Friday, March 25, 2016

Musings on Artificial Intelligence and Superintelligence, Earth-Generated and Otherwise

I’m going off jobs this week, though this material is strongly if peripherally related.  Here are some thoughts on Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence:  Paths, Dangers, Strategies, released last year, and the follow-on Raffi Khatchadourian November 23rd New Yorker article, “The Doomsday Invention”:

Point 1:  What we have been calling “artificial intelligence” really isn’t – it’s only algorithmic.  If A happens, do B.  Although capabilities of what can be done automatically have gone up exponentially since the BASIC computer language was developed in the 1960s, almost anything that is electronically generated could still be done, if need be, by using that form of code.  We can’t seriously use that phrase in the present tense until we break that boundary. 

Point 2:  Once we do that, and get, as in the first Terminator movie, “autonomous goal-seeking” from machines, what is to prevent them from the likes of what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character did, determining that the best way to achieve its preset objective is to kill all the people?  Can we find a way of assuring that all post-algorithmic automata avoid that?  Could terrorists program and release them without that restriction? 

Point 3:  None of what Bostrom writes about is a new fear.  The classic in the field is still Bill Joy’s now 16-year-old article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”  It explains how close we may be to letting nanotechnology, robotics, and genetic technology, which unlike nuclear, chemical, and biological threats can be furthered by forces much smaller than governments and large universities, get away from us and possibly even kill off our species.  It’s still available from its original source, Wired magazine, at

Point 4:  We still don’t know about Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, in which human and electronic intelligence merge and such nuisances as mortality go away, but between the slowing of Moore’s Law and Robert J. Gordon’s lifestyle observations in his new The Rise and Fall of American Growth, it doesn’t look good. 

Point 5:  Bostrom, according to the article, plans to be a corpsicle, in other words will have his body frozen after death for future revival.  Per science fiction author Larry Niven, we have real doubts about whether such semi-dead beings will even be welcome decades or centuries from now – they may be seen as selfish liabilities who had their lives already and whose bodies may be harvested for other purposes.  With our fear of dying thoroughly justified, I can’t blame him, but hoping to come back to life in that way may have the same disadvantages of religion… and be more expensive.

Point 6:  We have got about nowhere on knowing the source of consciousness.  Accordingly, we can never assume that machines of any kind, even if they talk and act a good game, have anything behind that.  The same goes for people after being teleported.  As we know from the Turing Test (the ability of computers to convincingly imitate people), it is possible, even easy these days, for things to act human with all the consciousness of an off-and-on air conditioner.

According to Bostrom, space probes travelling at 1% of the speed of light, or 1,860 miles per second, could canvass the entire Milky Way from a spot inside it within 20 million years.  Given that the galaxy contains, per Khatchadourian, ten billion “Earth-like planets,” and per Bostrom they have precipitated “a sum total of zero alien civilizations that developed technologically to the point where they become manifest to us earthly observers (italics his),” why have we not been visited or even contacted by life forms originating elsewhere?

Point 7:  As Bostrom suggested, they may just plain not exist, having been stopped from spacefaringness by any of many “Great Filters,” such as not experiencing the life-starting spark we still don’t understand, not progressing beyond single-celled organisms, or succumbing to asteroid strikes or stellar disturbances.

Point 8:  It is possible that intelligent life, in effect, carries the seeds of its own destruction, that certain types of technology sure to be developed at some point will cause all life on a planet to become extinct?  Could we ever know?  Bostrom philosophized on this, as have others in the past few decades.

Point 9:  Sentient creatures elsewhere could consistently be more like whales than humans, with little or no use of tools and, though intelligent, bound to a water or other environment hard to leave. 

Point 10:  Between these limitations and the restriction of the speed of light, we simply won’t be contacted all that often.  It could be tens of thousands of years, or more, between aliens’ appearances in our space. 

Point 11:  We have no reason to assume that extremely advanced creatures from elsewhere would even be visible to us.  Even if they chose to arrive in person, instead of watching us through the equivalent of super-powerful telescopes (and if they were half of the galaxy away, they would now be watching what we were doing in 48,000 BC), they could be cloaking themselves by staying out of our light range.  We have no idea what beings could do after thousands of years of post-Industrial Revolution progress, let alone millions, so we can’t rule anything out. 

That last sentence applies to artificial intelligence and superintelligence as well.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

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