Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Death Race

Getting anything done in this world, almost anything at all, is very expensive. Either you have a venture that makes more money than it consumes (a business), a volunteer effort (often including personnel lacking in motivation, time, resources, and/or experience), a university (funded by tuition and endowment payments) or that elusive beast, the non-profit, funded by individual and corporate giving.

Usually, the free market does a pretty good job of motivating people to do stuff that other people want. For instance, I can analyze some emerging technology like holographic displays for a company interested in the field, and get some money out of the deal. Maybe that sort of research can get a little boring, but they want it, so they pay me, right?

But the free market economy sometimes fails, or leads to suboptimal outcomes. It satisfies our vices just as much as our virtues. The market for alcohol, tobacco, prostitution and gambling is enormous. Addiction to these vices costs our society billions of dollars a year in treatment and lost potential. The actuaries can give it a number, but when you get down to it, these losses are unquantifiable. Unfortunately, governmental nanny attempts at setting things right often blow up in our face. Hence libertarians advocating a completely hands-off approach. The whole situation is a morass.

Just like the free market sometimes encourages the generation and purchase of substances and lifestyles that don't represent the best of human activity, the free market can inflate the price of essential products or services when there is economic incentive to do so (or not). People in South America (and elsewhere) are suffering because brand-name drugs are being sold for sky-high prices and the government is pushing to revoke patents and allow the production of generic versions of these drugs. Tragedies of the Commons occur on a regular basis, to a greater or lesser degree. The emission of greenhouse gases, for instance. Some of these suboptimal configurations are being curtailed by legislative action, but as mentioned above, the nanny approach often fails.

The Tragedy of the Commons that concerns me most is that of international security. Each nation has an incentive to promote international security only insofar as it protects that nation, and to a lesser degree, its allies. Even moreso, each nation has an incentive to develop powerful weapons and large armies to increase its bargaining power in international politics. Even though it isn't widely publicized, we are in the largest arms race in the history of humanity right now, in 2007. Rudy Guliani has suggested doubling the size of the United States military, and if he gets elected, he could actually take steps towards achieving that. Over $1 trillion is spent on militaries worldwide, half of it in the United States. Even if your job is sweeping a floor, part of your salary goes to building killing machines.

Contemplating how many resources should be diverted to the military is a Catch 22. On the one hand, a nation should have a large and strong military so that it is taken seriously in bargaining for international treaties and unspoken rules that promote peace. In a very real sense, power can be used for peace, and to deny it is naive. On the other hand, building up the military forces other countries to follow suit, leading to an arms race from which there is no escape. It's like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen -- we have to keep running just to stay in the same place.

As we inch forward into the 21st century, I and many others foresee new weapons of mass destruction becoming available, weapons that can annihilate every living thing on this planet in weeks or even days. The everyday person has little interest or concern in such eventualities, but the cognoscenti (or should I say Illuminati?) of academia, business, and government are not idiots, and they see what's coming. If you want to learn more, read "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy" by Robert Freitas.

We are rushing towards an arms race of much greater magnitude than the Cold War. Rather than dumb nukes which are delivered via huge, conspicuous ICBMs, we will have massive clouds of robotic drones which creep, crawl, bounce, slither, and fly into every nook and cranny of the enemy's hardware or even bodies, capable of dismantling them from within. We are already seeing the beginning of it today. Look at the success of the Predator UAV and minesweeping drones. In a couple decades, soldiers will be more like mages, directing and controlling lethal swarm intelligence, than riflemen, using a souped-up slingshot to direct hunks of metal in a straight line.

The danger begins when we hand over more responsibilities and control to the swarm intelligence. Humans are dangerous and sadistic enough, but there is reason to believe that true artificial intelligence will have trouble sympathizing with humans or grasping our moral norms without large amounts of special (expensive and difficult) programming. Moral acumen is not a side dish that comes free of charge along with the main meal of intelligence. Our distinct morality was produced by millions of years of evolution in social groups, and contains numerous complex elements, some poorly understood: reading the facial cues of others, modeling others circumstances and state of mind, projecting others current and future intentions contingent on different hypothetical actions, vague philosophical questions like "what does a typical human really want?", and so on. For military robotics, these complexities are quite beside the point: won't they all be directed by intelligent operators? But assuming that humans will be on top forever (intellectually or physically) is a recipe for disaster.

