Everyone is so concerned about 'Global Warming' and what it means for human civilization, when the real uncertainty about our future rests on what 'Artificial Intelligence' will do for us ......., or to us! (This is one in a series of articles about the future of Humanity we are presenting this week!)
By Tim Urban:
- As mentioned in Part 1, movies have really confused things by presenting unrealistic AI scenarios that make us feel like AI isn’t something to be taken seriously in general. James Barrat compares the situation to our reaction if the Centers for Disease Control issued a serious warning about vampires in our future.5
- Due to something called cognitive biases, we have a hard time believing something is real until we see proof. I’m sure computer scientists in 1988 were regularly talking about how big a deal the internet was likely to be, but people probably didn’t really think it was going to change their lives until it actually changed their lives. This is partially because computers just couldn’t do stuff like that in 1988, so people would look at their computer and think, “Really? That’s gonna be a life changing thing?” Their imaginations were limited to what their personal experience had taught them about what a computer was, which made it very hard to vividly picture what computers might become. The same thing is happening now with AI. We hear that it’s gonna be a big deal, but because it hasn’t happened yet, and because of our experience with the relatively impotent AI in our current world, we have a hard time really believing this is going to change our lives dramatically. And those biases are what experts are up against as they frantically try to get our attention through the noise of collective daily self-absorption.
- Even if we did believe it—how many times today have you thought about the fact that you’ll spend most of the rest of eternity not existing? Not many, right? Even though it’s a far more intense fact than anything else you’re doing today? This is because our brains are normally focused on the little things in day-to-day life, no matter how crazy a long-term situation we’re a part of. It’s just how we’re wired.
Why the Future Might Be Our Greatest Dream
- As an oracle, which answers nearly any question posed to it with accuracy, including complex questions that humans cannot easily answer—i.e. How can I manufacture a more efficient car engine? Google is a primitive type of oracle.
- As a genie, which executes any high-level command it’s given—Use a molecular assembler to build a new and more efficient kind of car engine—and then awaits its next command.
- As a sovereign, which is assigned a broad and open-ended pursuit and allowed to operate in the world freely, making its own decisions about how best to proceed—Invent a faster, cheaper, and safer way than cars for humans to privately transport themselves.
Eliezer Yudkowsky, a resident of Anxious Avenue in our chart above, said it well:
There are no hard problems, only problems that are hard to a certain level of intelligence. Move the smallest bit upwards [in level of intelligence], and some problems will suddenly move from “impossible” to “obvious.” Move a substantial degree upwards, and all of them will become obvious.There are a lot of eager scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs in Confident Corner—but for a tour of brightest side of the AI horizon, there’s only one person we want as our tour guide.
Ray Kurzweil is polarizing. In my reading, I heard everything from godlike worship of him and his ideas to eye-rolling contempt for them. Others were somewhere in the middle—author Douglas Hofstadter, in discussing the ideas in Kurzweil’s books, eloquently put forth that “it is as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.”
Whether you like his ideas or not, everyone agrees that Kurzweil is impressive. He began inventing things as a teenager and in the following decades, he came up with several breakthrough inventions, including the first flatbed scanner, the first scanner that converted text to speech (allowing the blind to read standard texts), the well-known Kurzweil music synthesizer (the first true electric piano), and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.
He’s the author of five national bestselling books. He’s well-known for his bold predictions and has a pretty good record of having them come true—including his prediction in the late ’80s, a time when the internet was an obscure thing, that by the early 2000s, it would become a global phenomenon. Kurzweil has been called a “restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes, “Edison’s rightful heir” by Inc. Magazine, and “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence” by Bill Gates.
In 2012, Google co-founder Larry Page approached Kurzweil and asked him to be Google’s Director of Engineering.5 In 2011, he co-founded Singularity University, which is hosted by NASA and sponsored partially by Google. Not bad for one life.
