I went to the Singularity Summit recently, organized by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI). SIAI’s main interest is in the prospect of a superintelligence quickly emerging and destroying everything we care about in the reachable universe. This concern has two components. One is that any AI above ‘human level’ will improve its intelligence further until it takes over the world from all other entities. The other is that when the intelligence that takes off is created it will accidentally have the wrong values, and because it is smart and thus very good at bringing about what it wants, it will destroy all that humans value. I disagree that either part is likely. Here I’ll summarize why I find the first part implausible, and there I discuss the second part.
The reason that an AI – or a group of them – is a contender for gaining existentially risky amounts of power is that it could trigger an intelligence explosion which happens so fast that everyone else is left behind. An intelligence explosion is a positive feedback where more intelligent creatures are better at improving their intelligence further.
Such a feedback seems likely. Even now as we gain more concepts and tools that allow us to think well we use them to make more such understanding. AIs fiddling with their architecture don’t seem fundamentally different. But feedback effects are easy to come by. The question is how big this feedback effect will become. Will it be big enough for one machine to permanently overtake the rest of the world economy in accumulating capability?
In order to grow more powerful than everyone else you need to get significantly ahead at some point. You can imagine this could happen either by having one big jump in progress or by having slightly more growth over a long period of time. Having slightly more growth over a long period is staggeringly unlikely to happen by chance, so it needs to share some cause too. Anything that will give you higher growth for long enough to take over the world is a pretty neat innovation, and for you to take over the world everyone else has to not have anything close. So again, this is a big jump in progress. So for AI to help a small group take over the world, it needs to be a big jump.
Notice that no jumps have been big enough before in human invention. Some species, such as humans, have mostly taken over the worlds of other species. The seeming reason for this is that there was virtually no sharing of the relevant information between species. In human society there is a lot of information sharing. This makes it hard for anyone to get far ahead of everyone else. While you can see there are barriers to insights passing between groups, such as incompatible approaches to a kind of technology by different people working on it, these have not so far caused anything like a gap allowing permanent separation of one group.
Another barrier to a big enough jump is that much human progress comes from the extra use of ideas that sharing information brings. You can imagine that if someone predicted writing they might think ‘whoever creates this will be able to have a superhuman memory and accumulate all the knowledge in the world and use it to make more knowledge until they are so knowledgeable they take over everything.’ If somebody created writing and kept it to themselves they would not accumulate nearly as much recorded knowledge as another person who shared a writing system. The same goes for most technology. At the extreme, if nobody shared information, each person would start out with less knowledge than a cave man, and would presumably end up with about that much still. Nothing invented would be improved on. Systems which are used tend to be improved on more. This means if a group hides their innovations and tries to use them alone to create more innovation, the project will probably not grow as fast as the rest of the economy together. Even if they still listen to what’s going on outside, and just keep their own innovations secret, a lot of improvement in technologies like software comes from use. Forgoing information sharing to protect your advantage will tend to slow down your growth.
Those were some barriers to an AI project causing a big enough jump. Are the reasons for it good enough to make up for them?
The main argument for an AI jump seems to be that human level AI is a powerful and amazing innovation that will cause a high growth rate. But this means it is a leap from what we have currently, not that it is especially likely to be arrived at in one leap. If we invented it tomorrow it would be a jump, but that’s just evidence that we won’t invent it tomorrow. You might argue here that however gradually it arrives, the AI will be around human level one day, and then the next it will suddenly be a superpower. There’s a jump from the growth after human level AI is reached, not before. But if it is arrived at incrementally then others are likely to be close in developing similar technology, unless it is a secret military project or something. Also an AI which recursively improves itself forever will probably be preceded by AIs which self improve to a lesser extent, so the field will be moving fast already. Why would the first try at an AI which can improve itself have infinite success? It’s true that if it were powerful enough it wouldn’t matter if others were close behind or if it took the first group a few goes to make it work. For instance if it only took a few days to become as productive as the rest of the world added together, the AI could probably prevent other research if it wanted. However I haven’t heard any good evidence it’s likely to happen that fast.
Another argument made for an AI project causing a big jump is that intelligence might be the sort of thing for which there is a single principle. Until you discover it you have nothing, and afterwards you can build the smartest thing ever in an afternoon and can just extend it indefinitely. Why would intelligence have such a principle? I haven’t heard any good reason. That we can imagine a simple, all powerful principle of controlling everything in the world isn’t evidence for it existing.
I agree human level AI will be a darn useful achievement and will probably change things a lot, but I’m not convinced that one AI or one group using it will take over the world, because there is no reason it will be a never before seen size jump from technology available before it.