I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

There has been a lot in the press of late talking about the threat of human-level AI. Stephen Hawking has gone on record talking about the risks. So has Elon Musk. Now Bill Gates has joined the chorus.

This kind of talk makes me groan. I’d like to propose the converse for a moment, so that everyone can try it on. Maybe AI is the only thing that’s going to save our asses. Why? How do I justify that? First, let’s talk about why AI isn’t the problem.

Concerns about AI generally revolve around two main ideas. First, that it’ll be beyond our control, and secondly, that it’ll bootstrap its way to unspeakable power, as each generation of AI builds a smarter one to follow it.

Yes, AI we don’t understand would be beyond our control. Just like weather, or traffic, or crop failure, or printers, or any of the other unpredictable things we struggle with every day. What is assumed about AI that supposedly makes it a different scale of threat is intent. But here’s the thing. AI wouldn’t have intent that we didn’t put into it. And intent doesn’t come from nowhere. I have yet to meet a power-hungry phone, despite the fact that we’ve made a lot of them.

Software that can be said to have intent, on the other hand, like malware, can be extremely dangerous. And malware, by some measures, is already something we can’t control. Certainly there is no one in the world who is immune to the risks of cyberattack. This despite the fact that a lot of malware is very simple.

So why do people underestimate the risks of cyberattack and overstate AI? It’s for the same reason that AI research is one of the hardest kinds of research in the world to do properly. The human mind is completely hamstrung with assumptions about what intelligence is, that we can’t even think about it straight. Our brains come with ten million years of optimized wiring that forces us to make cripplingly incorrect assumptions about topics as trivial as consciousness. When it comes to assessing AI, it’s hard enough to get the damned thing working, let alone make rational statements about what it might want to do once it got going.

This human flaw shows up dramatically in our reasoning about how AI might bootstrap itself to godhood. How is that honestly supposed to work? Intelligence is about making guesses about in an uncertain universe. We screw up all the time. Of all the species on Earth, we are the ones capable of the most spectacular pratfalls.

The things that we’re worst at guessing about are the things that are at least as complicated as we are. And that’s for a really good reason. You can’t fit a model of something that requires n bits for its expression into something that only has n-1 bits. Any AI that tried to bootstrap itself would be far more likely to technologically face-plant than achieve anything. There is a very good reason that life has settled on replicating itself rather than trying to get the jump on the competition via proactive self-editing. That’s because the latter strategy is self-defeatingly stupid.

In fact, the more you think about it, the more the idea of a really, really big pocket calculator suddenly acquiring both the desire, and the ability to ascend into godhood, the dumber it is. Complexity is not just a matter of scale. You have to be running the right stuff. Which is why there isn’t more life on Jupiter than there is here.

On the other hand, we, as a species have wiped out a third of our biodiversity since nineteen seventy. We have, as I understand it, created a spike in carbon dioxide production unknown at any time in geological history. And we have built an economy predicated on the release of so much carbon that it would be guaranteed to send the planet into a state of runaway greenhouse effect that will render it uninhabitable.

At the same time, we are no closer to ridding the world of hunger, war, poverty, disease, or any of those other things we’ve claimed to not like for an awfully long time. We have, on the other hand, put seven billion people on the planet. And we’re worried about intelligent machines? Really?

It strikes me that putting the reins of the planet into the hands of an intelligence that perhaps has a little more foresight than humanity might be the one thing that keeps us alive for the next five hundred years. Could it get out of control? Why yes. But frankly not any more than things already are.