How I learned to stop worrying and love the Singularity

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2011

Fetch your posthumanist popcorn, folks; this one could roll for a while. The question: should we fear the possibility of the Singularity? In the red corner, Michael Anissimov brings the case in favour

Why must we recoil against the notion of a risky superintelligence? Why can’t we see the risk, and confront it by trying to craft goal systems that carry common sense human morality over to AGIs? This is a difficult task, but the likely alternative is extinction. Powerful AGIs will have no automatic reason to be friendly to us! They will be much more likely to be friendly if we program them to care about us, and build them from the start with human-friendliness in mind.

Humans overestimate our robustness. Conditions have to be just right for us to keep living. If AGIs decided to remove the atmosphere or otherwise alter it to pursue their goals, we would be toast. If temperatures on the surface changed by more than a few dozen degrees up or down, we would be toast. If natural life had to compete with AI-crafted cybernetic organisms, it could destroy the biosphere on which we depend. There are millions of ways in which powerful AGIs with superior technology could accidentally make our lives miserable, simply by not taking our preferences into account. Our preferences are not a magical mist that can persuade any type of mind to give us basic respect. They are just our preferences, and we happen to be programmed to take each other’s preferences deeply into account, in ways we are just beginning to understand. If we assume that AGI will inherently contain all this moral complexity without anyone doing the hard work of programming it in, we will be unpleasantly surprised when these AGIs become more intelligent and powerful than ourselves.

We probably make thousands of species extinct per year through our pursuit of instrumental goals, why is it so hard to imagine that AGI could do the same to us?

In the blue corner, Kyle Munkittrick argues that Anissimov is ascribing impossible levels of agency to artificial intelligences:

My point is this: if Skynet had been debuted on a closed computer network, it would have been trapped within that network. Even if it escaped and “infected” every other system (which is dubious, for reasons of necessary computing power on a first iteration super AGI), the A.I. would still not have any access to physical reality. Singularity arguments rely upon the presumption that technology can work without humans. It can’t. If A.I. decided to obliterate humanity by launching all the nukes, it’d also annihilate the infrastructure that powers it. Me thinks self-preservation should be a basic feature of any real AGI.

In short: any super AGI that comes along is going to need some helping hands out in the world to do its dirty work.

B-b-but, the Singulitarians argue, “an AI could fool a person into releasing it because the AI is very smart and therefore tricksy.” This argument is preposterous. Philosophers constantly argue as if every hypothetical person is either a dullard or a hyper-self-aware. The argument that AI will trick people is an example of the former. Seriously, the argument is that  very smart scientists will be conned by an AGI they helped to program. And so what if they do? Is the argument that a few people are going to be hypnotized into opening up a giant factory run only by the A.I., where every process in the vertical and the horizontal (as in economic infrastructure, not The Outer Limits) can be run without human assistance? Is that how this is going to work? I highly doubt it. Even the most brilliant AGI is not going to be able to restructure our economy overnight.

As is traditional, I’m taking an agnostic stance on this one (yeah, yeah, I know – I’ve got bruises on my arse from sitting on the fence); The arguments against the risk are pretty sound, but I’m reminded of the orginal meaning behind the term “singularity”, namely an event horizon (physical or conceptual) that we’re unable to see beyond. As Anissimov points out, we won’t know what AGI is capable of until it exists, at which point it may be too late. However, positing an AGI with godlike powers from the get-go is very much a worst case scenario. The compromise position would appear to be something along the lines of “proceed with caution”… but compromise positions aren’t exactly fashionable these days, are they? 🙂

So, let’s open the floor to debate: do you think AGI is possible? And if it is possible, how likely is it to be a threat to its creators?

Attention, futurist gamblers: long odds on Artificial General Intelligence

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2010

Pop-transhumanist organ H+ Magazine assigned a handful of writers to quiz AI experts at last year’s Artificial General Intelligence Conference, in order to discover how long they expect we’ll have to wait before we achieve human-equivalent intelligence in machines, what sort of level AGI will peak out at, and what AGI systems will look and/or act like, should they ever come into being.

It’s not a huge sample, to be honest – 21 respondants, of whom all but four are actively engaged in AI-related research. But then AGI isn’t a vastly populous field of endeavour, and who better to ask about its future than the people in the trenches?

The diagram below shows a plot of their estimated arrival dates for a selection of AGI milestones:

AGI milestone estimates

The gap in the middle is interesting; it implies that the basic split is between those who see AGI happening in the fairly near future, and those who see it never happening at all. Pop on over to the article for more analysis.

The supplementary questions are more interesting, at least to me, because they involve sf-style speculation. For instance:

… we focused on the “Turing test” milestone specifically, and we asked the experts to think about three possible scenarios for the development of human-level AGI: if the first AGI that can pass the Turing test is created by an open source project, the United States military, or a private company focused on commercial profit. For each of these three scenarios, we asked them to estimate the probability of a negative-to-humanity outcome if an AGI passes the Turing test. Here the opinions diverged wildly. Four experts estimated a greater than 60% chance of a negative outcome, regardless of the development scenario. Only four experts gave the same estimate for all three development scenarios; the rest of the experts reported different estimates of which development scenarios were more likely to bring a negative outcome. Several experts were more concerned about the risk from AGI itself, whereas others were more concerned that humans who controlled it could misuse AGI.

If you follow the transhumanist/AGI blogosphere at all, you’ll know that the friendly/unfriendly debate is one of the more persistent bones of contention; see Michael Anissimov’s recent post for some of the common arguments against the likelihood of friendly behaviour from superhuman AGIs, for instance. But even if we write off that omega point and consider less drastic achievements, AGI could be quite the grenade in the punchbowl:

Several experts noted potential impacts of AGI other than the catastrophic. One predicted “in thirty years, it is likely that virtually all the intellectual work that is done by trained human beings such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, or programmers, can be done by computers for pennies an hour. It is also likely that with AGI the cost of capable robots will drop, drastically decreasing the value of physical labor. Thus, AGI is likely to eliminate almost all of today’s decently paying jobs.” This would be disruptive, but not necessarily bad. Another expert thought that, “societies could accept and promote the idea that AGI is mankind’s greatest invention, providing great wealth, great health, and early access to a long and pleasant retirement for everyone.” Indeed, the experts’ comments suggested that the potential for this sort of positive outcome is a core motivator for much AGI research.

No surprise to see a positive (almost utopian) gloss on such predictions, given their sources; scientists need that optimism to propel them through the tedium of research…. which means it’s down to the rest of us to think of the more mundane hazards and cultural impacts of AGI, should it ever arrive.

So here’s a starter for you: one thing that doesn’t crop up at all in that article is any discussion of AGIs as cult figureheads or full-blown religious leaders (by their own intent or otherwise). Given the fannish/cultish behaviour that software and hardware can provoke (Apple /Linux/AR evangelists, I’m looking at you), I’d say the social impact of even a relatively dim AGI is going to a force to be reckoned with… and it comes with a built-in funding model, too.

Terminator-esque dystopias aside, how do you think Artificial General Intelligence will change the world, if at all?