Tag Archives: singularity

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.


Ray Kurzweil Revisited/Reanimated

Yesterday, I received the most interesting and cogent response yet to my Tinker Point idea. It came from my friend Rob, who is himself a biologist. For those who don’t follow the comments on my posts, here is his comment in its entirety, because I like it. My thoughts on his remarks follow.

Interesting ideas here but the evolutionary reasoning is a little false. There are already examples in nature of convergent individuals that are very successful. So successful in fact that they have all but given up individuality for group success. The family Physaliidae is the best example of a society that maintains both a division of labor as well as an absolute requirement of cooperation.

But higher eusocial organisms also fit the bill, such as hymenopteran and isopteran societies that grow into vast numbers of of individuals. Even mammals have eusocial organiosms in the naked mole rats of East Africa.

I would not be so quick to imagine an evolutionary disadvantage to being susceptible to mental manipulation. Organisms that “allow” themselves to be domesticated do very well, much better than their wild type counter parts. Domestic chickens have gone global and outshine jungle fowl to a ridiculous extant. All horses are now domesticated. Dogs, corn, wheat, sheep, pigs, all have allowed themselves to be under profound control and in so doing have far outstripped their wild ancestors in evolutionary success.

I think what your argument does cover is that there are some very dark solutions to a future that includes a Kurzweil Singularity. If you mean that we may lose something of our individuality, or our humanity, then you are right to hold that fear. But game theory indicates not that individuality will be maintained, but rather that choices will be made that enhance a payoff. And every payoff is not the same to everyone in the game. So if something, such as a collective creature of electronic, biological, or amalgam, gets an advantage over a bunch of individuals then game theory and evolution both predict the payoff goes to that “something.” And by the way, evolution does’t care if an advantage is short term, it only cares about who wins right now. That’s why we still have global warming, and that’s why Kurzweil is correct.

These are great points. I agree with most of them.  Rob’s science is solid. And yet I still think Ray Kurzweil is wrong, and that my evolutionary perspective holds up. Why? Because the Tinker Point and the idea of collaborative human aggregation are not at odds with each other.

The idea of the Tinker Point is that no intelligent species gets past the point where it’s easier to tinker with themselves than to not. It says nothing about the pattern of cooperation under which that limit is reached.

I think Rob’s take here is that in a cooperative society in which humans lose a little humanity in order to bind together into a hyper-intelligent whole is one in which humanity is suddenly on the same page, and thus the incentive to destructively tinker goes away.  And while this might not look nice to individual human beings, it still constitutes a singularity. But I don’t think this interpretation holds water.

In nature, patterns of cooperation are always vulnerable to defection.  This is true at every scale, from transposons operating within individual cells, up to bankers cheating entire national economies for profit.

Furthermore, the force that keeps defection in check and enables cooperation to persist is that of group selection. Our cells don’t collapse in revolt every day because cells that revolt lead to non-viable organisms. We aren’t instantly riddled with cancer the moment we’re born because creatures whose cells don’t cooperate never get as far as reproducing. At every level at which agents cooperatively aggregate, there has to be something that the aggregates are competing against in order for the cooperation to be maintained. Bind the entire species into a single hive-mind and your incentive has gone away. Massive social collapse at that point is eventually inevitable.

Now, it’s fair to say that the Singularity as Kurzweil defines it doesn’t necessitate a single hive-mind. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a theoretical point in time when human technology (and, particularly, technological intelligence) will have so rapidly progressed that, ultimately, a greater-than-human intelligence will emerge, which will “radically change human civilization, and perhaps even human nature itself.”

So a benign Singularity might entail the emergence of a set of collective intelligences, all competing with each other. But this outcome is also suspect. How is this convenient outcome supposed to happen? And in this world of competing hive-minds, what role does intelligence actually play?

If intelligence isn’t critical to their competition, we would expect these hive-minds to end up stupid as they optimized to improve fitness, thus conserving the tinker point. If intelligence is critical to their competition, then the mechanisms by which those hive minds operate is still subject to manipulation, and therefore degradation, and therefore overthrow.

In this case the tinker point problem looks just the way it does for individual humans. These hive-minds are still likely to make mistakes and fuck each other up, just like people, until that’s not an option any more.

My favorite speculative future following from this idea comes from the notion that when a new evolutionary niche becomes available, the ‘first to market’ often dominates. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when mental uploading becomes available, that Ray K is first in line to try it out. And once uploaded, of course, he’d rapidly realize that reproducing himself a trillion times and bolting the door behind him would make for a far more stable world than leaving the uplift process open to others. Hyper-intelligence would be unlikely to leave much room for naive idealism.

Hence, if we do end up with future hive-minds at war with each other over the remnants of human civilization, we shouldn’t be surprised if they all have Ray K’s face.


Why Ray Kurzweil is Wrong

The brilliant and entertaining Ray Kurzweil is in the media a lot of late, talking about his new book, which I’m currently enjoying: How to Create a Mind. As well as promoting his book, he’s also promoting his core idea, a concept with which he’s become synonymous. And that’s that by around 2040 the rate of technological change in the world will have become so great that we will have reached a ‘singularity‘.

In other words, we will have machine intelligence, and/or augmented human intelligence, and/or something else we haven’t even built yet, such that we will ascend toward a kind of godhood. Problems like finite lifespans won’t bother us any more because we’ll be uploaded into machines. Issues like the climate or world poverty will become irrelevant, as our ability to engineer solutions will become so powerful that that they’re irrelevant.

