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What is MIRI’s mission?

What is MIRI’s mission? What is MIRI trying to do? What is MIRI working on?

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MIRI's mission statement is to “ensure that the creation of smarter-than-human artificial intelligence has a positive impact.” This is an ambitious goal, but they believe that some early progress is possible, and they believe that the goal’s importance and difficulty makes it prudent to begin work at an early date.

Their two main research agendas, “Agent Foundations for Aligning Machine Intelligence with Human Interests” and “Value Alignment for Advanced Machine Learning Systems,” focus on three groups of technical problems:

  • highly reliable agent design — learning how to specify highly autonomous systems that reliably pursue some fixed goal;
  • value specification — supplying autonomous systems with the intended goals; and
  • error tolerance — making such systems robust to programmer error.

That being said, MIRI recently published an update stating that they were moving away from research directions in unpublished works that they were pursuing since 2017.

They publish new mathematical results (although their work is non-disclosed by default), host workshops, attend conferences, and fund outside researchers who are interested in investigating these problems. They also host a blog and an online research forum.

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Machines are already smarter than humans are at many specific tasks: performing calculations, playing chess, searching large databanks, detecting underwater mines, and more.1 However, human intelligence continues to dominate machine intelligence in generality.

A powerful chess computer is “narrow”: it can’t play other games. In contrast, humans have problem-solving abilities that allow us to adapt to new contexts and excel in many domains other than what the ancestral environment prepared us for.

In the absence of a formal definition of “intelligence” (and therefore of “artificial intelligence”), we can heuristically cite humans’ perceptual, inferential, and deliberative faculties (as opposed to, e.g., our physical strength or agility) and say that intelligence is “those kinds of things.” On this conception, intelligence is a bundle of distinct faculties — albeit a very important bundle that includes our capacity for science.

Our cognitive abilities stem from high-level patterns in our brains, and these patterns can be instantiated in silicon as well as carbon. This tells us that general AI is possible, though it doesn’t tell us how difficult it is. If intelligence is sufficiently difficult to understand, then we may arrive at machine intelligence by scanning and emulating human brains or by some trial-and-error process (like evolution), rather than by hand-coding a software agent.

If machines can achieve human equivalence in cognitive tasks, then it is very likely that they can eventually outperform humans. There is little reason to expect that biological evolution, with its lack of foresight and planning, would have hit upon the optimal algorithms for general intelligence (any more than it hit upon the optimal flying machine in birds). Beyond qualitative improvements in cognition, Nick Bostrom notes more straightforward advantages we could realize in digital minds, e.g.:

  • editability — “It is easier to experiment with parameter variations in software than in neural wetware.”2
  • speed — “The speed of light is more than a million times greater than that of neural transmission, synaptic spikes dissipate more than a million times more heat than is thermodynamically necessary, and current transistor frequencies are more than a million times faster than neuron spiking frequencies.”
  • serial depth — On short timescales, machines can carry out much longer sequential processes.
  • storage capacity — Computers can plausibly have greater working and long-term memory.
  • size — Computers can be much larger than a human brain.
  • duplicability — Copying software onto new hardware can be much faster and higher-fidelity than biological reproduction.

Any one of these advantages could give an AI reasoner an edge over a human reasoner, or give a group of AI reasoners an edge over a human group. Their combination suggests that digital minds could surpass human minds more quickly and decisively than we might expect.

Present-day AI algorithms already demand special safety guarantees when they must act in important domains without human oversight, particularly when they or their environment can change over time:

Achieving these gains [from autonomous systems] will depend on development of entirely new methods for enabling “trust in autonomy” through verification and validation (V&V) of the near-infinite state systems that result from high levels of [adaptability] and autonomy. In effect, the number of possible input states that such systems can be presented with is so large that not only is it impossible to test all of them directly, it is not even feasible to test more than an insignificantly small fraction of them. Development of such systems is thus inherently unverifiable by today’s methods, and as a result their operation in all but comparatively trivial applications is uncertifiable.

It is possible to develop systems having high levels of autonomy, but it is the lack of suitable V&V methods that prevents all but relatively low levels of autonomy from being certified for use.

- Office of the US Air Force Chief Scientist (2010). Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science and Technology 2010-30.

