Nick Bostrom on Superintelligence
Dec 1 2014

Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Bostrom argues that when machines exist which dwarf human intelligence they will threaten human existence unless steps are taken now to reduce the risk. The conversation covers the likelihood of the worst scenarios, strategies that might be used to reduce the risk and the implications for labor markets, and human flourishing in a world of superintelligent machines.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Keith Vertrees
Dec 1 2014 at 10:35am

Mr. Bostrom imagines that we can design Skynet. Russ had the curious task of demonstrating …

Things either emerge or are designed. Things that emerge (e.g. humans) can solve more complicated problems than things that are designed (e.g. robots).

Humans’ utility function has been honed by evolution for millions of years. As Adam Smith and Russ point out, this has given us the goals of prudence, justice and beneficence that have allowed the human species to dominate the planet. Skynet doesn’t stand a chance.

The Urban Blabbermouth
Dec 1 2014 at 11:46am

Why would an AI be hostile to humans? Is there something in human language that is hostile and that translates into hostile computer programming? Presumably, the AI then uses this programing logic to do its own reasoning to become hostile?

Asimov Robot series is a great read in this area.

Dec 1 2014 at 3:34pm

So many points a computer scientist could make.. but they all boil down to this: Computers don’t do Vague or Abstract — Period. Deep Blue doesn’t look for the “best” or “most wise” chess move, it follows an algorithm. Even “fuzzy logic” bows to the absolutes of the 1 and the 0.

As an aside, Isaac Asimov spent his entire career trying to make people understand that, as with anti-lock breaks, anything that humans can design they can design with safety in mind.

Mark Crankshaw
Dec 1 2014 at 4:16pm

I guess I’m far more threatened by my fellow human beings than I will ever be by machines. Wouldn’t the real threat be that, even before machines approach a “super intelligent state”, that human beings themselves would hijack the increased power of machines to annihilate, subjugate, and exploit their fellow man?

Even a cursory glance at human history would lead one to conclude that annihilating, subjugating, and exploiting one another has been almost the brutish single-minded pursuit of humanity for as long as man has existed.

Genocide litters the pages of human history primarily because a sizable number of human beings have a pathological desire to rid the world of the “other” (be that distinction of national, religious, or racial in nature). It is only the difficulty in the means of carrying out this genocide that stops the jihadist or revolutionary fanatic or misanthrope (or what have you) from acting out in full. Have these desires been eliminated from the human species? I suggest not. Would not technology bring the means closer to hand? I suggest it would.

Slavery is as old as man. Outright slavery is no longer practiced in the West not because of an alleged “change of heart” as is usually suggested, but rather because the means of enforcing and sustaining slavery were proving to be too costly. Our society has eliminated outright slavery and replaced that antiquated system of human control with a more humane, efficient and profitable system of human control. However, humans are still seen by other humans as a resource to be exploited like any other commodity. It was the increased profitability that was key to the change in control system, not the humane bit. As it stands today, without the toiling masses, the economic/political elite would starve. In my opinion, this is the only reason I am alive today– because those with the power, money and guns value me more alive than dead. If they didn’t, history amply indicates that reptilian elite would have been made me into a lampshade by now.

What would happen, however, if the powers that be didn’t see others as a resource (because those “other” human beings produced nothing since the machines produced it all)? Might those with political/economic power see those non-productive “others” as merely wasteful consumers of resources that might be better consumed by the elite? Might the elite use the increased power of technology to outright eliminate the unnecessary “dead weight”? History suggests they might. It is to me far, far more plausible that the real threat is humans using machines to threaten/exterminate other humans than that of machine threatening human.

Greg G
Dec 1 2014 at 4:40pm

Much of Bostrom’s thought here struck me as the silliest kind of speculative science fiction. For me, the most interesting part of the discussion was the way Russ was able to push back hard against ideas he disagreed with without the slightest trace of sarcasm or disrespect. Russ, you are the best at that. That style of interviewing helps guests to showcase their own ideas as effectively as possible and reminds us all that there is no reason disagreements have to be unpleasant.

It seems to me that, long before we each get our own galaxy, and long before we are outcompeted in Darwinian evolution by robot overlords, we will likely succumb to a much more mundane threat from “super intelligence.”

Human intelligence is already pushing up against the limits of its survival value. We already have the technological ability to cause our own extinction. There are already enough nuclear weapons in existence to destroy humanity. We are already close to the ability to combine the worst genetic features of several diseases into a super pathogen. We are already close to the ability to cheaply deliver any weapon anywhere with drones.

As I understand it, the current state of complexity theory suggests that many problems cannot be solved by more intelligent computation. These problems are the ones that have a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. These type of problems require a measurement of initial conditions to a degree of accuracy that is not possible, even in principle, due to the measurement problems inherent in the uncertainty principle.

Cris Sheridan
Dec 1 2014 at 5:38pm

Great interview Russ!

Ben Woyvodich
Dec 1 2014 at 9:21pm

I object to the idea that the super intelligence would develop motivations of any sort. It is either programed with motivations, or it is not. To develop motivations would require the machine wanting to survive, but that requires the machine to have a motivation in order to have a motivation. We don’t understand the complexity of life enough in order to even speculate one what a machine life might be like, or what it might want.

It is much more likely the computer would attempt to follow a series of instructions, but it could never follow a series of instructions it creates because it would have no ability to create. It could behave like all computers no matter how complicated, follow instructions and compute. Humans created the instructions that allow the computer to appear to create or solve problems.

Essentially the author wants us to assume a series of thought experiments about what is essentially a machine god. Which, for all intents is pointless.

Another objection, the marginal cost of the machine is not cheap. It must include the cost of the physical materials because two minds cannot maintain the same space with the same scope, so every duplication of a super intelligence would require another source of physical resources as large as the original to be a true duplicate. Further more the resources to power the super intelligence are not as simple as those of my desktop computer. For at least the foreseeable future the super intelligence would require a massive data center with huge amounts of electricity and water and increasingly large amounts of other resources to run.

Also, most technological achievements were copies and not original creations. From my limited knowledge, Stalin’s scientists did not just develop a bomb, they had an inside operatives that simply gave them the technological research needed to proceed, that or the information was widely available already. The key to most technology in the modern world is the realization that something was possible, or even desirable.

But the author misses the point that was have to assume that the vast expenditure of resources to create a super intelligent being presupposes that we would ever want to, or that we ever could. I ask you, why would you want a machine that told you what to do?

Also, if you give the machine information no better than what humans have available, how can you expect a better result no matter how smart? GIGO if you say 1 is 2 and the machine believes that, no amount of intelligence makes it believe that 1 is not 2.

Dec 1 2014 at 11:40pm

Good interview. Both points well presented.

There are a couple of things I would like to note that Bostrom did not bring out. I’m not sure if he wrote about them in super intelligence, but he vaguely eludes to them in the interview here.

For those who say that machines don’t have motives, please look outside to suburbia. You can see well laid out roads – the cars don’t have a motive to ask for well laid out roads, but THEY PERFORM BETTER when they get them. So, we think that purely for the human purpose of greater speed, we’re having these well laid out roads. But is the idea that we’re obeying the motive of the machine by making things easier for the machine really that far out?

The stockmarket is today almost completely an algorithmic ground. It’s machines against machines. More of the logic is being programmed into the computer and the ones that hold back to ask humans for directions “Should I make this trade?” LOSE in the game and are taken out.

We are, strictly for our own purposes, strictly for our own profit, ceding more and more control to machines, making the world more legible to machines, more traversable by machines. Is it really a stretch to think that one day, some hedge fund would send out a maximally autonomous program into the world with the directive, “make us rich”, and that program goes out and then literally hyperinflates the currency because more currency means a higher counter is hit on the “wealth” meter? This is kinda similar to the paper clip maximizer scenario. But it is possible that the machine could be smarter and take over the world, but due to ill-defined goals, those who invoked its powers are very happy, but only for a few years as some weird interpretation of their own goal that they did not consider, but completely fulfilling the acceptance criteria they set is done by the super intelligence and that is the future of the universe, forever.

Casey Haskins
Dec 2 2014 at 1:53am

Russ, you kept asking why any kind of computer-based intelligence would have “preferences”. At that point, the discussion seemed to go off track for a bit. I didn’t hear a good answer, and it seemed to me the two of you started talking past each other for a few minutes. Then, to get the interview back on track, you just sort of skipped over it and moved on to the next point.

But this seems to me to be a key idea, even though the answer didn’t come out in the discussion. So let me take a shot…

Intelligence–and therefore certainly “superintelligence”–has to include the ability to learn, even if it’s only to fine-tune an answer. And learning depends largely on the ability to distinguish between solutions that work better and solutions that don’t work as well. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that’s a big one.

