Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

Is artificial intelligence going to wipe us out in 30 years?

Many famous people have recently grown concerned that artificial intelligence is going to become a threat to humanity in the near future. The wealthy entrepreneur Elon Musk and the famous physicist Stephen Hawking are among them.

It is obvious that any technology, including artificial intelligence, can be used to cause harm. Information technology can be turned into a weapon.

But I do not think that it is what Hawking and Musk fear. Here is what Hawking said:

It [artificial intelligence] would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate, Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

Here is what Musk said:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out,(…)

So far from being merely worried about potential misuse of technology, Hawking and Musk consider a scenario more like this:

  • Machines increasingly acquire sophisticated cognitive skills. They learned to play Chess better than human beings. Soon, they will pass as human beings online. It is only a matter of time before someone can produce software that passes the American Scholastic Aptitude Test with scores higher than the average human being… and soon after, better than any human being.
  • Then, at some point, machines will wake up, become conscious, reach “general intelligence” and we are facing a new species that might decide to do away with us.

The first part of this scenario is coming true. We have cars, trains and airplanes without human pilots today… in 30 years, no insurer will be willing to cover you if you decide to drive your own car. It is all going to be automated. Factories are similarly going to be automated. Goods delivery will be automated. Medical diagnostic will be automated. In 30 years, we will have computing devices that are far more powerful than the naked brain. It is likely that they will use up a lot more energy and a lot more space than a human brain… but a computing device can have instant access to all of the Internet in ways that no human brain can.

What we often fail to realize is that “artificial intelligence” is not something that will happen suddenly. It is a process, and we are far along in this process. A vending machine is very much an automated store. An automated teller, as you can find anywhere in the world, is as the term implies… a teller that has been replaced by “artificial intelligence”.

There is a myth that machines will suddenly become qualitatively smarter. They will acquire a soul or something like it.

First, there is the notion that machines will acquire consciousness in a sudden fashion. So my laptop is not conscious, but maybe the next iteration or the one after that, with the right software will “acquire” consciousness. The problem with consciousness is that it is a purely intuitive notion that appears to have no counterpart in the objective world. We “think” we are conscious because we think “I am going to open this door” and then we open the door. So the “voice” in our head is what is in charge. But that is an illusion as demonstrated by Benjamin Libert. What is clearly established is that you can describe and announce your decisions only after the fact. By the time you are ready to announce that you will open the door, your brain has already taken its decision. We think that we are conscious our of surroundings in pure real time, but that is again an illusion: our brain spends a great deal of efforts processing our senses and constructing a model. That is why there are perceptible delays in when responding to stimuli. Your brain gets some input, updates a model and reacts accordingly, just like any computer would do. So it is not clear that my laptop is any less conscious than I am though it is clear that it can react much faster than I can. Free will is also an illusion. There is simply no test, no objective measurement that you can use to establish how conscious or free is a computing device or brain.

Second, there is the notion of general intelligence. The belief is that computers are specialized devices that can do only what they have been programmed for, whereas biological beings can adapt to any new task. It is true that mammals can change their behavior when faced with new conditions. But you must first consider that this ability is quite variable in living beings. If the climate gets colder, frogs do not just decide to put on coats. Frogs do what frogs do in a very predictable manner. But even human beings have also limited abilities to adapt. The obesity epidemic is an obvious example: for thousands of years, human beings starved to death… all of a sudden, food is abundant… what do we do? We eat too much and shorten our lives in the process. We did away with most predators and live in wonderfully safe cities… Yet if you are threatened of being fired, even if you know that you are physically safe and will never go hungry… your body react as if you were being attacked by a predator, and makes you more prone to act on instinct… exactly the opposite of good sense… So the evidence is clear: we are slaves to our programming. It is true that human beings can learn to do String Theory. We can acquire new skills that were not programmed into us, to some extent. That sets us apart from frogs, as frogs are unlikely to acquire a new way to swim or to eat. But it does not set us apart from software. In fact, software is much easier to expand than the human mind. Again, this notion of general intelligence seems to be an ill-defined intuitive idea that comforts us but has little to do with objective reality.

Are computers going to become smarter than people? They already are in many ways that matter. They can plan trips across complex road networks better than we can. Computers will continue to catch up and surpass the human brain. We can make an educated guess as to how far this process will be in 30 years: very far. Nobody can know what effect this will have on humanity. But we can probably stop worrying about machines acquiring consciousness or “general” intelligence all of a sudden and turning against us as a consequence. Stop watching so many bad scifi movies!