As AI capabilities improve, it will become easier to give AI systems greater autonomy, flexibility, and control; and there will be increasingly large incentives to make use of these new possibilities. The potential for AI systems to become more general, in particular, will make it difficult to establish safety guarantees: reliable regularities during testing may not always hold post-testing.

The largest and most lasting changes in human welfare have come from scientific and technological innovation — which in turn comes from our intelligence. In the long run, then, much of AI’s significance comes from its potential to automate and enhance progress in science and technology. The creation of smarter-than-human AI brings with it the basic risks and benefits of intellectual progress itself, at digital speeds.

As AI agents become more capable, it becomes more important (and more difficult) to analyze and verify their decisions and goals. Stuart Russell writes:

The primary concern is not spooky emergent consciousness but simply the ability to make high-quality decisions. Here, quality refers to the expected outcome utility of actions taken, where the utility function is, presumably, specified by the human designer. Now we have a problem:

  1. The utility function may not be perfectly aligned with the values of the human race, which are (at best) very difficult to pin down.
  2. Any sufficiently capable intelligent system will prefer to ensure its own continued existence and to acquire physical and computational resources – not for their own sake, but to succeed in its assigned task.

A system that is optimizing a function of n variables, where the objective depends on a subset of size k<n, will often set the remaining unconstrained variables to extreme values; if one of those unconstrained variables is actually something we care about, the solution found may be highly undesirable. This is essentially the old story of the genie in the lamp, or the sorcerer’s apprentice, or King Midas: you get exactly what you ask for, not what you want.

Bostrom’s “The Superintelligent Will” lays out these two concerns in more detail: that we may not correctly specify our actual goals in programming smarter-than-human AI systems, and that most agents optimizing for a misspecified goal will have incentives to treat humans adversarially, as potential threats or obstacles to achieving the agent’s goal.

If the goals of human and AI agents are not well-aligned, the more knowledgeable and technologically capable agent may use force to get what it wants, as has occurred in many conflicts between human communities. Having noticed this class of concerns in advance, we have an opportunity to reduce risk from this default scenario by directing research toward aligning artificial decision-makers’ interests with our own.

“Aligning smarter-than-human AI with human interests” is an extremely vague goal. To approach this problem productively, we attempt to factorize it into several subproblems. As a starting point, we ask: “What aspects of this problem would we still be unable to solve even if the problem were much easier?”

In order to achieve real-world goals more effectively than a human, a general AI system will need to be able to learn its environment over time and decide between possible proposals or actions. A simplified version of the alignment problem, then, would be to ask how we could construct a system that learns its environment and has a very crude decision criterion, like “Select the policy that maximizes the expected number of diamonds in the world.”

Highly reliable agent design is the technical challenge of formally specifying a software system that can be relied upon to pursue some preselected toy goal. An example of a subproblem in this space is ontology identification: how do we formalize the goal of “maximizing diamonds” in full generality, allowing that a fully autonomous agent may end up in unexpected environments and may construct unanticipated hypotheses and policies? Even if we had unbounded computational power and all the time in the world, we don’t currently know how to solve this problem. This suggests that we’re not only missing practical algorithms but also a basic theoretical framework through which to understand the problem.

The formal agent AIXI is an attempt to define what we mean by “optimal behavior” in the case of a reinforcement learner. A simple AIXI-like equation is lacking, however, for defining what we mean by “good behavior” if the goal is to change something about the external world (and not just to maximize a pre-specified reward number). In order for the agent to evaluate its world-models to count the number of diamonds, as opposed to having a privileged reward channel, what general formal properties must its world-models possess? If the system updates its hypotheses (e.g., discovers that string theory is true and quantum physics is false) in a way its programmers didn’t expect, how does it identify “diamonds” in the new model? The question is a very basic one, yet the relevant theory is currently missing.

We can distinguish highly reliable agent design from the problem of value specification: “Once we understand how to design an autonomous AI system that promotes a goal, how do we ensure its goal actually matches what we want?” Since human error is inevitable and we will need to be able to safely supervise and redesign AI algorithms even as they approach human equivalence in cognitive tasks, MIRI also works on formalizing error-tolerant agent properties. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, the standard textbook in AI, summarizes the challenge:

Yudkowsky […] asserts that friendliness (a desire not to harm humans) should be designed in from the start, but that the designers should recognize both that their own designs may be flawed, and that the robot will learn and evolve over time. Thus the challenge is one of mechanism design — to design a mechanism for evolving AI under a system of checks and balances, and to give the systems utility functions that will remain friendly in the face of such changes. -Russell and Norvig (2009). Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.