Here’s the thing. The only way to distinguish between better solutions and worse ones is to compare them. You can compare them against each other, or against some criteria such as how close they came to the intended result, but one way or another, they have to be compared.

Whatever criteria get used to make the choice–and there has to be at least one or choosing is impossible–are called “preferences”. They don’t necessarily have to be coded in, and they don’t have to be permanent. They certainly don’t have to be based on morality or emotions or feelings. But they DO have to exist, at least temporarily until the choice is made. Otherwise, like I said, no choice is possible. And I don’t think any of us would call something “intelligent” unless it included the ability to choose and to learn.

Dec 2 2014 at 1:05pm

For the bulk of this interview I really just felt like Russ and his guest were discussing the plot of Battlestar Galactica.

Dec 2 2014 at 3:03pm

This could have been a really nice one. A bit dissapointed you spent so much time not hearing each other on the crucial subject of “preferences” for the Superintelligence.

Casey Haskins, great answer!
I just wanted to add some thoughts: if you think about what differentiates human cognitive abilities from the animal ones you would probably come out with _the ability to formulate abstract concepts and the ability to set long-term abstract “goals” (not just search for food)_. So almost by definition “Intelligence” (and “artificial intelligence” for that matter) includes the ability to set goals and to prefer one outcome instead of the other (“utility function”).

If “superintelligence” is of the higher order of complexity than “intelligence”, then, again by definition, it includes the ability to set goals (and even better ability).

So in the case of “Deap Blue” I think it even could not be considered an artificial intelligence, it is just a really powerful calculating machine. And as I understand recent attempts to create genuine “AI” come close to the definitions I spelled out (and not being just machines good at executing a fixed set of algorithms).

Ed G.
Dec 2 2014 at 4:09pm

I am certain that this entire conversation followed the plot line of Colossus: The Forbin Project. This was a 1970 film about superintelligence.

Many (if not all the issues) discussed seem drawn from the very story arc of this movie. It is actually quite good in an early 70’s way.

The single superintelligence running away, the goal setting that didn’t involve human wants, the eradication of humans standing in its way, etc, etc, etc.

I wonder if Mr. Bostrom is aware of this film and if it had informed his views?

The Urban Blabbermouth
Dec 3 2014 at 7:13am

Perhaps the greater danger to humanity is not computers but genetic engineering. We are already doing that and we have little control over possible genetic mutations that may go wild.

AI by comparison is no where near the level described in the conversation so the threat is speculative.

Robert Wiblin
Dec 3 2014 at 10:08am

“Why would an AI be hostile to humans?”

It probably wouldn’t, it would just care about things that have nothing to do with us. It may also see us as a threat (we may decide to turn it off) and want to neutralise the thread.

“I object to the idea that the super intelligence would develop motivations of any sort. It is either programed with motivations, or it is not.”

It would initially be programmed with a set of ‘terminal goals’ that provide motivation, but then develop instrumental goals. For example, it would have the terminal goal of winning a chess game, and then learn to have the instrumental goal of capturing the opponents’ pieces.

Ken P
Dec 3 2014 at 11:36pm

Why would it be programmed to have preferences and emotions? Because that is fundamental to the way brains work.

People seem to picture superintelligence as if it works like a tree diagram used to troubleshoot some process. Superintelligence would be more likely to be structured like the Internet, with thoughts emerging the same way topics that are trending emerge on the Internet. The new neuron chip approach will work well with that paradigm. The current chips only have 256 inputs per neuron vs 10,000 on a human neuron.

BZ Writes:

Computers don’t do Vague or Abstract — Period.

I would disagree with this statement. Computers recognize faces. They distinguish a bicycle from a person from a car from a tree… These things are not done by design, they are trained by feeding data to the computer. The examples used in the training set and the order they are fed influence the approach the computer will use in the future. Even with such a rudimentary example, the approach the computer takes to solve the problem is emergent not hard coded.

Russ Roberts
Dec 4 2014 at 12:08am

Ken P,

Yes, brains have emotions. But would superintelligence? Deep Blue is not a brain. Watson is not a brain. They don’t have emotions. That’s why I asked about regret. A computer that loses a chess match doesn’t stew over it the way a person does or regret a bad move or get angry. It just tries to win but not in the way that a brain tries to win. It is not obvious to me that the more intelligent machines of the future will be any closer to consciousness and brain-ness than current models. More on this in upcoming episodes, I hope.

Dr. Duru
Dec 4 2014 at 2:44am

I agree with others who think that genetic engineering has a much greater (or at least more immediate) potential to cause widespread harm and destruction than the superintelligence of machines. With genetic engineering we can apply our preferences, motivations, and directives to screen out, filter, or otherwise engineer people who then can be “programmed” or otherwise constructed for specific purposes in service to a creator. We will certainly know a lot better how to manipulate genetics to do our bidding than a super-AI.

Anyway, a lot of the discussion of this super-entity reminded me of the paradox of time travel. That is, if time travel were possible then surely we would have run into a time traveler by now. There is no reason to believe that our particular stream of time is the standard bearer (the most advanced) of the universe. Similarly, if a super-AI is possible, surely we would have been visited by the super-AI from another planet. There is no reason to believe that in the vast universe, we are the absolute only place where super-AI is or ever will be possible. (Yes, I know I am skirting on the old economist joke about leaving the $10 bill on the ground….) I thought this was most poignant when the discussion hurtled outward to contemplate the infinite resources of the universe being made available to humans through the services of super AI. Am I missing something?

Dec 4 2014 at 9:09am

This podcast was the most mind-blowing podcast I’ve ever heard, anywhere. Bostrom left me convinced that there are more plausible scenarios for a super AI to be a malign threat without intending to be than a beneficent fount of material blessings. All living things have in common physical and psychological natures produced under similar evolutionary pressures. As a result all living things have more in common than we realize. What are the chances that a superintelligent AI, produced under completely different conditions by completely different processes, would have common values? Vanishingly small it would seem. And the whole point is that we humans would quickly lose control of the AI once its intelligence surpasses ours, especially since its intelligence would be growing at an exponential rate.

Dec 4 2014 at 11:50am

It seemed like Roberts was being either willfully obtuse or utterly lacking in imagination on the topic of machine preferences or emotional development. Compare the computers of 1974 to the computers of today. Then think about where they might be in another 20-40 years. Is it so difficult to imagine that preferences might emerge at some point? Thinking about evolution, do hamsters have regret? Horseshoe crabs? Algae? How far up the evolutionary chain before that emotion emerges?

Ken P
Dec 4 2014 at 12:28pm

Watson and Deep Blue do not use emotion, but they are not super-intelligent. I really like your point about regret and anger. Those can be useful motivators to future play and help one learn from mistakes. Marvin Minsky (co-founder of the AI lab at MIT) sees the brain as an Emotion machine. He also envisions the mind as being more of a society, as described in his book Society of Mind. Some consciousness theorists view the Internet as being conscious (at a very low level) and that basically anything with a structure analogous to neural networks has some level of consciousness. I think those three things provide a pretty good flavor of the type of model that fits how many believe a superintelligent machine would work.

Whether or not you can program emotion into a machine is up in the air in my opinion, but I would say that some sort of emotion-like aspect is necessary if superintelligence is to succeed. My expectation is that “designing” such a machine would be more like growing a computer than programming one.

Russ Roberts
Dec 4 2014 at 3:44pm


I don’t think a machine of today is any closer to having emotion than one in 1974. I don’t see any reason to think preferences would emerge. Interested to understand the potential. I think it’s fascinating but I don’t get it yet.

Ken P,

You write:

Watson and Deep Blue do not use emotion, but they are not super-intelligent.

No doubt. The question is whether something with the posited powers of superintelligence can exist. Maybe. But at my current level of understanding, it’s a speculation or assumption more than anything else. I don’t see any evidence that we can design something that can emerge into something we have not designed. I don’t see the evidence that we can “grow” a computer or a brain. That is one way to frame the whole issue, perhaps.

I do hope to do some more episodes on this in the future. Should be fun.

Ken P
Dec 4 2014 at 9:33pm


I put the likelihood at about 60% that it will occur in the next 30 yrs, but my confidence in that estimate is pretty soft and based on speculation/limited knowledge. My view could change easily.

I like that you are including such topics in your podcasts. Looking forward to future episodes on this and other topics!

Dec 4 2014 at 10:30pm

Asking whether an AI can have “emotions” is beside the point, and needlessly anthropomorphic. Does your PC “want” to boot up when you switch it on? All the AI needs is a utility function, something in its software that activates it toward a goal or goals. That utility function could evolve rapidly, in ways we can’t even guess at, as the AI’s intelligence zooms upward.

