Some implications are not to be underestimated

A common objection to the idea that an artificial superintelligence might destroy our species, it’s not that superintelligence itself is impossible, and it’s not that we won’t be able to prevent or stop it, rather, that it won’t have the means or motivation to end humanity.

Imagine systems, whether biological or artificial, with levels of intelligence equal to or far greater than human intelligence. Enhanced human brains could be achievable through the convergence of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, while greater-than-human machine intelligence is likely to come about through advances in computer science, cognitive science, and the whole brain emulation.

And now imagine if something goes wrong with one of these systems, or if they’re deliberately used as weapons. We probably won’t be able to contain these systems once they arise, nor will we be able to predict the way these systems will respond to our requests.

“This is what’s known as the control problem”, Susan Schneider, director at the Center for Future Mind and the author of Artificial You: AI and the Future of the Mind, explained. “It is simply the problem of how to control an AI that is vastly smarter than us”.

For analogies, Schneider pointed to the famous paper clip scenario, in which a paper clip manufacturer in possession of a poorly programmed artificial intelligence sets out to maximize the efficiency of paper clip production. In turn, it destroys the planet by converting all matter on Earth into paper clips, a category of risk called “perverse instantiation” by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2014 book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. The general concern is that we’ll tell a superintelligence to do something, and, because we didn’t get the details just quite right, it will grossly misinterpret our wishes, resulting in something we hadn’t intended.

For example, we could request an efficient means of extracting solar energy, prompting a superintelligence to usurp our entire planet’s resources into constructing one massive solar array. Or asking a superintelligence to “maximize human happiness” could compel it to rewire the pleasure centers of our brains or upload human brains into a supercomputer, forcing us to perpetually experience a few seconds loop of happiness for eternity, as Bostrom speculates.

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A possible solution to the control problem is to instill an artificial superintelligence with human-compatible moral codes. If we could pull this off, a powerful machine would avoid causing harm or going about its business in a way that violates our moral and ethical sensibilities. The problem, as Schneider pointed out, is that in order for us “to program in a moral code, we need a good moral theory, but there’s a good deal of disagreement as to this in the field of ethics”, she said.

Humanity has never produced a common moral code that everyone can agree on. And as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Trolley Problem can tell you, ethics can get super complicated in a hurry. This idea that we can make superintelligence safe or controllable by teaching it human morality is probably not going to work.

“If we could predict what a superintelligence will do, we would be that intelligent ourselves”, Roman Yampolskiy, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Louisville, explained. “By definition, superintelligence is smarter than any human and so will come up with some unknown solution to achieve the goals we assign to it, whether it be to design a new drug for malaria, devise strategies on the battlefield, or manage a local energy grid”. That said, Yampolskiy believes we might be able to predict the malign actions of a superintelligence by looking at examples of what a smart human might do to take over the world or destroy humanity.

For example, using an amino-acid sequence to determine the three-dimensional shape of a protein, “could be used to create an army of biological nanobots”, he said. “AI could do some stock trading, or poker playing, or writing, and use its profits to pay people to do its bidding. Thanks to the recent proliferation of cryptocurrencies, this could be done secretly and at scale”.

An artificial superintelligence could “come to the conclusion that the world would be better without human beings and obliterate us”, he said.

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For an artificial superintelligence intent on the deliberate destruction of humanity, the exploitation of our biological weaknesses represents its simplest path to success. Humans can survive for roughly 30 days without food and around 3 to 4 days without water, but we only last for a few minutes without oxygen. A machine of sufficient intelligence would likely find a way to annihilate the oxygen in our atmosphere, which it could do with some kind of self-replicating nanotechnological swarm. Sadly, futurists have a term for a strategy such as this: global ecophagy, or the dreaded grey goo scenario. In such a scenario, fleets of deliberately designed molecular machines would seek out specific resources and turn them into something else, including copies of themselves. This resource doesn’t have to be oxygen, just the removal of a key resource critical to human survival.

It all sounds very sci-fi, but Alfonseca said speculative fiction can help highlight potential risks, referring specifically to The Matrix. Schneider also believes in the power of fictional narratives, pointing to the dystopian short film Slaughterbots, in which weaponized autonomous drones invade a classroom. Concerns about dangerous AI and the rise of autonomous killing machines are increasingly about the “here and now”, said Schneider, in which, for example, drone technologies can draw from existing facial recognition software to target people.

MIT machine learning researcher Max Tegmark says entertainment movies like The Terminator while presenting vaguely possible scenarios, “distracts from the real risks and opportunities presented by AI”, as he wrote in his 2017 book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Temark envisions more subtle, even more, insidious scenarios, in which a machine intelligence takes over the world through crafty social engineering, a subterfuge, and the steady collection of valuable resources.

On its own, the advent of general machine intelligence is bound to be impressive and a likely turning point in human history. An artificial general intelligence “would be capable enough to recursively design ever-better AGI that’s ultimately limited only by the laws of physics, which appear to allow intelligence far beyond human levels”, writes Tegmark. In other words, artificial general intelligence could be used to invent superintelligence.

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Schneider worries that “there’s already an AI arms race in the military” and that the “increasing reliance on AI will render human perceptual and cognitive abilities unable to respond to military challenges in a sufficiently quick fashion”. “We will require AI to do it for us, but it’s not clear how we can continue to keep humans in the loop”, she said. “It’s conceivable that AIs will eventually have to respond on our behalf when confronting military attacks before we have a chance to synthesize the incoming data”, Schneider explained.

Humans are prone to error, especially when under pressure on the battlefield, but miscalculations or misjudgments made by an AI would introduce an added layer of risk.

Science fiction author Isaac Asimov saw this coming, as the robots in his novels, despite being constrained by the Three Laws of Robotics, ran into all sorts of trouble despite our best efforts. Similar problems could emerge should we try to do something analogous, though as Schneider pointed out, agreeing on a moral code to guide an AI will be difficult.

A virus can adapt to our countermeasures, but only through the processes of random mutation and selection, which are invariably bound by the constraints of biology. More ominously, a malign AI could design its own virus and continually tweak it to create deadly new variants in response to our countermeasures.

As much as we strive to imagine how artificial intelligence could destroy humanity, we will not be able to guess what will be its real strategy. The best thing to do would be to prevent it from being created, but we know this is impossible. So, all we can do is try to avoid giving it full control over everything. However, even if we know the dangers, humanity will inevitably risk. It is impossible to create something that is 100% good because the negative consequences are unimaginable when such a creation has so much power.