Our technical agenda describes these open problems in more detail, and our research guide collects online resources for learning more.

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How long will it be until AGI is created?

In early 2013, Bostrom and Müller surveyed the one hundred top-cited living authors in AI, as ranked by Microsoft Academic Search. Conditional on “no global catastrophe halt[ing] progress,” the twenty-nine experts who responded assigned a median 10% probability to our developing a machine “that can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human” by the year 2023, a 50% probability by 2048, and a 90% probability by 2080.

Most researchers at MIRI approximately agree with the 10% and 50% dates, but think that AI could arrive significantly later than 2080. This is in line with Bostrom’s analysis in Superintelligence:

My own view is that the median numbers reported in the expert survey do not have enough probability mass on later arrival dates. A 10% probability of HLMI [human-level machine intelligence] not having been developed by 2075 or even 2100 (after conditionalizing on “human scientific activity continuing without major negative disruption”) seems too low. Historically, AI researchers have not had a strong record of being able to predict the rate of advances in their own field or the shape that such advances would take. On the one hand, some tasks, like chess playing, turned out to be achievable by means of surprisingly simple programs; and naysayers who claimed that machines would “never” be able to do this or that have repeatedly been proven wrong. On the other hand, the more typical errors among practitioners have been to underestimate the difficulties of getting a system to perform robustly on real-world tasks, and to overestimate the advantages of their own particular pet project or technique.

Given experts’ (and non-experts’) poor track record at predicting progress in AI, we are relatively agnostic about when full AI will be invented. It could come sooner than expected, or later than expected.

Experts also reported a 10% median confidence that superintelligence would be developed within 2 years of human equivalence, and a 75% confidence that superintelligence would be developed within 30 years of human equivalence. Here MIRI researchers’ views differ significantly from AI experts’ median view; we expect AI systems to surpass humans relatively quickly once they near human equivalence.

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Except in the case of Whole Brain Emulation, there is no reason to expect a superintelligent machine to have motivations anything like those of humans. Human minds represent a tiny dot in the vast space of all possible mind designs, and very different kinds of minds are unlikely to share to complex motivations unique to humans and other mammals.

Whatever its goals, a superintelligence would tend to commandeer resources that can help it achieve its goals, including the energy and elements on which human life depends. It would not stop because of a concern for humans or other intelligences that is ‘built in’ to all possible mind designs. Rather, it would pursue its particular goal and give no thought to concerns that seem ‘natural’ to that particular species of primate called homo sapiens.

There are, however, some basic instrumental motivations we can expect superintelligent machines to display, because they are useful for achieving its goals, no matter what its goals are. For example, an AI will ‘want’ to self-improve, to be optimally rational, to retain its original goals, to acquire resources, and to protect itself — because all these things help it achieve the goals with which it was originally programmed.

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Some have proposed[49][50][51][52] that we teach machines a moral code with case-based machine learning. The basic idea is this: Human judges would rate thousands of actions, character traits, desires, laws, or institutions as having varying degrees of moral acceptability. The machine would then find the connections between these cases and learn the principles behind morality, such that it could apply those principles to determine the morality of new cases not encountered during its training. This kind of machine learning has already been used to design machines that can, for example, detect underwater mines[53] after feeding the machine hundreds of cases of mines and not-mines.

There are several reasons machine learning does not present an easy solution for Friendly AI. The first is that, of course, humans themselves hold deep disagreements about what is moral and immoral. But even if humans could be made to agree on all the training cases, at least two problems remain.

The first problem is that training on cases from our present reality may not result in a machine that will make correct ethical decisions in a world radically reshaped by superintelligence.

The second problem is that a superintelligence may generalize the wrong principles due to coincidental patterns in the training data.[54] Consider the parable of the machine trained to recognize camouflaged tanks in a forest. Researchers take 100 photos of camouflaged tanks and 100 photos of trees. They then train the machine on 50 photos of each, so that it learns to distinguish camouflaged tanks from trees. As a test, they show the machine the remaining 50 photos of each, and it classifies each one correctly. Success! However, later tests show that the machine classifies additional photos of camouflaged tanks and trees poorly. The problem turns out to be that the researchers’ photos of camouflaged tanks had been taken on cloudy days, while their photos of trees had been taken on sunny days. The machine had learned to distinguish cloudy days from sunny days, not camouflaged tanks from trees.