This biography is important. When Kurzweil articulates his vision of the future, he sounds fully like a crackpot, and the crazy thing is that he’s not—he’s an extremely smart, knowledgeable, relevant man in the world. You may think he’s wrong about the future, but he’s not a fool. Knowing he’s such a legit dude makes me happy, because as I’ve learned about his predictions for the future, I badly want him to be right. And you do too.
As you hear Kurzweil’s predictions, many shared by other Confident Corner thinkers like Peter Diamandis and Ben Goertzel, it’s not hard to see why he has such a large, passionate following—known as the singularitarians. Here’s what he thinks is going to happen:
Kurzweil believes computers will reach AGI by 2029 and that by 2045, we’ll have not only ASI, but a full-blown new world—a time he calls the singularity. His AI-related timeline used to be seen as outrageously overzealous, and it still is by many,6 but in the last 15 years, the rapid advances of ANI systems have brought the larger world of AI experts much closer to Kurzweil’s timeline.
His predictions are still a bit more ambitious than the median respondent on Müller and Bostrom’s survey (AGI by 2040, ASI by 2060), but not by that much.
Kurzweil’s depiction of the 2045 singularity is brought about by three simultaneous revolutions in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and, most powerfully, AI.
Before we move on—nanotechnology comes up in almost everything you read about the future of AI, so come into this blue box for a minute so we can discuss it—
To understand the challenge of humans trying to manipulate matter in that range, let’s take the same thing on a larger scale. The International Space Station is 268 mi (431 km) above the Earth. If humans were giants so large their heads reached up to the ISS, they’d be about 250,000 times bigger than they are now.
If you make the 1nm – 100nm nanotech range 250,000 times bigger, you get .25mm – 2.5cm. So nanotechnology is the equivalent of a human giant as tall as the ISS figuring out how to carefully build intricate objects using materials between the size of a grain of sand and an eyeball. To reach the next level—manipulating individual atoms—the giant would have to carefully position objects that are 1/40th of a millimeter—so small normal-size humans would need a microscope to see them.
Nanotech was first discussed by Richard Feynman in a 1959 talk, when he explained: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It would be, in principle, possible … for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down…. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.” It’s as simple as that. If you can figure out how to move individual molecules or atoms around, you can make literally anything.
Nanotech became a serious field for the first time in 1986, when engineer Eric Drexler provided its foundations in his seminal book Engines of Creation, but Drexler suggests that those looking to learn about the most modern ideas in nanotechnology would be best off reading his 2013 book, Radical Abundance.
We’re now in a diversion in a diversion. This is very fun.
Anyway, I brought you here because there’s this really unfunny part of nanotechnology lore I need to tell you about. In older versions of nanotech theory, a proposed method of nanoassembly involved the creation of trillions of tiny nanobots that would work in conjunction to build something. One way to create trillions of nanobots would be to make one that could self-replicate and then let the reproduction process turn that one into two, those two then turn into four, four into eight, and in about a day, there’d be a few trillion of them ready to go. That’s the power of exponential growth. Clever, right?
It’s clever until it causes the grand and complete Earthwide apocalypse by accident. The issue is that the same power of exponential growth that makes it super convenient to quickly create a trillion nanobots makes self-replication a terrifying prospect. Because what if the system glitches, and instead of stopping replication once the total hits a few trillion as expected, they just keep replicating?
The nanobots would be designed to consume any carbon-based material in order to feed the replication process, and unpleasantly, all life is carbon-based. The Earth’s biomass contains about 1045 carbon atoms. A nanobot would consist of about 106 carbon atoms, so 1039 nanobots would consume all life on Earth, which would happen in 130 replications (2130 is about 1039), as oceans of nanobots (that’s the gray goo) rolled around the planet.
Scientists think a nanobot could replicate in about 100 seconds, meaning this simple mistake would inconveniently end all life on Earth in 3.5 hours.
An even worse scenario—if a terrorist somehow got his hands on nanobot technology and had the know-how to program them, he could make an initial few trillion of them and program them to quietly spend a few weeks spreading themselves evenly around the world undetected. Then, they’d all strike at once, and it would only take 90 minutes for them to consume everything—and with them all spread out, there would be no way to combat them.
