Intelligent Machines and Foolish Humans

[This Blog Articles post was written & submitted by J.D.F.]

We will eventually build machines so intelligent that they will be self-aware. When that happens, it will highlight two outstanding human traits: brilliance and foolhardiness. Of course, the kinds of people responsible for creating such machines would be exceptionally clever. The future, however, may show that those geniuses had blinkered vision and didn’t realise quite what they were creating. Many respected scientists believe that nothing threatens human existence more definitively than conscious machines, and that when humanity eventually takes the threat seriously, it may well be too late.

Other experts counter that warning and argue that since we build the machines we will always be able to control them. That argument seems reasonable, but it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Conscious machines, those with self-awareness, could be a threat to humans for many reasons, but three in particular. First, we won’t be able to control them because we won’t know what they’re thinking. Second, machine intelligence will improve at a much faster rate than human intelligence. Scientists working in this area and in artificial intelligence (AI) in general, suggest that computers will become conscious and as intelligent as humans sometime this century, maybe even in less than two or three decades. So, machines will have achieved in about a century what took humans millions of years. Machine intelligence will continue to improve, and very quickly, we will find ourselves sharing the Earth with an intelligence form far superior to us. Third, machines can leverage their brainpower hugely by linking together. Humans can’t directly link their brains and must communicate with others by tedious written, visual, or aural messaging.

Some world-famous visionaries have sounded strong warnings about AI. Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, described it as [we could be] “summoning the demon.” The risk is that as scientists relentlessly improve the capabilities of AI systems, at some indeterminate point, they may set off an unstoppable chain reaction where the machines wrest control from their creators. In April 2015, Stephen Hawkins, the renowned theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author, gave a stark warning: “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Luke Muehlhauser, director of MIRI (The Machine Intelligence Research Institute), was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that by building AI “we’re toying with the intelligence of the gods and there is no off switch.” Yet we seem to be willing to take the risk.

Perhaps most people are not too concerned because consciousness is such a nebulous concept. Even scientists working with AI may be working in the dark. We all know humans have consciousness, but nobody, not even the brightest minds, understands what it is. So we can only speculate about how or when machines might get it, if ever. Some scientists believe that when machines acquire the level of thinking power similar to that of the human brain, machines will be conscious and self-aware. In other words, those scientists believe that our consciousness is purely a physical phenomenon – a function of our brain’s complexity.

For millions of years, human beings have dominated the Earth and all other species on it. That didn’t happen because we are the largest, or the strongest, but because we are the most intelligent by far. If machines become more intelligent, we could well end up as their slaves. Worse still, they might regard us as surplus to their needs and annihilate us. That doomsday scenario has been predicted by countless science fiction writers.

Should we heed their prophetic vision as most current advanced technology was once science fiction?
Or do we have nothing to worry about?

For more on this subject, read Nick Bostrom’s highly recommended book, Superintelligence, listed in our books section.