Not just like us, but smarter!
It would be comforting to think that any intelligence that surpassed our own capabilities would be like us, in important respects – just a lot cleverer. But here, too, the pessimists see bad news: they point out that almost all the things we humans value (love, happiness, even survival) are important to us because we have particular evolutionary history – a history we share with higher animals, but not with computer programs, such as artificial intelligences.
By default, then, we seem to have no reason to think that intelligent machines would share our values. The good news is that we probably have no reason to think they would be hostile, as such: hostility, too, is an animal emotion.
The bad news is that they might simply be indifferent to us – they might care about us as much as we care about the bugs on the windscreen.
People sometimes complain that corporations are psychopaths, if they are not sufficiently reined in by human control. The pessimistic prospect here is that artificial intelligence might be similar, except much much cleverer and much much faster.
Getting in the way
By now you see where this is going, according to this pessimistic view. The concern is that by creating computers that are as intelligent as humans (at least domains that matter to technological progress), we risk yielding control over the planet to intelligences that are simply indifferent to us, and to things that we consider valuable – things such as life and a sustainable environment.
If that sounds far-fetched, the pessimists say, just ask gorillas how it feels to compete for resources with the most intelligent species – the reason they are going extinct is not (on the whole) because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in ways that are detrimental to their continuing survival.
How much time do we have?
It’s hard to say how urgent the problem is, even if pessimists are right. We don’t yet know exactly what makes human thought different from current generation of machine learning algorithms, for one thing, so we don’t know the size of the gap between the fixed bar and the rising curve.
But some trends point towards the middle of the present century. In Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap, the Oxford philosophers Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom suggest our ability to scan and emulate human brains might be sufficient to replicate human performance in silicon around that time.
“The pessimists might be wrong!”
Of course – making predictions is difficult, as they say, especially about the future! But in ordinary life we take uncertainties very seriously, when a lot is at stake.
That’s why we use expensive robots to investigate suspicious packages, after all (even when we know that only a very tiny proportion of them will turn out to be bombs).
If the future of AI is “explosive” in the way described here, it could be the last bomb the human species ever encounters. A suspicious attitude would seem more than sensible, then, even if we had good reason to think the risks are very small.
At the moment, even that degree of reassurance seems out of our reach – we don’t know enough about the issues to estimate the risks with any high degree of confidence. (Feeling optimistic is not the same as having good reason to be optimistic, after all).