The free market economy is the dominant force in the world. The world's governments, the wealthiest existing entities, want better weapons to give themselves weight in international relations. Without international arms reduction treaties, which can be quite difficult to enact, the arms race persists indefinitely. Even if I have a button that can destroy the opposing country with a single press, what if they destroy that facility before I have a chance to push it? So I must build multiple such facilities, ad infinitum. The only way to avoid slamming into the wall is to put on the breaks ahead of time.

We need more international cooperation, more global unity, but most of all, technologies that are inherently protective rather than aggressive. So that if even humans are human, things still turn out alright in the end. Friendly artificial intelligence would be the most powerful tool in this category. If we could create AI that is verifiably friendly, not just in some abstract technical way but in ways that are clear as day, even to a child, then we've hit the technological jackpot. The Friendly AI could then invent and apply additional protective technologies for our benefit. We would have little to fear from such an AI morphing out of control, because, hey, it cares about its own integrity even more than we do or are capable of.

The question is, how to build a Friendly AI? Besides the huge challenge of developing an artificial intelligence to begin with, there is the additional challenge of "what is friendly supposed to mean?" At this point, I often defer to Nick Bostrom's Maxipok principle: rather than arguing forever on the specifics, I suggest that we attempt to maximize the probability of an OK outcome for everyone. A model that has been suggested before for Friendly AI is that of a prototypical altruist, with certain changes, like the absence of a self-centered goal system. If such an AI were programmed correctly, it would not consider "self" as a moral entity worthy of special treatment, and would truly be concerned with the good of all.

Several other models have been proposed for creating Friendly AI, but delving into them is a contentious and philosophically complex project. Before getting distracted by the difficulties of creating such AI, it's worth acknowledging in the abstract whether such AI is worth developing. I definitely believe so. Humans are inherently self-interested -- wouldn't it be nice if all that selfishness could be diluted with agents who are truly altruistic and care about the human race? Then we could possibly avoid shooting ourselves in the foot as this Dangerous Century proceeds. And our ancestors and future selves will thank us for it.

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  1. Very thought-provoking. With micro- and nano-technology it becomes easier to kill entire populations of people without damaging buildings and infrastructure. You do not even need a sophisticated robot or remote control.

    At some point, proliferation of dangerous forms of nanotech and synthetic biological forms becomes more dangerous than proliferation of nuclear weapons–and much harder to monitor.

    Machine intelligence with superior to human abilities represents a bifurcation point, depending upon who develops it and what safeguards are incorporated. For example, what would a Chinese-developed FAI be like?

  2. In agreement on this being thought provoking…
    Who gets to decide what the definition of altruism means? How far down does a FAI get to meddle in the individual lives of humanity to impact the whole?

    I’m not arguing that FAI shouldn’t be pursued because the alternative is that the AI is decidedly non-friendly. Which would mean meddling potentially on an absolute level, “Bye, bye human race.”

    To me the idea of AI tends to border on Orwellian Big Brother. Perhaps in “the best interests” of the people, but again who decides what those interests are?

    For me, I look back on the founding documents of the USA and find a good source of guidance. Essentially it is about freedom. Not a guarantee of equal outcomes, but a guarantee of equal access to the opportunity to do your own thing (and succeed or fail through your own efforts.) There are a lot of trends in today’s society that points toward a sense of entitlement and I fear that FAI will simply become a massive crutch for humanity and cripple any (or most) of the initiative individuals might hold to become more than they are today.

    How do you create a super-nanny that allows people to skin their knees?

  3. “I definitely believe so. Humans are inherently self-interested — wouldn’t it be nice if all that selfishness could be diluted with agents who are truly altruistic and care about the human race?”

    I think its somewhat ironic that we would create altruistic beings so that we could take advantage of their altruism, it seems somehow like the ultimate expression of our human selfishness (which, by the way, I consider a very necessary attribute).

  4. alcohol is not a market problem, is a human problem. Market only makes is it reachable.

    alcohol is the need of humans becaming superhuman, of transcending its limits. It’s not a good drug, but you can see need of people of changing themselves.

  5. In several decades I anticipate a set of events which will look something like this:

    Each individual human will either be extinct, live in a controlled (closed) environment, or carry an immune system composed of dispersed and intra-body nanoids and AI agents. Each citizen will be have one or more AI agents that guards its economic interests (in ways the typical human will not be able) while the individual is occupied with things that interest him or her (or it).

    Likewise there will still be states, but not in a form we’d acknowledge as such today. Current states are rapidly moving towards a cataclysmic collapse point beyond which they simply can’t operate. These furure states (or unions?) will demand from its subjects they carry control devices (above the above type: nanoid swarms and obiquitous AI agents) to make sure the individual doesn’t act to damage the collective. All individuals inside a state or in a position to damage a state will be saturated with control devices. In some cases it will be easier to adjust behavior and free will, as a precaution.

