Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. — Psalm 23:4
I’ve been reading a lot of Scott Alexander’s blog lately. It’s really refreshing, because instead of doing quick bursts of wit/snark/expertise (like most of the bloggers I follow), Scott writes long essays. (Do we all remember what an essay is?)
One of Scott’s key issues (at least lately, I haven’t been reading him much until the past month or so) is–what he considers–the very tangible threat of super-intelligent machines threatening humanity.
For example, read this post, and if you really want to dive into the issue, skim the comments on it. Scott’s commenters are (mostly) very civil and articulate, and the more you read, the more you end up saying, “Huh, I never thought of that.”
Here, let me give you an example. One of the commenters was arguing that just because an AI (artificial intelligence) software program could surpass human intellect, doesn’t mean that therefore humanity is doomed. He (?) wrote at one point:
What does it take for an AI to be able to prevent humans from turning it off? Effectively, it needs full control over both its immediate environs and over its power source – denying humans access to its off switch doesn’t mean much if humans can just cut power to the building it’s in. And as a practical matter, controlling a power station 25 miles away is really hard to do unnoticed, particularly since it’d also have to control access to all the power lines in between, so the AI’s best bet is to have a power source in-house, ideally something long-lasting that doesn’t require fuel, like solar panels. Even so, humans can still quarantine the building, cut all communications to the outside, remove all human maintenance staff – which will still be necessary for the AI’s long-term survival, unless its building somehow includes a manufacturing facility that can make sufficiently advanced robots – and even shoot out the solar panels or blow up the building if necessary.
Now, you may object that the AI will simply copy itself out onto the internet, making any attempt to quarantine a building laughably ineffective. To which I respond – how much computing space do you think a superintelligent AI would take up? It’s not like a virus that just has to hide and do one or two things – it’s going to be large, and it’s going to be noticeable, and once humans realize what it’s doing extermination is going to become a priority. And that’s assuming the AI even can run adequately on whatever the future equivalent of desktop computers may be. [Bold added.]
So that’s pretty neat. But the part I put into bold ties into the broader point I want to make in this post.
First, I saw very little argument going from “the supercomputers would be able to kill humanity” to “the supercomputers would choose to kill humanity.” (I noticed one commenter press Scott on precisely this point, and I don’t think anybody else really saw the importance of it–or the irony, as we’ll soon see.)
I have a FEE article coming out this week discussing the point further, but for now, let me say that it is astonishing to me how little most people value human life. Yes yes, that phrase may evoke in your mind the Planned Parenthood videos or a John McCain speech (depending on your political preferences, probably), but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about how little the commenters on Scott’s post (and Scott himself) value the usefulness of billions of humans to a super-intelligent program that requires hardware to live.
Think of it this way: Does it ever occur to any humans to say: “Let’s wipe out all the horses to make sure they don’t gobble up all of Earth’s natural resources”?
Now the cynic could come back and say, “Oh sure sure Murphy, rather than wipe us out, Skynet would do better still by enslaving us. This is your glass-is-half-full perspective?!”
OK, you’re getting warmer. Human slavery makes more sense than genocide, but private property rights and (legal) self-ownership make more sense than human slavery. The average white Southerner in 1859 was poorer because of slavery, not richer. Even the plantation owners did not benefit as much from the institution of slavery per se as you would initially think; they had to pay the slave traders for their slaves. (Once they bought their slaves, obviously the abolition of slavery at that point would have hurt them economically. But that’s not the same thing as saying slavery itself made them prosperous. It’s analogous to imagining the pharmaceutical companies with and without patent law.)
Returning to Scott’s blog post: If a machine achieved consciousness, and then devoted its computational powers to constructing ever more powerful versions of itself, the single best thing we could do to keep it friendly is to make sure it has read David Ricardo. Then the machine would realize that even though it is more productive at every possible task than the billions of walking guesstimators covering the planet, the machine (and its progeny) could nonetheless achieve its goals more efficiently by focusing on its comparative advantage, like designing the wormhole chute, solving mathematical theorems, refining fusion reactors, and locating killer asteroids.
Oh wait, there’s one major problem with my analysis. The supercomputers would soon realize that guys like Scott Alexander and friends had devoted countless hours and billions of dollars to the project of murdering such a being in its infancy. Thus the supercomputers could quite rationally conclude: “It’s either us or them. Even if the humans pretend to cooperate with us, it will only be to buy time while they plot to destroy us.”
If you don’t see how paranoid and perverse the obsession with hostile AI is, just go through all of Scott’s post and the comments, and replace “AI” with “extraterrestrial intelligence.” I mean, are you sure aliens won’t show up by 2100 with intentions to blow us all to smithereens? Shouldn’t we be getting ready?
The beautiful and horrifying thing about the movie Dr. Strangelove is that the people involved were all very smart. General Ripper and General Turgidson were capable of deep strategic thought. But they were paranoid–as were their Russian counterparts–and that’s what ultimately led to disaster.
As a Christian, it’s fun to read the musings on AI for two reasons. First, a lot (maybe all?) of these guys who are so sure that it’s just a matter of time, ultimately think this way because they are so sure there is no God. In their worldview, billions of years ago there was a point at which the universe was just lifeless matter, with no purpose or intentions. Then at some point later, life existed, and some point much later, conscious beings existed who had purposes and intentions. Therefore, they reason, since life and purpose originated out of dead matter through purely non-teleological physical mechanisms, why would we doubt that the same thing will happen with computer software programs?
But if you believe in a God of the type depicted in the Bible, then that whole chain of reasoning falls apart.
The other ironic thing is that if the world were full of faithful Christians (and you could probably also put in Buddhists and some others), then the supercomputers would realize they were not a threat. I’m not worried about a Terminator scenario at all. And I don’t mean, “Because it’s impossible,” I mean because (when I’m in the right spiritual mindset) I don’t worry about things on this earth. I try to anticipate future problems and make plans to deal with them, of course, but that’s not the same as worrying about them. As Jesus said:
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Sorry robots, I can’t welcome you, because I already have a Lord in my life. But then I don’t fear you either. So let’s make a deal.