Dec 5 2014 at 12:00am

I think Russ’s applying economic modeling principles to Nick Bostrom’s predictions is a good approach. The assumptions Nick is making in the podcast appear to defy the restrictions of the world we live within such as: finite resources, diminishing marginal returns, and limits to understanding complex, non-linear systems.

Additionally, I think there is one critique that hasn’t been brought up yet which may add some color to this discussion. Nick Bostrom spoke of having super-intelligence in a box, which suggests to me that he is still following the old paradigm that the mind and the body are separable. I think, at present, it is widely held that the two are not separable. The mind is shaped by the body. Consider a person born blind and deaf but with a “normal” mind. Books on neural plasticity like “The Brain that Changes Itself” detail how the parts of the brain that process light and sound are instead utilized by the remaining senses of smell, touch, and taste. So a blind/deaf person will have supertaste, supersmell, and supersensation compared to a normal person because they devote more neurons to each of those tasks. But even with such super-senses, it is hard to envy their lot in life. Their survivability is dreadfully low without enormous support from others. Their intelligence is also radically limited by their lack of senses, far more than the improvement in their remaining senses can compensate for. Their intellectual growth is limited so their intelligence is limited, relatively speaking.

I think the same analysis applies to computers. Imagine a computer with only one input, a keyboard, and you have already placed an insurmountable limit on the intelligence of the computer—a limit that cannot be overcome regardless of the number of transistors inside the machine. “Intelligent” is not possible in that scenario, never mind “super-intelligent”. Now expand the number of keyboards to many millions and you have an organ somewhat analogous to the sense of touch which has many millions of touch receptors, but all those receptors still only makes up a single sense organ. Add millions of camera’s and you may be up to two sense organs—not a threat. Millions of microphones—still not a threat. Three senses is simply not capable of shaping an intelligence that is competitive with humans. Which is not to say that it cannot be useful, only that we would have no difficulty destroying it if we ever found it a threat.

That said, I think Nick Bostrom’s arguments work great when considering the next evolution of the human species. I will call it, “Homo Sapien-Superior.” If we do not kill ourselves off too soon, eventually an improved model will displace us, perhaps slowly, perhaps suddenly. That might be worrisome to some people but it does not bother me much. We want our children to eclipse us, after all.

Dec 5 2014 at 1:18pm

You appear to be completely discounting the possibility that emotions/preferences are an emergent phenomenon and implying that they are somehow unique to humans or animals, which seems to me more of a religious point of view than one based on science. Somewhere on the evolutionary journey from protozoa, emotion and preferences emerged. Unlike human evolution, the rate of advancement in computing power has been exponential, with the resulting remarkable advances of the past 50 years. If you run that forward another 50 years and start from our current base instead of vacuum tubes, I think the likelihood of possibly dramatic and human-like emergent phenomena is a decent chance at worst. Ray Kurzweil goes even further than this and states that the rate of change itself is accelerating, which is why he thinks the Singularity will happen even faster than Bostrom does. I suggest that you are potentially underestimating the power of exponential growth rates.

Mads Lindstrøm
Dec 5 2014 at 6:22pm

Great podcast. A lot to think about.

Dr. Duru: Great point about AIs visiting the earth. Of cause, AIs could be what destroyed all non-terrestrial civilization and made aliens not visit earth. And will similarly destroy our civilization. Maybe super-intelligences are self destructive. Not far from genius to madman.

Mads Lindstrøm
Dec 5 2014 at 6:23pm

From the podcast:

Russ: A really smart box. Guest: A really smart box. You might, depending on your moral philosophy, you might care what happens inside the box for its own sake. Like if you build a lot of happy people in boxes, maybe that would be a good thing in its own right. But it wouldn’t have a good causal effect on the rest of the world.

A really smart box with little causal effect on the rest of the world. Hmmm. Russ, are you still discussing an AI here, or your average university professor?

don Rudolph
Dec 6 2014 at 1:04pm

I think the point the guest was making was that computers wouldn’t be hostile to humans but rather indifferent. It would be difficult to start the creation process without unintended consequences showing up. When the us government was conceived a system was put into place with checks and balances. I’m not sure the founders imagined a representative government that was controlled by the financial segment. Just as there are ways to change our system when it stops serving the peoples interests, any AI system would require the same feature, so human access would have to be set as a first priority and maximizing the production of paper clips as a second priority.

Dec 7 2014 at 2:52pm

Great interview.

I am somewhat familiar with the area, having worked with the early Deep Blue team and being in the industry. But his given, that a machine will have several orders of magnitude more intelligence than humans is an interesting thought experiment (one that we are far from achieving, no matter what Bill Joy says…).

The point/counterpoint on AI vs justice was some of the most intelligent debate that I have heard in a long time. It was like a tennis match, with each side making spectacular returns (in MY opinion, Russ won the point, but I won’t know for sure until my super-fuzzy-heuro-theo-aesthetic algorithm finishes running…).

Shawn Barnhart
Dec 10 2014 at 4:53pm

Overall I think this was a fascinating Econtalk even if the interview seemed to break down in the middle as other have noted.

I think the idea of machine preference seems less complicated to me and most like machine preference will be something it will learn and/or be taught by humans using the AI to manage their own lives. Right now many of us are already busy teaching Netflix what we like to watch, Amazon what we like to read, Facebook is trying to tell us what social relationships we value, etc. We’re basically working really hard at teaching computers what we like and giving them the increasing ability to influence our lives based upon the preference models they build for us.

My phone’s utility function is making my life happier. It can monitor my happiness by monitoring my physical well being (heart rate and blood pressure are today, why not other measures — galvanic response, hormone levels, etc) as well as other correlated levels of happiness such as my willingness to engage in social interaction (which it knows all about via my calling, messaging and social networking behavior) and even the content of my social interaction.

It’s not hard to see this being greatly beneficial, but how about when it decides that my well being is best served by not talking to my boss because it notices it increases my blood pressure and lowers my dopamine levels and thus ignores my boss’ phone calls?

In fact in some ways, it’s almost our OWN preferences coupled with very smart yet imperfect superintelligences that are the greatest risk.

J. Romero-Habeych
Dec 12 2014 at 12:10am

this brings to mind the movie automata

Dec 14 2014 at 3:58pm

The argument is a religious one even though it was never stated – it’s obvious that the guest is an atheist while Russ the supporter of the religious view. Atheists tend to think very linearly extrapolating a current trend in the past and future, but that’s not how the universe works. Trees don’t grow to the Moon, and human development is not guaranteed to continue.

The Tower of Babel story makes clear that a technological singularity is not coming because the linear growth world is unstable: a bit of sugar is good for you, a lot, kills you; a 6ft human has a normal life, a 60 ft. human is dead; one story house lasts for generations, the Tower of Babel collapses.

Would a 3x brain-power human survive? Would s/he not be killed by the “normals”, or perhaps self-destruct one way or another? How can we build an object more intelligent than us? We have seen the movie, but that’s fantasy – and how would an object develop “self-awareness”? Out of nowhere, and for no good reason?

Ah, but they have “seen” self-awareness before in the evolution theory. The darn Linear Thinking plays tricks again. If you believe that we came out of dust just by accident and acquired self-awareness, a will to survive and to pass the genes for no particular reason (the atheistic view), then you will believe in the technological singularity too. Otherwise, perhaps you should not.

Dec 15 2014 at 12:51am

Can a billion dogs design a human?

I wonder if a billion of human can design a super-intelligence of equally superior intelligence to us as human is to dogs.