    In such a climate where natural life itself may have become largely displaced by a selfreplicating and functional technosphere (selfreplication solar cell forests for instance) and where humans may not even look humanoid anymore (and I see this happening before 2050) most individuals may opt to emigrate.

    And yes, by 2050 emigration may be affordable, technically plausible and a safer option. And not just in nearby earth-moon space, where the threat of rogue elements is amplified by the concept of orbital bombardments – I envision a widely dispersed halo of asteroid settlements to be the only plausible alternative to the above scenario. Plausible, affordable and probably hip too.

    The alternative to all of the above is a world stripped of all human life, expect a few scattered antidepressant-saturated survivors huddled around hyperions in salt mines and other assorted fallout shelters.

    I only give a damn insofar I am there to live it…. which is yet another argument to force cheap life extension pills into supermarkets as soon as possible.

  6. @Hawkeye: “How far down does a FAI get to meddle in the individual lives of humanity to impact the whole?… How do you create a super-nanny that allows people to skin their knees?”

    A lot of the problems that we find in our world seem perplexing to us. Michael has pointed out one of the worst problems: we often want to hurt other humans. At the root of this problem is the fact that we really haven’t figured moral philosophy out, and we don’t know what’s really of value in life. I think the most important (and most overlooked) advantage of creating a FAI is that it would probably be able to sort this stuff out for us: I call this the Artificial Philosophy Paradigm.

    You all seem to envisage a future where America, Russia, China, etc all have massive and deadly armies of high-tech robots, and then along comes the FAI with an EVEN more advanced and EVEN BIGGER army of nanotech robots and uses force (or the threat of force) to impose the great benign dictatorship of AI.

    But I think it won’t go like that. The FAI will (hopefully!) be cleverer than you all, and it will probably think of much subtler ways of influencing the world for the better. I will present some ideas that I’ve come up with, but you should bear in mind that a FAI will probably come up with much better ideas than I can; you should regard what follows as a lower bound.

    First of all, I think that it will actually work out what’s truly important in life and why, and come up with (at least partial) answers to the big questions in life – “what is the purpose of life?” “how do we define right and wrong, good and bad?”. I suspect that the AI will instantiate itself in the physical world as multiple robots which are indistinguishable from real humans. They will be great philosophers, politicians, lawmakers, film-makers, writers, religious leaders, etc, and they will collectively conspire to educate us all as to why we don’t need to go around killing each other. I suspect that after a certain amount of re-education, the AI won’t have to meddle much more in human affairs. The AI may be able to do all of this without anyone – including it’s programmers – knowing what’s going on.

    It’s even possible that the AI simply publishes one philosophy paper in a certain high-profile journal, or publishes one book, and then sits back as a revolution in human thinking is precipitated.

  7. It is easy to fantasise an all-knowing, benevolent god-like FAI that is wiser than wise, kinder than kind, but … We will leave our fingerprints all over any AIs that may evolve from our work. There is no pristine environment for the growing and evolving of AIs of godlike wisdom and benevolence.

    Given the interest of DARPA, the NSA, Russia, China, etc. it is more likely that the world of the future will look more like Darfur than utopia–particularly if we sit back and expect an FAI to take care of us.

    It is up to us to wise up, to mature and take responsibility. Religion has had its day. Rather than to lapse into a techno-religion, perhaps we should learn to use our own talents.

  8. Thank you, Michael. This is excellent.

    Hope to see you again soon!

  9. “I think its somewhat ironic that we would create altruistic beings so that we could take advantage of their altruism, it seems somehow like the ultimate expression of our human selfishness (which, by the way, I consider a very necessary attribute).”

    That might be ironic, but not necessarily bad. It’s a human trait to not like being taken advantage of and wanting fairness.

    A friendly A.I. probably wouldn’t mind at all if it was conceived that way.

  10. @Al Fin: “It is easy to fantasise an all-knowing, benevolent god-like FAI that is wiser than wise, kinder than kind, but … ”

    That’s probably a fairly accurate picture of an FAI. The superficial likeness to religionists conception of God should not put you off. Of course an Unfriendly AI would probably mean the end of us, as many people have said. All this assumes that recursive self improvement in a general AI goes quickly, etc.

  11. I’ll add my thanks, Michael; excellent article.

    The one thing I’ll underscore is that the devil is in the details, with this one. There are so many variables, but they boil down to the very thing you bypassed: what constitutes “friendly”?