While this horror story has been widely discussed for years, the good news is that it may be overblown—Eric Drexler, who coined the term “gray goo,” sent me an email following this post with his thoughts on the gray goo scenario: “People love scare stories, and this one belongs with the zombies. The idea itself eats brains.”
We’re not there yet. And it’s not clear if we’re underestimating, or overestimating, how hard it will be to get there. But we don’t seem to be that far away. Kurzweil predicts that we’ll get there by the 2020s.11 Governments know that nanotech could be an Earth-shaking development, and they’ve invested billions of dollars in nanotech research (the US, the EU, and Japan have invested over a combined $5 billion so far).
Just considering the possibilities if a superintelligent computer had access to a robust nanoscale assembler is intense. But nanotechnology is something we came up with, that we’re on the verge of conquering, and since anything that we can do is a joke to an ASI system, we have to assume ASI would come up with technologies much more powerful and far too advanced for human brains to understand.
For that reason, when considering the “If the AI Revolution turns out well for us” scenario, it’s almost impossible for us to overestimate the scope of what could happen—so if the following predictions of an ASI future seem over-the-top, keep in mind that they could be accomplished in ways we can’t even imagine. Most likely, our brains aren’t even capable of predicting the things that would happen.
What AI Could Do For Us
Armed with superintelligence and all the technology superintelligence would know how to create, ASI would likely be able to solve every problem in humanity. Global warming?
ASI could first halt CO2 emissions by coming up with much better ways to generate energy that had nothing to do with fossil fuels. Then it could create some innovative way to begin to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
Cancer and other diseases? No problem for ASI—health and medicine would be revolutionized beyond imagination. World hunger? ASI could use things like nanotech to build meat from scratch that would be molecularly identical to real meat—in other words, it would be real meat. Nanotech could turn a pile of garbage into a huge vat of fresh meat or other food (which wouldn’t have to have its normal shape—picture a giant cube of apple)—and distribute all this food around the world using ultra-advanced transportation.
Of course, this would also be great for animals, who wouldn’t have to get killed by humans much anymore, and ASI could do lots of other things to save endangered species or even bring back extinct species through work with preserved DNA. ASI could even solve our most complex macro issues—our debates over how economies should be run and how world trade is best facilitated, even our haziest grapplings in philosophy or ethics—would all be painfully obvious to ASI.
But there’s one thing ASI could do for us that is so tantalizing, reading about it has altered everything I thought I knew about everything:
ASI could allow us to conquer our mortality.
A few months ago, I mentioned my envy of more advanced potential civilizations who had conquered their own mortality, never considering that I might later write a post that genuinely made me believe that this is something humans could do within my lifetime. But reading about AI will make you reconsider everything you thought you were sure about—including your notion of death.
Evolution had no good reason to extend our lifespans any longer than they are now. If we live long enough to reproduce and raise our children to an age that they can fend for themselves, that’s enough for evolution—from an evolutionary point of view, the species can thrive with a 30+ year lifespan, so there’s no reason mutations toward unusually long life would have been favored in the natural selection process. As a result, we’re what W.B. Yeats describes as “a soul fastened to a dying animal.” Not that fun.
And because everyone has always died, we live under the “death and taxes” assumption that death is inevitable. We think of aging like time—both keep moving and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. But that assumption is wrong. Richard Feynman writes:
It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death. If you say we want to make perpetual motion, we have discovered enough laws as we studied physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong. But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.
It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence could not either solve or at least help us solve. Disease, poverty, environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds: these are things that a superintelligence equipped with advanced nanotechnology would be capable of eliminating.
Additionally, a superintelligence could give us indefinite lifespan, either by stopping and reversing the aging process through the use of nanomedicine, or by offering us the option to upload ourselves. A superintelligence could also create opportunities for us to vastly increase our own intellectual and emotional capabilities, and it could assist us in creating a highly appealing experiential world in which we could live lives devoted to joyful game-playing, relating to each other, experiencing, personal growth, and to living closer to our ideals.