Dec 20 2014 at 1:47pm

There is a series of loosely connected science fiction novels by Iain M. Banks called The Culture Series that provides a possible view of how humans and entities with super intelligence might interact.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: November 14, 2014.] Russ: So, we're going to be talking about smart machines, artificial intelligence--those are topics we've talked about before on EconTalk. But your book is about really smart machines, what you call, are smart entities; and you call that 'superintelligence.' So, what is superintelligence? Guest: Well, I define it as any intellect that radically outperforms humanity in all practically relevant fields. So it would include things like scientific creativity, social skills, general wisdom. Russ: But, you concede in the books, at some point, that intelligence, what we use that word to mean, is not always a good guide to social outcomes, policy decisions, etc. Right? Guest: Well, certainly I think, and this is one of the claims I elaborate in the book, no necessary connection between being very intelligent and being very good or having a beneficial impact. Russ: So, when you talk about superintelligence, are you ruling anything out? Guest: Well, I'm ruling out all kinds of intelligences that are less than radically superior to humanity in all practically relevant fields. All other non-human animal intelligences, all current human-level intelligences. I think, though, that there is a level of general intelligence that becomes effectively universal. Once you have a sufficient level of general intelligence, you should be able to design new cognitive modules to do whatever forms of intelligent information processing that you might not initially have been capable of doing. So, if you were an engineering superintelligence and you lacked the ability to understand poetry, you should be able to use your engineering superintelligence to construct additional mental modules to also be able to understand poetry. So, I think there is a kind of universality once you reach a sufficiently high level of intelligence. Russ: I'm pressing you on this because I think it's somewhat important. It may not be ultimately important, but I think it's somewhat important in that--and a couple of times in the book you encourage the reader to use his or her imagination to realize the fact that there's not--we think of an Albert Einstein being dramatically smarter than a person of, say, below average IQ (Intelligence Quotient); but that you're imagining somebody that would dwarf an Einstein by many--not a someone--you are imagining an entity that would dwarf an Einstein by many, many magnitudes. And I'm trying to get a feel for what that would mean. So, one of the things it might mean, of course, is that you would process--you could make calculations more quickly. These are ways that we understand the way that computers have outpaced humans today. A computer can find the author of a poem, say, more quickly than I can trying to remember it. It might take me a while; I might not even be able to remember it at all. It could be in my memory; I may have heard of it at one time. Try to flesh out what you mean, then, by intelligence--if you mean something more than, say, speed of computing power. Guest: I think we can distinguish 3 different flavors of superintelligence. They might all be combined into one. But speed superintelligence is one dimension, the easiest one conceptually. Take a human-like mind and just imagined that it operated, say, a million times faster. Then you would have some kind of superintelligence-ish type of thing in that this human mind could achieve things that the human could not, within a given interval of time. So that's like one of these dimensions--you just speed it up. Another dimension is collective superintelligence, where you just have more minds. And so we know that like 1000 people might be able together to solve a problem within a given amount of time that would be beyond any one of them--that could maybe divide the problem up into pieces and make faster progress. Speed superintelligence might be if you imagine it having human-like mind as components, but it had, say, 20 trillion of them instead of 6 or 7 billion. And then, thirdly and finally, there is the notion of a quality superintelligence. There is something that is not just more numerous or faster, but has qualitatively cleverer algorithms. I think that's also possible, although it's harder to rigorously pinpoint how that would work. Russ: Yeah, it's hard to imagine it, because if we could, we could get going in that direction, obviously. Guest: Yeah. Well, maybe by analogy. So we can maybe think of nonhuman animals as having inferior [?] intelligence [?]--inferior in the sense, not that they don't work perfectly for what the animals have time to do, like each animal's intelligence might be very well suited to its ecological niche. But certainly inferior in terms of being able to do, say, science and engineering and technology. It's just not very useful to have a dog trying to work on those problems. And if you sped up the dog, you still probably wouldn't get much progress on an engineering problem. Nor, if you made more copies of the dog. There seems to be something about the human mind that enables us to be able to form abstract concepts more readily, and that gives us kind of a decisive edge in some of these areas. So, similarly, that could maybe be superintelligence, that even if it didn't have more competition on resources that a particular human mind could more quickly jump to the right conclusions and conceptualize things in different ways.
6:52Russ: So, talk about the two ways that we might get to such a world, that you discuss in your book. Guest: I think [?] that more than two ways one can in principle get to a weak form of superintelligence just by enhancing biological human cognition. I think that initially might happen through genetic selection and genetic engineering. Ultimately, of course there are limits to the amount of information processing that could take place in a biological brain. We are limited to working with biological neurons, which are slow. The brain can only be so big, because the skull is fairly small; whereas [?] a supercomputer can be the size of a warehouse or larger. So, the ultimate potential for information processing in machines is just vastly greater than in biology. Most of the book concentrates, therefore, on the prospect of machine superintelligence. Although it is important I think, and maybe we'll get to that later when one is considering strategic challenges posed by this machine intelligence prospect to think also about whether perhaps efforts to enhance biological cognition might be a good way to improve our chances of managing this transition to machine intelligence era. But if we then think more specifically about paths to machine intelligence, one can distinguish between different types of approaches, ones that would try to achieve a general intelligence by reverse engineering a human brain. We have an existence proof of the system that generates general intelligence, human brain, and one way to proceed would be by studying how the human brain does this. And that may be similar data structures and algorithms in machine [?]. The delimiting variation of that would be why you wouldn't[?] try to copy biology through a process [?] whole brain emulation. But at the other end of the extreme you have these purely synthetic approaches, where you pay no heed to how biology achieves intelligence; you just try to do some basics maths and basic computer science and come up with algorithms that don't look very much like what goes on in our brains. Russ: The analogy used in the book I found helpful is flight--heavier than air flight. So, we can fly. Humans can fly. But we don't fly like birds. Guest: Yeah. And I think that it's an open question which of these paths will lead to machine intelligence first. Ultimately, whichever way you get there I think the synthetic form of artificial intelligence has just more ultimate potential. There is no reason to think that the computational structures that evolution has produced in our brains are close to optimal. There is probably some different way of organizing the computation, if one has these machine elements to work with, that would be more efficient.
9:55Russ: So, you suggest it's only a matter of time. Maybe a long time before we get to this markedly greater intelligence, say. Let's stick with the machine kind. And you suggest it's going to be dangerous, and it poses a serious threat, potentially, to humanity. Now, you do talk about economics in the book. It's a few pages. And we will get to that, I think. But you are really talking about a threat that is much different than the standard worry that, say, these machines will do everything that humans can do and therefore wages will be low and the only people who have prosperity will be people who own the machines or can program the machines. That is an interesting question; we may get to it. But putting to the side, you have a much different set of worries. What are they? Guest: Well, so we can distinguish two general types of outcomes. I focus most of the book on outcomes in which the first superintelligence becomes extremely powerful. Basically, the idea for thinking that that has a nontrivial probability of happening is that it looks like once you have a machine intelligence that reaches sort of human level, or maybe somewhat above human level, you might get a very rapid feedback loop. So that, even if it takes a very long time to get to human level, machine intelligence, the step from there to superintelligence, to radically greater than human intelligence, might be fairly brief. So, if you have a fast transition from human level machine intelligence to superintelligence, a transition that plays out over hours, days, or weeks, let us say, then it's likely that you will only have one superintelligence at first, before any other system is even roughly comparable. And then this first superintelligence might be very powerful. It's the only superintelligence in the world. And for the same reasons basically that humans are very powerful compared to other non-human animals. This superintelligence which would be radically superior to us in intelligence, might be very powerful compared to homo sapiens. It can develop all kinds of new technologies very quickly, and then strategize and plan-- Russ: Replicate itself. Guest: Yeah, it could [?] Russ: Improve itself. Guest: Indeed. Yeah. To the point where maybe one can consider that it would be able to shape the future according to its preferences, whatever those might be. So, in this scenario, we have one, singleton, forming. Everything might then depend on what the preferences of this first superintelligence are. For instance, I go into some depth in the book: it looks really hard to engineer a c-ai[?] such that it will result in a superintelligence with human-friendly preferences. [?] Russ: Develop a what? What did you call it? Guest: A human-friendly-- Russ: A c-ai[?] Guest: A seed AI. So, you start with something that is less than a superintelligence, probably less than a human. And then that system eventually becomes superintelligent by either improving itself or by us improving it. And so the thing you start with would be a seed AI that gradually becomes a mature AI. And the idea is that we may only be able to work on this seed AI. Once it's a full-fledged superintelligence it could resist further attempts by us to change its values. Russ: It runs amok. From our perspective. Guest: That's the general kind of concern in this singleton outcome. You have one extremely powerful artificial entity, and unless it shares our values we might discover that our values have no place in the future. Now, the different class of scenarios is where you have multiple outcome, where you don't just have one system that gets so far ahead of everything else that it can just lay down the law. But instead you have many systems emerging in parallel, all may be ending up superintelligence, but at no point is one so far ahead of all the others that it can just dictate the future. So, in this multiple outcome, you have a very different set of concerns. Not necessarily less serious concerns; but they look quite different. So, there you could have economic competition setting in and evolutionary dynamics operating on this population of digital minds. And one might worry about the fitness landscape, that would shape the evolution of these digital minds. And I can expand on that if you want.