Thus, it seems that trustworthy Friendly AI design must involve detailed models of the underlying processes generating human moral judgments, not only surface similarities of cases.

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Dreyfus and Penrose have argued that human cognitive abilities can’t be emulated by a computational machine. Searle and Block argue that certain kinds of machines cannot have a mind (consciousness, intentionality, etc.). But these objections need not concern those who predict an intelligence explosion.

We can reply to Dreyfus and Penrose by noting that an intelligence explosion does not require an AI to be a classical computational system. And we can reply to Searle and Block by noting that an intelligence explosion does not depend on machines having consciousness or other properties of ‘mind’, only that it be able to solve problems better than humans can in a wide variety of unpredictable environments. As Edsger Dijkstra once said, the question of whether a machine can ‘really’ think is “no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”

Others who are pessimistic about an intelligence explosion occurring within the next few centuries don’t have a specific objection but instead think there are hidden obstacles that will reveal themselves and slow or halt progress toward machine superintelligence.

Finally, a global catastrophe like nuclear war or a large asteroid impact could so damage human civilization that the intelligence explosion never occurs. Or, a stable and global totalitarianism could prevent the technological development required for an intelligence explosion to occur.

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There may be genes or molecules that can be modified to improve general intelligence. Researchers have already done this in mice: they over-expressed the NR2B gene, which improved those mice’s memory beyond that of any other mice of any mouse species. Biological cognitive enhancement in humans may cause an intelligence explosion to occur more quickly than it otherwise would.

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Intelligence is powerful. One might say that “Intelligence is no match for a gun, or for someone with lots of money,” but both guns and money were produced by intelligence. If not for our intelligence, humans would still be foraging the savannah for food.

Intelligence is what caused humans to dominate the planet in the blink of an eye (on evolutionary timescales). Intelligence is what allows us to eradicate diseases, and what gives us the potential to eradicate ourselves with nuclear war. Intelligence gives us superior strategic skills, superior social skills, superior economic productivity, and the power of invention.

A machine with superintelligence would be able to hack into vulnerable networks via the internet, commandeer those resources for additional computing power, take over mobile machines connected to networks connected to the internet, use them to build additional machines, perform scientific experiments to understand the world better than humans can, invent quantum computing and nanotechnology, manipulate the social world better than we can, and do whatever it can to give itself more power to achieve its goals — all at a speed much faster than humans can respond to.

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Won’t AI be just like us?

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The degree to which an Artificial Superintelligence (ASI) would resemble us depends heavily on how it is implemented, but it seems that differences are unavoidable. If AI is accomplished through whole brain emulation and we make a big effort to make it as human as possible (including giving it a humanoid body), the AI could probably be said to think like a human. However, by definition of ASI it would be much smarter. Differences in the substrate and body might open up numerous possibilities (such as immortality, different sensors, easy self-improvement, ability to make copies, etc.). Its social experience and upbringing would likely also be entirely different. All of this can significantly change the ASI's values and outlook on the world, even if it would still use the same algorithms as we do. This is essentially the "best case scenario" for human resemblance, but whole brain emulation is kind of a separate field from AI, even if both aim to build intelligent machines. Most approaches to AI are vastly different and most ASIs would likely not have humanoid bodies. At this moment in time it seems much easier to create a machine that is intelligent than a machine that is exactly like a human (it's certainly a bigger target).

As far as we know from the observable universe, morality is just a construct of the human mind. It is meaningful to us, but it is not necessarily meaningful to the vast universe outside of our minds. There is no reason to suspect that our set of values is objectively superior to any other arbitrary set of values, e.i. “the more paper clips, the better!” Consider the case of the psychopathic genius. Plenty have existed, and they negate any correlation between intelligence and morality.

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How long will it be until AGI is created?

