in response to comments by Gwern Branwen, Kyle Cranmer, Moritz Gedig, Tim Gowers, Paul Graham, Josh Horowitz, Adam Marblestone, Andy Matuschak, Jed McCaleb, Jason Palmer, and Danilo Rezende. And, of course, thanks to Rich Sutton for his stimulating essay!