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Myths and Facts About Superintelligent AI

“Will Artificial Intelligence ever replace humans?” is a hotly debated question these days. Some people claim computers will eventually gain superintelligence, be able to outperform humans on any task, and destroy humanity. Other people say “don’t worry, AI will just be another tool we can use and control, like our current computers.”

So we’ve got physicist and AI-researcher Max Tegmark back again to share with us the collective takeaways from the recent Asilomar conference on the future of AI that he helped organize – and he’s going to help separate AI myths from AI facts.

Max: Hello!

Henry: First of all, Max, machines (including computers) have long been better than us at many tasks, like arithmetic, or weaving, but those are often repetitive and mechanical operations. So why shouldn’t I believe that there are some things that are simply impossible for machines to do as well as people? Say making minutephysics videos, or consoling a friend?

Max: Well, we’ve traditionally thought of intelligence as something mysterious that can only exist in biological organisms, especially humans.

But from the perspective of modern physical science, intelligence is simply a particular kind of information processing and reacting performed by particular arrangements of elementary particles moving around, and there’s no law of physics that says it’s impossible to do that kind of information processing better than humans already do.

It’s not a stretch to say that earthworms process information better than rocks, and humans better than earthworms, and in many areas, machines are already better than humans.

This suggests we’ve likely only seen the tip of the intelligence iceberg, and that we’re on track to unlock the full intelligence that’s latent in nature and use it to help humanity flourish – or flounder.

Henry: So how do we keep ourselves on the right side of the “flourish or flounder” balance? What, if anything, should we really be concerned about with superintelligent AI?

Max: Here’s what has many top AI researchers concerned: not machines or computers turning evil, but something more subtle: superintelligence that simply doesn’t share our goals. If a heat-seeking missile is homing in on you, you probably wouldn’t think: “No need to worry, it’s not evil, it’s just following its programming.”

No, what matters to you is what the heat-seeking missile does and how well it does it, not what it’s feeling, or whether it has feelings at all. The real worry isn’t malevolence, but competence.

A superintelligent AI is by definition very good at attaining its goals, so the most important thing for us to do is to ensure that its goals are aligned with ours.

As an analogy, humans are more intelligent and competent than ants,  and if we want to build a hydroelectric dam where there happens to be an anthill, there may no malevolence involved, but, well… too bad for the ants.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand, have done a great job of aligning their goals with the goals of humans – I mean, even though I’m a physicist, I can’t help think kittens are the cutest particle arrangements in our universe…

If we build superintelligence, we’d be better off in the position of cats and dogs than ants. Or better yet, we’ll figure out how to ensure that AI adopts our goals rather than the other way around.

Henry: And when exactly is superintelligence going to arrive? When do we need to start panicking?

Max: First of all, Henry, superintelligence doesn’t have to be something negative. In fact, if we get it right, AI might become the best thing ever to happen to humanity. Everything I love about civilization is the product of intelligence, so if AI amplifies our collective intelligence enough to solve today’s and tomorrow’s greatest problems, humanity might flourish like never before.

Second, most AI researchers think superintelligence is at least decades away… But the research needed to ensure that it remains beneficial to humanity (rather than harmful) might also take decades, so we need to start right away. For example, we’ll need to figure out how to ensure machines learn the collective goals of humanity, adopt these goals for themselves, and retain the goals as they keep getting smarter. And what about when our goals disagree? Should we vote on what the machine’s goals should be? Just do whatever the president wants? Whatever the creator of the superintelligence wants? Let the AI decide? In a very real way, the question of how to live with superintelligence is a question of what sort of future we want to create for humanity. Which obviously shouldn’t just be left to AI researchers, as caring and socially skilled as we are.;)

Henry: Thanks, Max! So, uh, how do I get involved to make sure we don’t end up living in a superintelligence-powered dictatorship?

Max: At the Future of Life Institute (Henry interjects: which is sponsoring this video), we’ve built a site where you can go to answer questions, ask questions, and otherwise contribute your thoughts to help shape the future of AI policy and research.

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