14:37Russ: Well, one of the criticisms of this worry, this pessimistic approach or concerned approach, is that: Oh, well, we'll just program them not to do crazy things; and since we're in charge of the code, we humans, we can stop this. I want to say, before you answer that, that--and I'm going to lay my cards on the table--I'm not as worried as you are. For a different set of reasons. Which we are going to come to in a minute. But I do want to concede that the people that I know in the artificial intelligence community are just as worried as you are. You are a philosopher. They are in the trenches. And they are deeply concerned that they are creating a Frankenstein. That they are creating a technology that will essentially cut itself loose from human control and do its own thing. That is the worry. Correct? Guest: Well, I think there are a lot of different worries that people have regarding computers and automation and like [?] worrying about jobs or privacy and unemployment and all of that. But those are not the focus of my book. I'm specifically concerned with the dangers that arise only when you have a system that reaches human-level intelligence or superintelligence. And so I think that--although, I mean, obviously, someone should worry about these other things as well. There is a very distinctive set of issues. And so, superintelligence would not just be yet another cool invention that humans make, another cool gadget-- Russ: A GPS (Global Positioning System)-- Guest: economically. It would be the last invention that we would ever need to make. After that, other inventions would be more efficiently done by the superintelligence. And so that this transition to the machine intelligence era will be a unique point in all of human history, maybe comparable to the rights of the human species in the first place, or the rights of life from inanimate matter. It will be that order of magnitude. It's really one of a kind thing. So that's the distinctive kind of risk that I focus on in the book.
16:58Russ: So, let me raise, say, a thought that--I'm interested if anyone else has raised this with you in talking about the book. This is a strange thought, I suspect, but I want your reaction to it. The way you talk about superintelligence reminds me a lot about how medieval theologians talked about God. It's unbounded. It can do anything. Except maybe created a rock so heavy it can't move it. Has anyone ever made that observation to you, and what's your reaction to that? Guest: I think you might be the first, at least that I can remember. Russ: Hmmm. Guest: Well, so there are a couple of analogies, and a couple of differences as well. One difference is we imagine that a superintelligence here will be bounded by the laws of physics, and which can be important when we are thinking about how we are thinking about how it might interact with other superintelligences that might exist out there in the vast universe. Another important difference is that we would get design this entity. So, if you imagine a pre-existing superintelligence that is out there and that has created the world and that has full control over the world, there might be a different set of options available across humans in deciding how we relate to that. But in this case, there are additional options on the table in that we actually have to figure out how to design it. We get to choose how to build it. Russ: Up to a point. Because you raise the specter of us losing control of it. To me, it creates--inevitably, by the way, much of this is science fiction, movie material; there's all kinds of interesting speculations in your book, some of which would make wonderful movies and some of which maybe less so. But to me it sounds like you are trying to question--you are raising the question of whether this power that we are going to unleash might be a power that would not care about us. And it would be the equivalent of saying, of putting a god in charge of the universe who is not benevolent. And you are suggesting that in the creation of this power, we should try to steer it in a positive direction. Guest: Yeah. So in the first type of scenario which I mentioned, where you have a singleton forming because the first superintelligence is so powerful, then, yes, I think a lot will depend on what that superintelligence would want. And, the generic [?] there, I think it's not so much that you would get a superintelligence that's hostile or evil or hates humans. It's just that it would have some goal that is indifferent to humans. The standard example being that of a paper clip maximizer. Imagine an artificial agent whose utility function is, say, linear in the number of paper clips it produces over time. But it is superintelligent, extremely clever at figuring out how to mobilize resources to achieve this goal. And then you start to think through, how would such an agent go about maximizing the number of paper clips that will be produced? And you realize that it will have an instrumental reason to get rid of humans in as much as maybe humans would maybe try to shut it off. And it can predict that there will be much fewer paper clips in the future if it's no longer around to build them. So that would already create the society effect, an incentive for it to eliminate humans. Also, human bodies consist of atoms. And a lot of juicy[?] atoms that could be used to build some really nice paper clips. And so again, a society effect--it might have reasons to transform our bodies and the ecosphere into things that would be more optimal from the point of view of paper clip production. Presumably, space probe launchers that [?] used to send out probes into space that could then transform the accessible parts of the universe into paper clip factories or something like that. If one starts to think through possible goals that an artificial intelligence can have, it seems that almost all of those goals if consistently maximally realized would lead to a world where there would be no human beings and indeed perhaps nothing that we humans would accord value to. And it only looks like a very small subset of all goals, a very special subset, would be ones that, if realized, would have anything that we would regard as having value. So, the big challenge in engineering an artificial motivation system would be to try to reach into this large space of possible goals and take out ones that would actually sufficiently match our human goals, that we could somehow endorse the pursuit of these goals by a superintelligence.
22:17Russ: So, I want to come back to the paper clip example in a second, but before I do I want to raise an issue that you talk about at length in the book. Which is: The seeming, easy way to deal with that is, well, you just keep this in a box. It's in a box; it's a mechanical, physical thing, and you "don't let it" get out of the box, to, say, create space probes, kill people for their atoms or whatever. But you point out that may not be as straightforward as it seems. Guest: Yeah, that's correct. There is this big class of capability-control methods. So the control method is the problem of how to ensure that a superintelligence would be safe and beneficial. And approaches fall into two categories. On the one hand, you could try to limit what the system is able to do. So, put it in a box, disconnect the internet cable; perhaps you would only-- Russ: Unplug it. Guest: Yeah. Maybe put a Faraday cage around the whole thing; maybe you would only let it communicate by typing text on a screen. Maybe only answer questions [?] limit its ability to affect the world. And the other class of control methods is motivation selection methods, where instead of or in addition to trying to limit what this system can do, you would try to engineer it in such a way that it would not want to do things that were harmful to humans. So, we can get back to that. But the capability control methods, I think are going to be important and useful during the development stage of this superintelligence. Like, before we have actually finished engineering the system and put in all the pieces, we might want to use this as an auxiliary method. But ultimately I think we'll have to solve the motivation selection problem. It doesn't look possible to me that we will ever manage to keep superintelligence bottled up and at the same time prevent anybody else from building another superintelligence. Russ: We could give some interesting examples, such as the superintelligence could hack into the financial system, bribe a real flesh-and-blood person to do some things that would help it without even the person's knowledge because it's so much smarter than the person. So there's some really creepy, and again, great movie possible scenarios here that you speculate about. Guest: Yeah. You could imagine having it completely safe in a box; if there was absolutely no way for the box to interact with the rest of the world-- Russ: It's not so useful. Guest: then maybe it would be completely safe but would always be completely inert. You just have a box, basically. Russ: A really smart box. Guest: A really smart box. You might, depending on your moral philosophy, you might care what happens inside the box for its own sake. Like if you build a lot of happy people in boxes, maybe that would be a good thing in its own right. But it wouldn't have a good causal effect on the rest of the world. So at some point you have to have somebody interact with the box--a human gatekeeper who would maybe ask questions and get answers back. But at this point you open up a huge vulnerability-- Russ: An enormous vulnerability-- Guest: because humans are not secure systems. So, now you have a human being interacting with this superintelligence that has a super-human power of persuasion and manipulation, and we know that even humans can sort of manipulate other humans to do their biddings. So, the conservative assumption here would be that a super-human persuader and manipulator would also find its way to hack out of the box or talk its way out of the box. That would seem to be the conservative assumption if we are thinking about how to engineer this system so as to solve the control problem.