To support his argument, he provides a wealth of data that shows that human development follows an exponential growth curve. Whether you’re looking at the pace of change, or the amount of computation a single person can do, or the speed with which human beings can communicate, it all pretty much follows the same pattern. And he’s right. We are on an exponential curve and crazy things are going to happen in our lifetime. However, the kind of things he’s predicting are all wrong, and, though I’ve touched on this topic before on this blog, I’m going to have another crack at explaining why.

First though, a little on why you should take Ray’s arguments seriously. Ask most people why they doubt that we’ll ascend to godhood within the next 30 years, and they’ll tell you that it sounds like science fiction–that the change is much too fast. But as Ray points out, people are terrible about anticipating exponential growth curves. If you had told a person in 1975 that by 2012 you’d have access to just about all the knowledge on Earth via a device you could hold in your hand, they’d probably have doubted you. Or take climate change. The world is still full of people who doubt that it’s happening, while at the same time, the rate of change is outstripping all our predictions. When it comes to exponential growth curves, I think Ray has the answer dead right.

So if Ray’s predictions have so much weight, why should we doubt him?

Because of game theory. Because of the Tragedy of the Commons. And because the mind is a commons in which tragedies can happen, just like everything else.

To explain what I mean, consider this: intelligence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in brains, and brains have the shape they do for a reason. Specifically, brains are packed with mechanisms to make it really hard for you to quit bad habits. And the reason why those mechanisms are there is because these are the same parts that make it hard for someone, or something, to take control over your behavior.

Go to the business section of your local bookshop, and you will find the shelves packed with books on negotiation, sales, leadership, etc. All ways to try to get other people to do things. Ask anyone in sales and marketing how hard it can be to gain new customers, and they’ll tell you. It’s bloody hard.

Your brain is packed with checks and balances to make your behavior almost impossible to change simply because, if it weren’t, you’d probably be dead by now. People who are easy to coerce get coerced. That’s why we have brains in the first place. To get people, or things, or animals, to do the things we want by outsmarting them. That’s why a third of the world’s biodiversity has disappeared since 1970. Because we’ve outsmarted all the other species on the planet, to their cost.

We don’t notice this part of our brains because it’s broadly counter-productive to believe that your every attempt at personal change is hamstrung right out of the gate. Similarly, believing that your new business venture is probably doomed because it’s going to be horribly hard to get people to notice what you’re doing doesn’t select for winners. There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that people are designed to be optimistic, just like they’re designed to be stubborn.

But just because we don’t see that part of our minds doesn’t mean it’s not there. And because intelligence needs stuff to run on, just like a computer program, you take a risk every time you start fiddling around with that stuff. Muck around with the operating system on your laptop and sooner or later something bad happens, even if you gain an advantage over the usefulness of your machine in the short term. When the stuff that people run on becomes an operating system that people can muck with, everyone takes a risk.

Which is not to say that we’re all going to die, or that we’ll all become lobotomized zombie robots in the thrall of a mad professor somewhere. Rather, it’s just that once you reach the point where it’s at least as easy to muck with the stuff that you’re made of as it is to leave it alone, you’re in trouble.

Not necessarily fatal trouble. After all, you can take a reformed heroin addict who’s short-circuited his brain and recovered, put a big pile of heroin in front of him, and likely as not, he won’t take it. He’ll refuse it with pride. But it’ll be work. Once you have found the way to game a system, not gaming that system becomes an effort, and that’s true regardless of how smart you get, because the problem scales with your intelligence.

Let me say that again, to make sure that it’s clear. There is no level of intelligence at which it suddenly becomes easy to cooperate or avoid making mistakes. Sure, the risks to gaming the system become easier to see, but so do the number of ways to game the system. And the more sophisticated your technology is, the more ways there are for it to screw up.

There is a proof in computer science that you cannot build a computer program that can tell how all possible computer programs will behave. This proof applies just as well to people, and essentially tells us that no matter how smart you get, you won’t be able to outguess or predict someone, or something, as complicated as you are.

This rule is stable no matter what path to techno-trouble you want to pick. You can choose genetic modification, brain enhancements, intelligent machines, nanobots, or any other nifty technology you like. Once the technology table is covered with loaded weapons, sooner or later, someone is going to pick one up and have an accident. Whether it’s someone trying to convince everyone to buy their shampoo by making it addictive, or asking people to receive a minor genetic change before they join a company, or trawling for cat photos on the internet with a program that adapts itself, it’s going to happen sooner or later. It’s not one slippery slope. It’s a slippery slope in every direction that you look.

My guess is that we’ll recover from whatever accident we have. However, we’ll then nudge back towards the table of trouble, and then have another accident. And then another. And that this continues until we basically run out of planet to mess about with. To my mind, this is why we don’t see signs of intelligent life out in space. It’s because nobody gets past this point–the Tinker Point. It’s like an information-theoretic glass ceiling.

So is there anything we can do about this?

Yes. Of course. The best technological bets are space travel and suspended animation. The more people are spread out in time and space, the less likely it is that any one accident will be devastating. We’ll be able to keep playing the same game for a long, long time.

However, the fact that there’s no evidence that anyone else in the universe has summoned up the gumption to pull off this trick isn’t exactly comforting. As a species, we should get our skates on. By Ray’s estimate, we have about thirty years.