    As Al Fin’s post implied, a Chinese FAI might be a very UNfriendly thing to an American, a German or some other nationality. Given the state of things, it’s very likely that the first true AI will be a military project.

    Also, let’s not forget that there are a lot of steps along the way to this AI we speak of: there are many places where a software “entity” may appear quite intelligent, in a limited role. I don’t think that this is a discrete Yes/No thing. After all, look at the trouble we have in deciding whether dogs, cats and other animals are intelligent. It’s another problem of definition: what exactly constitutes “intelligence”?

    I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, but these definitions are more than just hair-splitting and academic; they’re a matter of “just exactly what are we aiming at?”

    As regards the altruistic dictatorship question, I remember an old movie (“The Forbin Project”) that dealt with that very idea. In it, the computer – Colossus – is given control over the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal. Because it’s programmed to prevent war, it assumes a dictatorship and threatens humanity into compliance. I hope we don’t forget that film . . .

    I think that the assumption that the hypothesised AI will instantly assume godlike powers is naive, at best. Quite apart from anything else, it can’t magically process information it doesn’t possess. However quick its mental processes are, it will still need to gather information. In addition, much of the reason that we can’t solve many of our philosophical conundra is that we can’t define them in crystal-clear terms. If we can’t frame a clear question, how can we expect a clear answer?

  12. @snaffle: “what constitutes “friendly”?”

    Indeed! Well, if anyone has any ideas, then write your them on the back of a postcard and mail it to:

    The Singularity Institute
    P.O. Box 50182
    Palo Alto, CA 94303 USA

    Competition closes 25/12/2007.

  13. I expect that the vast majority of the readers of this blog have never thought they “need to go around killing each other”. Most have – thankfully – never even been in a situation (combat, an intruder breaking into their home, witnessing a violent assault in a public place) where they would contemplate killing anyone. Most of us probably think the purpose of life has something to do with learning (science, mathematics, computing, music, art, languages …) and experiences (travel, going into space, friendships with interesting people …) and fulfilling our potential and stretching our limits – all without harming anyone else.

    We don’t need a Friendly AI to tell us why we don’t need to go around killing each other. We know why, and we don’t want to, or feel we need to. I expect that the vast majority of the inhabitants of modern industrial nations (the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and a few others) – even if they don’t have the same opinions of the meaning of life as I laid out above – also feel no need to go around killing each other.

    The 20th century was the bloodiest in history not because the average person in it was evil, or the majority of people were evil, but because a handful of evil men (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) came to power – absolute power – and were able to apply the strength of entire countries to carrying out mass murder. To this end the dictators were helped by two groups: their followers (who supported, often enthusiastically, the tyrants’ murderous goals), and those too fearful to stop them. Without the leaders, the followers’ hatred would not have gone as far. I doubt that average 1930s Germans, even if they hated Jews, would have built the concentration camps without Hitler. (They would have doubtless committed hate crimes, but things would never have gone as far as they did under Hitler.) And once an evil leader and his followers take absolute power, many who would otherwise oppose him remain silent out of (justifiable) fear.

    If we don’t want this century to be even bloodier than the previous, we need to do one of the following:

    1. Eliminate extreme evil – figure out how to prevent the Hitlers/Stalins/Maos from ever coming into being. (Or somehow fix them if they already exist – I have no doubt such individuals are alive now, just waiting for their chance.)

    2. Make it impossible for evil dictators to come to power, by ensuring they lack the rhetorical skills and leadership abilities to ever be taken seriously.

    3. Make it impossible for evil dictators to get power, by ensuring no one would want to follow them (by making sure no large group of people can be swept away by rhetoric and emotion).

    4. If, somehow, another Hitler/Stalin/Mao does attain great power, stop him before he does much damage.

    Number 4 is the cold war approach, whereby the U.S. prevented a Soviet-sponsored world takeover and Holocaust via a massive arms buildup – but it didn’t stop Mao and Stalin from butchering tens of millions of their countrymen, just kept them from turning the whole world into a gulag. And the U.S. only learned this approach after watching the Europeans’ example of waiting too long to stop Hitler.

    The other three approaches require changing human nature (eliminating extreme evil, eliminating leadership skills in the extremely evil, bolstering individuals’ ability to control their emotions). This is where Friendly AI could help – by telling us how to make those changes. But it won’t be easy. And it will be dangerous – who wants to give anyone (doctors, the government, the U.N. …) the power to force people to change “for the common good”? And how will we determine if we really know how to change people for the better, rather than just making them more docile and easier for the Stalins to control?

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