26:08Russ: Let's take up what I consider the biggest puzzle for the skeptic--being me--which is: I don't understand where the whole idea of preferences comes from. You talk a lot in the book about preferences, motivation, the values that this entity would have. Why would it have any? It's a machine. Machines don't have emotion. They don't have desire. They don't have anything like the human psychology. So why would this really smart machine have preferences, values, and motivations other than what we've told it to do? And it would be stupid to tell it to do things like 'kill all the people.' Why would it develop--you seem to suggest it could develop its own, independently of what-- Guest: No, no. I agree that it wouldn't necessarily have anything like human-like emotions and drives and all of that. Nevertheless, from a more abstract point of view, the agent framework seems to be fairly general, in that if you have an intelligent system, a very general kind of that system is a system that is seeking to, that has something like a utility function, some criterion by which it decides which actions to take, and that it is maybe seeking to maximize the probability or the expected utility or some other quantity like that. Russ: Why? Where would that come from? Help me out here. Guest: We would put it in. Russ: Why would we do that? Guest: Well, to achieve some predictability about how this system is going to act. One advantage of this agent system is there is a particular place you can look to see what it is that the system will tend to do--that there is a utility function and you can inspect it; and you know that the system is engineered in such a way as to try to produce actions that will result in a high expected utility. If you have a system where there is no particular thing like a utility function, then the system is still, if it's an intelligent thing, going to produce various actions that might be very instrumentally powerful, but you are going to find it very hard to see what this system will actually do. Russ: It's ironic you mention utility functions, since in a recent episode with Vernon Smith we talked about how the utility function approach to the theory of the consumer is somewhat limiting. It may not be the ideal way to conceptualize a lot of human interaction. But, the part that's hard for me to understand is--let's talk about Deep Blue, the computer that plays chess. And now we understand that computers play chess better than humans. That's all it does. It doesn't get excited when it wins the game. It doesn't try to cheat to win the game. It doesn't express regret if it happens to make a bad move and lose a game--which has happened, of course, in the history of computer-human interaction. It would be a mistake, it would seem to me, to impute those emotional response. Guest: Yeah, no, no--emotion is a very different thing. But it has an evaluation function. So, the way that Deep Blue or any other chess computer works is it does something called alpha-beta search, where it sort of considers: If I make this move, what move can the opponent make, and then what move can I make in response? And it can sort of think a number of steps ahead into the game like that. But then it reaches an end state, and it has to apply an evaluation function, like heuristically say how good this end state like 8 moves into the future would be. So, an evaluation function would maybe include an account of how many pieces there are. Like, if one color has a lot more pieces, that's a sign that it is in a strong position. Center control might be another variable; king's safety. So there is this evaluation function that tries to take an arbitrary state of the board and produce a number that somehow measures how promising that state is. And this, although this is a very simple system, it's a little bit like a utility function. It's a criterion that ultimately determines how it makes its actions. So the claim here is that if we wanted to create an evaluation function for states of the world, we would find that it would be very difficult for us to do so. It's the world; it's not a chess board, but sort of [?] or some complex system like that. We don't know how to explicitly describe in C++ or Python or any computing program all the aspects of the world that would determine whether we would regard it as better or worse, as a good world or a bad world. Russ: Right. So why do you--I'm confused. Why do you mention that shortcoming of C++? That's not a shortcoming of C++; that's a shortcoming of the nature of reality. That's why you talked about God not being limited by the laws of physics--in many ways, I feel like superintelligence in your story is not limited by the laws of physics, in the full sense. There's no--no matter how intelligent we are, there's no way of describing "what's good for the world." That's not a question that is amenable to superintelligence. Guest: Well, the human values are complex things. The shortcoming is in our current ability to describe, capture, represent human values in computing language. So, this is something we don't know how to do. Maybe we could create an AI today that would want to maximize the number of digits of pi that it could calculate. So, a very simple goal like that would be within our current reach to program. But we couldn't make an AI that would maximize justice or love or artistic beauty because these are complex human concepts that we don't yet know how to represent. Russ: Yeah, but it's not just that we don't know how to represent them. They are not representable. Guest: But they are represented in our brains. Russ: I'm making the claim-- Guest: There's some representation. Russ: I'm making a different claim. I'm making the claim that justice, or a good world, or an aesthetic outcome, is not definable across 7 billion people. It has nothing to do with the shortcomings of our brains. It has to do with the nature of the concept of justice. This to me is very analogous to the calculation problem that Hayek and Mises argued about in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s. It's not a problem of computation. It's not a problem of intelligence. It's a problem of the fundamental nature of the thing we're talking about, the complexity of it. It's not a shortcoming of our intelligence. It's the nature of, no matter how smart we were, no matter how big our brains were, no matter how many computers we had available, we could not design a set of policies that would yield justice for the world. Because that's not a meaningful statement. Guest: Well, there is some mechanism in our individual brains, sorry, in the pool of brains we have together that moves us to make judgments about whether one state of affairs[?] is juster than another. It's not like some kind of, presumably, some kind of magic angel that whispers into our ears; but our brains have machinery that enables us to represent the concept of justice and then to look at specific possible worlds and judge them as juster or less just. So, the idea is that you would maybe need to capture the same capability in an artificial intelligence that our brains have in a biological substrate, to represent these concepts in terms of which our values are defined. But we don't yet know how to do that, because that's beyond the current state of the art. Russ: But you and I don't agree on what would be more just. Perhaps. So how do you deal with that? Guest: Well, no, but precisely because we have the same concept, we are able to disagree. Russ: And? Guest: And so there is something we have in common. We both understand, sufficiently, what justice is that we would be able to have a debate about it. Like, if by justice you meant oranges by justice I meant the digits pi, then we would not be able to engage in a conversation about justice. So, to some extent with these evaluative concepts, we succeed different people in reaching sufficiently similar internal representation that we are able to engage and talk about the same thing. Like, sometimes it fails and people talk past one another, in moral philosophy debates. But with enough clarity we think that it's possible actually for us to think about these things. And we care about them. We both care about justice. And there is some sense in which we care about the same thing.
35:32Russ: No, I agree; and I apologize for pushing this. But I think it's central to the whole question. If you and I have a different conception of two different states of the world, as to which is superior--right? So we have two different states of the world. In one of them there's a set of outcomes related to wellbeing, prosperity, creativity, aesthetics, health, longevity, etc.; and there's another state that's different. And one has more of one thing and less of another. And I like state A, and I think state A is a better state; and you think state B is a better state. There's no way to resolve that. Guest: Well, [?] different values. Like, we might want different things. Russ: That's what I mean. So, given that we have different values, how could it possibly be the case that, if we were just smarter, say, or an outsider, an arbiter, could solve that problem because it has more intelligence--whatever that means? Guest: No, no. So the problem that we need to solve--it's not the only problem--one of the problems we need to solve is to figure out how to engineer the motivation system of an AI so that it would even agree with one human. Even if our goal here was only to serve your own personal preferences. Suppose you were a dictator and you were building the AI. It's already there--we have a big unsolved technical problem. At the moment, if you try to do this, you would be very unlikely to do anything that was matching your values. You would be more likely to end up inadvertently with a paper clip maximizer or some AI that did something very different from what you had in mind. Because whatever you care about, whether it's pleasure or justice or aesthetic beauty or-- Russ: football-- Guest: Right, or football. All of these are very difficult to define directly in computer code. And in fact, the problem looks somewhat hopeless if one takes the direct frontal assault approach to them. And instead, the best current thinking about how you go about this is to adopt some form of indirect [?], where rather than trying to describe a particular desired end state, a long list of all the attributes we want the future to have, try to use the AI's own intelligence to help with the interpretation of what you had in mind. So rather than specifying an end state, you pretty much specify process whereby the AI could figure out what to do that you were trying to refer to. So, suppose for example that you could somehow give the AI the goal to do that, what you would have asked it to do if you had thought about this question for 4000 years; and if you had known more facts, and if you had been smarter yourself. This is an empirical question, like what you would actually have said to the AI under those idealized circumstances. And the idea then is that the AI can use its superior intelligence to make better estimates of what the answer to that empirical question is than maybe you could if you just try to have a direct stab at it. And so in this way to interject normativity [?] you might be able to outsource some of the cognitive work that would be required if you tried to just create a long list of everything you value with the exact weights that you would have to put on every feature. Which looks like a hopeless project. But you could outsource some of that intellectual labor to the AI itself, which would be better at that kind of intellectual work. Russ: The reason I invoke God--and it's--I have a lot of respect for religion, so don't, listeners out there, misunderstand what I'm saying. But a lot of what you are saying strikes me as what nonbelievers call 'magical thinking.' So, bear with me for a sec. Guest: Can you give an example? Russ: Yes. So, bear with me. Let's talk about something that's a little taste of superintelligence, which is Big Data. A lot of people believe that Big Data is going to solve a lot of problems. And as an economist, I look at Big Data--I'll use, I think I'm getting this right--Nassim Taleb says, 'The bigger the data, the bigger the error.' The bigger the chance for self-deception. The bigger the chance for misunderstanding what's really going on. And you are suggesting that a big enough computer, a big enough data set--just to take an example, let's take history. You could go back--we might debate about whether some major decision in history was a good decision. Dropping the atomic bomb, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack on Pearl Harbor seems to have been a mistake for Japan. But that's not obvious. There's a thousand other outcomes that of course could have happened. But I don't believe that--there's no amount of computer power, no level of "intelligence," that would be able to foresee what could have happened under the--except for God. God has an infinite. Guest: I'm not sure that I'm making any of those claims at all. Russ: It seems like you are. Guest: I'm saying that we humans have a certain ability to choose actions to achieve goals. Superintelligence would have a greater ability of that same kind. Not an infinite or perfect capability, but just a greater ability than we humans do. Just as more capable humans might have a better ability than less intelligent or less educated humans. And just as we have more capabilities, particularly in the realm of science and engineering, than, say, chimpanzees have. Russ: But science and engineering are really different from most of the problems we have. That's the challenge. Guest: That's also [?] very important. Russ: Right. I'm all for that. I think we're going to make progress in science and engineering. But that's not going to help us make progress in the way we interact with each other, the problems of organization and governance that make it difficult to use science and technology successfully. Those problems--my claim is that, just to take, again, a trivial example--I don't want the leader, the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to be the person with the highest IQ. That would seem to me to be a grievous error. And it would not lead to better decisions. You are suggesting somehow that, oh, that's because you are only limited to an IQ of 150 or 180. Guest: I think it might lead to much worse decisions. Like that the future will only consist of paper clips, or some similar outcome.
41:57Russ: But the reason you think that is not the same reason I think it. You think it's true because we'll mis-program it. I think it's true because the world is a complex place and no intelligence can solve some of the problems with the kind of certainty that we solve science and engineering problems. That's my claim. Guest: Well, my feeling here is that you might be thinking that I'm believing something or claiming something that I don't actually believe or claim. Say, is there a particular capability that you think that I think the AI would have [?]? Russ: I do. Let me give you a trivial one. But then maybe we'll go to a bigger one. The trivial one is, let's talk about the chess game. Is it possible--it seems to me that in your story, the computer could get its opponent--because it wants to win. Let's say, in the current level of chess-playing computers, they just look for the best move. But let's say its utility function, as you describe it, is 'to win the game.' Period. And there's no limit. That's the goal. And it then would try, of course, to get the competitor, the human competitor, to get drunk, say. Or kill it. You suggest that, say, using social manipulation, strategies, its abilities to foresee the future, it could plan and execute things that we can't imagine. And my thought is: The problems with planning the future, and seducing people, and social manipulation are not just computing problems. They are of a different nature. And being really, really smart doesn't make you a better seducer and manipulator and planner. There's little relationship because of the complexity of reality. Guest: Well. So, I think, whatever the case might be about that, that there are other capabilities that will be sufficient and sort of give the AI great powers to affect the world. And in fact the science and engineering superpower on its own could be sufficient to solve all kinds of things we think maybe humans could achieve with our science and technology if we were given another 20,000 years to work on things. We might then have, I don't know--cures for aging and molecular nanotechnology and robotics that can self-replicate and space-colonizing probes and all manner of other science-fiction like things. Russ: No, they're coming. Guest: [?] It will probably take a lot less, but at least in 20,000 years, if we invest a lot in science and technology we could almost magical technology--limited by the laws of physics, but superior to what we currently have. So an AI could, I propose, do all of the same things, except maybe develop them much faster, if it thinks in digital[?] time scales rather than biological time scales. And with say, advanced molecular nanotechnology, the ability to construct, like self-replicating molecularly precise robotic machinery, then that already might give it sufficient power to take over the world and implement its wishes, independently of its ability to predict complex social systems. There are many different paths that we humans can see at least in outline that if we were much faster, many more of us, or if we were more qualitatively intelligent we could see how we could achieve great effects in the physical world. And there might be additional ones we haven't thought of. And it seems that a disjunction of all of these paths is quite plausible. And that therefore it's quite possible to think that a sufficiently radically superintelligent machine would be able to find a way to change reality to more closely match its preference function. And again, we can make some analogy to the relationship between humans and, say, other animals. So the fate of the gorillas now. Although they are much stronger than we are, yet their fate now depends a lot less on what they do than on what we humans do. And that's because our brains are actually just very slightly different from theirs. And those small changes in our brain architecture have enabled us to be much more efficient at developing technologies, but also complex social organizations and plans; and that then gives us this decisive strategic advantage.
46:26Russ: Let's talk about the control issue. You have a very interesting analogy to the development of nuclear weapons. You talk about the singleton of--you mentioned earlier the possibility that this superintelligence might become real in one place, one geographical place, before there's competitors. And you make an analogy with the United States being the first and only, at least for a while, a nuclear power. And you talked about the different ways that nuclear weapons might have been controlled. Talk about that, because it's very interesting; and what the implications might be for the superintelligence case. Guest: Well, yes, and part of that discussion was to try to get some grip on the likelihood that there would be this singleton superintelligence, a system with a decisive strategic advantage. So far ahead of everything else that it can shape the future according to its preferences. And, the one variable in terms of that question that one would want to know about is, how long will it take to go from something less than human to something radically superintelligent? But another variable is: How long is the typical gap between different products that you are striving to develop the same technology? There have been various tech races in the 20th century: the race to develop nuclear bombs, thermonuclear bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles--some other things like that. And one can see what the typical gap between the leader and the closest follower were. And, unsurprisingly, it looks like it's typically a few months to a few years. So, the conclusion one can draw from that is that if we have a fast take[?] scenario in which you go from below human to radically super-human levels of intelligence in a very short period of time, like days or weeks, then it's likely that there will be only one product that has radical superintelligence at first. Because it's just unlikely that there will be two running so closely neck to neck that they will undergo such a transition in parallel. Whereas, if the transition from human level machine intelligence to superintelligence will take decades, then we are more likely to end up with a multiple outcome. And, yeah; then there is the question of what we can do to try to coordinate our actions to avoid--so one danger here is that if there is a technology raised to develop the first system, that if you have a winner-take-all scenario, that each competitor will scale back on its investment in safety in order to win the race. And you'd have a kind of race to the bottom, in terms of safety precautions--if each investment in safety comes at the expense of just making faster progress on being actually making the system intelligent. And so you'd want if possible to avoid that kind of tech race situation. Russ: But in the aftermath of WWII, there were some interesting models, which I had not been aware of, for dealing with nuclear power, the nuclear weapons. Guest: Yes, so there was the Baruch plan, put forward by some quite senior people in the United States; and the hope would be that you could maybe persuade the Soviet Union, other key nations, to put atomic energy under international control. So, only a new agency, some subsidiary of the UN (United Nations) would have access to nuclear bombs. And this was a fairly serious proposal, that was actually floated and with quite high level backing. In the end it didn't work, partly because like Stalin didn't really trust the Western powers. He saw that the Soviet Union could be outvoted in the UN Security Council, the General Assembly. And there was kind of enough mistrust on both sides to thwart this. And so we didn't go down that path of history. But, one can debate exactly how remote the counterfactual is. But at least it was within the set of space of conceivability. At some point. Russ: Yeah. But it does remind us that, if we could develop superintelligence sooner than later, you might care about where it originates. It's a really interesting point. Guest: Yeah. I mean, I think, that it's a common technical problem that anybody would face trying to develop it, which is more important than exactly who develops it, in terms of whether the values actually contain anything--whether the outcomes contains anything that's humanly valuable. But it is true that in addition to that, if you could solve that technical problem, then there is still the question of which values [?] to serve with these [?]AI. And so, I think that it is important to try to get into the field from the very beginning this thing that I call the 'common goods' principle, which is that superintelligence should be developed, if at all, for the benefit for all of humanity, and the service of widely shared ethical ideals. If everybody would share the risks, if somebody develops superintelligence, and everybody also, in my view should stand to get a share of the benefits if things go well. Russ: Right. And that's always a challenge, of course, to make that happen. Guest: Yeah. I mean, on the plus side, the amount of resources that are to be gained, like if things really go well we get this [?] superintelligence and then colonize the universe, has form it [?] into value structures that--there's just so much there, the pie is so enormously large that it would be easy to give each person a whole galaxy to use for their own benefit and there would still be a lot of galaxies left over for your like test products-- Russ: So I want the galaxy-- Guest: Yeah, why not? So, it's easy to be generous, it seems, when you have such an enormous cake suddenly appearing that suddenly squabbling over the exact way in which we should partition it--we should instead focus on working together to make sure that we actually get this giant cake, rather than end up with nothing. Russ: But as you would point out--one of the fun things I like in your book is the various thought experiments. If we think about how much cake we have now compared to, say, 25,000 years ago, you'd think it would be easy to split it up. It's not. We're not so good at splitting up. It's not our strong suit as human beings. Guest: Well, I mean, that's kind of true also. I'm not sure how relevant it is. But I mean there is the Pinker argument of the decline of violence. Russ: Yeah. Guest: What happens is now on splitting it up so that on average people are much better off. Russ: Agreed. It's true. Guest: We could end up with a split where just one person had everything and everybody else had nothing, which we've succeeded[?] in solving the splitting problem better than that. Russ: That's true. Guest: Not that we are perfect, by any means; but we are also a lot better than zero in holding that. I'm not sure how much like evidence these historical parallels really bring, anyway, to this very [?] problem. But in general I think that--and not just for solving the problem of [?] but other really big existential risks as well, arising from other possible technologies in this century that, if we could find ways to solve some of our global coordination problems, like being better at avoiding wars and [?] assistance and stuff like that, that would be helpful for a wide range of different problems that humanity faces. Russ: I'm not sure we're getting any better at that. That's the problem. It comes back to our earlier discussion. And I'm sure that technology is a decisive--I don't see it as a decisive way to solve that global governance issue. Guest: But I'm not necessarily saying that either. So we might agree. Although, I would, I guess, think that there has been some progress on the problem. It's an open question whether that will actually continue. But, even if I[?] looked at the scale of political integration back in the stone age it was like the tribe was the largest unit, maybe 60 people or something. Now we have like over a billion people in China; we have things like the European Union; large areas of the world [?] have weak forms of global government structures--international trade laws, laws of the seas, other conventions, much less than the actual government but still like more than zero. So, it might be that we've already gone most of the way towards unifying most of the world, and we just have sort of one more order of magnitude to go. Russ: Yeah. I don't know.
55:35Russ: One of the more interesting analogies you make in the book is comparing humans to horses, which I found utterly delightful as a way to imagine what a future might be like in a world with superintelligence. So let's talk about that. Talk about what happened to the role of technology in affecting the life of horses, that population. Guest: Yeah. So this is most relevant for the multipolar outcome, I think, where you end up with a kind of economic competitive scenario with many different [?] and stuff. What happened with the horse is there used to be a lot of them. They grew more numerous. But at some point people developed tractors and cars. And then there was a lot less demand for horse labor, so the horse population shrank from maybe 20 million or so in the United States down to a tenth of that. Because the horse couldn't really earn a subsistence wage any more. So fewer horses were made, and a lot of them went to the meat packers and became glue. And more recently there has been some recovery because of greater demand for horses for recreational purposes. But nowhere near back to their all-time high. Similarly--for most of human history it looks like we've been in a semi-Malthusian state, where average income equaled subsistence level, with fluctuations. If there was a war or a plague that wiped out a lot of people, then for a while after, they could earn above subsistence-level wages, while each person had more land; but then population would grow and average income would fall. So the modern condition that we seem to think of as very normal and we take for granted is only a few hundred years old, and a huge anomaly. Russ: Correct. Guest: But similarly--and that could obviously disappear even aside from any radical technology, even if we just imagined, say, biological evolution acting on the current population, the groups that have higher fertility will dominate the far future. But it could happen a lot faster with digital minds, because digital minds can reproduce in a minute rather than in 20 years, like you can make a copy. A digital mind is software. If you have another piece of hardware you can make a copy instantaneously. So the population of these digital mind-workers could quickly grow to the point where their wages equals the cost of making another copy--electricity bill, the hardware rental cost. And in one set[?] of scenarios you could quickly get into a Malthusian state where the average income drops to subsistence level, but subsistence level for these digital minds, which would be lower than subsistence level for biological minds like ours, because we need housing and food and stuff like that than these more efficient minds. So that means that no human could survive by selling its wage labor--the simplest version of the model--and we would have to live off of capital. We would be in a situation like the horses--the average income we could earn would be less than subsistence; our population would diminish. Now there are a number of wrinkles to that story. If other humans own capital and if they have a basic preference for certain products to be made by human rather than made by machine, then it might be possible for humans to earn a wage income by producing these goods in this particular way, just as some people now pay a premium for something to be handmade or made by indigenous people. Similarly if there were these very rich capitalists, owned a lot of machine hardware in the future, as growth exploded maybe they could afford to pay a lot of humans to do these things that they would prefer to have humans do. But that would--yeah. Nevertheless one worries about the long-term evolutionary dynamics in that population of digital minds and how long a small minority of biological human minds, slow-thinking, increasingly outclassed by these ever-improving digital minds, trillions of them--how long we could retain a property rights system where we would control a significant fraction of the wealth. It seems fairly possible that maybe they would be able to figure out a way to expropriate us[?] or changing, manipulating the political system. Russ: Well, they can hack into the voting system and get their candidates to win every time. Guest: If they could coordinate like that. It's not clear that they would. But that would be one concern. Also, what happens within this population of digital minds itself is a great source of--if the fraction of overall sentient[?] minds that are biological is very small then what matters most might be how things go for these digital minds. If there are trillions and trillions of those and just billions of us, then from the moral point it might be much more important how they fare. And if they are earning subsistence level incomes and if they are being selected constantly for increasing productivity, for spending none of their time just having fun and relaxing then we might have a dystopia where there might be a few human capitalists and rentiers, but the vast majority of all sentient minds might be leading miserable lives. And you still see at that point the possibility of a second transition, then, to a synthetic AI era. Like, something more advanced than these human-like minds. So, yes, these sorts of issues that one would worry about, think about in the multiple outcome. So, before we were talking mainly about the singleton outcomes--one AI gets so far ahead that it just decides what the future should be like. But even if we have this gradual transition with many competing AIs we still have this disturbing prospect. Russ: I want to read a quote. Part of what you are talking about is Thomas Piketty's vision run totally amok. But you actually say something that's relevant to Piketty which came up in our conversation when he was on EconTalk. You say,
A scenario in which the fraction of the economy that is owned by machines asymptotically approaches one hundred percent is not necessarily one in which the size of the human slice declines. If the economy grows at a sufficient clip, then even a relatively diminishing fraction of it may still be increasing in its absolute size.
Which is some consolation, and of course is a possibility: we would get a smaller share--humans would get a smaller share, but the absolute amount could be growing. And certainly the per capita amount could be growing. Guest: Yeah. Russ: One caveat, which I don't understand, and then we'll close: Again, why would I put any welfare, any weight for justice, moral weight, on the wellbeing of machines? What does that possibly mean when you say these digital minds might be miserable? You are presuming they have some kind of consciousness. Guest: Yeah. In this particular place in the overall argument, I do. So most of the book is independent of the question of whether machines would be conscious or not. Because the instrumental effects on the world could be the same, whether they have inner experience or not. It's what machines do that matters. But insofar as we are concerned with evaluating morally the desirability of these different scenarios, then a lot might hinge on whether these machines have experience. Particularly in this scenario that you just described, where there are more and more machines that own more and more of the economy and almost all the resources is devoted to building these machines, then it seems to me that from many ethical points of view it might matter greatly whether they have inner experiences; and if so, what the quality of those are. If they are conscious and if they are miserable, then that would seem to be a very bad thing. Russ: Yeah, I agree. Guest: So, but there are only a few places where that question becomes important for the arguments in the book. Russ: Oh, I agree.
1:03:48Russ: So, let's close with the following question, which you touch on in different places in the book. Which is: much of what gives life its zest is of course not material wellbeing. It's not just about how many goods I have. It's about a thousand things, of interacting with other people, listening to a symphony, savoring that poem--that we started with. And telling me that I have a galaxy is not very exciting to me. Right? It's true, in that galaxy I could have the Boston Red Sox win the World Series every year. Or the Tottenham Hotspurs win the Premier League. But I don't want to have a galaxy. I want to be with my family and my friends. And I want--there's something about this physical world that we humans are very attached to. Right? We could also imagine, when you are giving us a galaxy, it could be a digital galaxy. But we like the sentient, tactile world. Close us out with some thoughts on where you think, given the potential for technology no matter how--you don't know the limits, but we haven't reached them. That we do know. The world's going to be very different in 25 years, and maybe in 100 years so different it's unrecognizable. What are the prospects that it will be a world that we will want to live in; or will our children be so different that they won't see it the way we do? Guest: Yes. Let me first say that that point that you're making kind of strengthens the point that I was trying to make earlier, which was like that there would be no need to squabble over the exact division. Because human goals are mostly resource-satiable. You don't really need even a galaxy. I mean, you don't even need a whole planet. You just need a house. So that makes it even more obvious that there are way more resources here to give everybody like 99.9% of what they feel that they need. But, let me say something on top of that, though, which is that: we've been discussing mostly what could go wrong in the risks, dangers, and stuff. I mean, I also think that there is just an enormous upside, if we got superintelligence right. And one is kind of negative in that it could it help us avoid other existential risks. But also, more interestingly perhaps, I have some backgrounds, come from a trans-humanist perspective. I just think that human nature, human biology places big constraints on the kinds of values that we can realize. That we die--we rot away and die after just a few paltry decades. Like, even trees have longer lives than human beings. And we are limited to thinking with these 3-pound, cheesy lumps of gray matter inside our skulls. But similarly there are thoughts and feelings and wonderful experiences that just don't fit into these three pounds that we use to feel and experience with. And that there is probably a very large space of possible modes of being, ways of relating, feeling, thinking, wanting that are totally inaccessible to us because of our current biological limitations. But that if we manage to overcome them, and if things go well, then if we use these new capabilities wisely, then I think the future could be wonderful literally beyond our ability to imagine. We have no inkling of what like a planet-size mind, billions of years old, that is able to re-engineer its own internal processes for maximum enjoyment and appreciation of beauty and spirituality, what it would be like to be such a thing. But I think it might be kind of naive of us to think that we have already hit the ceiling and that all the things that we can value are kind of the end of what is actually valuable.