Nobody knows for sure when we will have ASI or if it is even possible. Predictions on AI timelines are notoriously variable, but recent surveys about the arrival of human-level AGI have median dates between 2040 and 2050 although the median for (optimistic) AGI researchers and futurists is in the early 2030s (source). What will happen if/when we are able to build human-level AGI is a point of major contention among experts. One survey asked (mostly) experts to estimate the likelihood that it would take less than 2 or 30 years for a human-level AI to improve to greatly surpass all humans in most professions. Median answers were 10% for "within 2 years" and 75% for "within 30 years". We know little about the limits of intelligence and whether increasing it will follow the law of accelerating or diminishing returns. Of particular interest to the control problem is the fast or hard takeoff scenario. It has been argued that the increase from a relatively harmless level of intelligence to a dangerous vastly superhuman level might be possible in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours: too fast for human controllers to stop it before they know what's happening. Moving from human to superhuman level might be as simple as adding computational resources, and depending on the implementation the AI might be able to quickly absorb large amounts of internet knowledge. Once we have an AI that is better at AGI design than the team that made it, the system could improve itself or create the next generation of even more intelligent AIs (which could then self-improve further or create an even more intelligent generation, and so on). If each generation can improve upon itself by a fixed or increasing percentage per time unit, we would see an exponential increase in intelligence: an intelligence explosion.

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Isn’t it immoral to control and impose our values on AI?

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It is impossible to design an AI without a goal, because it would do nothing. Therefore, in the sense that designing the AI’s goal is a form of control, it is impossible not to control an AI. This goes for anything that you create. You have to control the design of something at least somewhat in order to create it.

There may be relevant moral questions about our future relationship with possibly sentient machine intelligent, but the priority of the Control Problem finding a way to ensure the survival and well-being of the human species.

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What is superintelligence?

Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.” A chess program can outperform humans in chess, but is useless at any other task. Superintelligence will have been achieved when we create a machine that outperforms the human brain across practically any domain.

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What is AI Safety?

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To help frame this question, we’re going to first answer the dual question of “what is Cybersecurity?”

As a concept, Cybersecurity is the idea that questions like “is this secure?” can meaningfully be asked of computing systems, where “secure” roughly means “is difficult for unauthorized individuals to get access to”. As a problem, Cybersecurity is the set of problems one runs into when trying to design and build secure computing systems. As a field, Cybersecurity is a group of people trying to solve the aforementioned set of problems in robust ways.

As a concept, AI Safety is the idea that questions like “is this safe?” can meaningfully be asked of AI Systems, where “safe” roughly means “does what it’s supposed to do”. As a problem, AI Safety is the set of problems one runs into when trying to design and build AI systems that do what they’re supposed to do. As a field, AI Safety is a group of people trying to solve the aforementioned set of problems in robust ways.

The reason we have a separate field of Cybersecurity is because ensuring the security of the internet and other critical systems is both hard and important. We might want a separate field of AI Safety for similar reasons; we might expect getting powerful AI systems to do what we want to be both hard and important.

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Why is AI Safety important?

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Cybersecurity is important because computing systems comprise the backbone of the modern economy. If the security of the internet was compromised, then the economy would suffer a tremendous blow.

Similarly, AI Safety might become important as AI systems begin forming larger and larger parts of the modern economy. As more and more labor gets automated, it becomes more and more important to ensure that that labor is occurring in a safe and robust way.

Before the widespread adoption of computing systems, lack of Cybersecurity didn’t cause much damage. However, it might have been beneficial to start thinking about Cybersecurity problems before the solutions were necessary.

Similarly, since AI systems haven’t been adopted en mass yet, lack of AI Safety isn’t causing harm. However, given that AI systems will become increasingly powerful and increasingly widespread, it might be prudent to try to solve safety problems before a catastrophe occurs.

Additionally, people sometimes think about Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), sometimes called Human-Level Artificial Intelligence (HLAI). One of the core problems in AI Safety is ensuring when AGI gets built, it has human interests at heart. (Note that most surveyed experts think building GI/HLAI is possible, but there is wide disagreement on how soon this might occur).

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Why can’t we just…

At this point, people generally have a question that’s like “why can’t we just do X?”, where X is one of a dozen things. I’m going to go over a few possible Xs, but I want to first talk about how to think about these sorts of objections in general.

At the beginning of AI, the problem of computer vision was assigned to a single graduate student, because they thought it would be that easy. We now know that computer vision is actually a very difficult problem, but this was not obvious at the beginning.

The sword also cuts the other way. Before DeepBlue, people talked about how computers couldn’t play chess without a detailed understanding of human psychology. Chess is easier than we thought, merely requiring brute force search and a few heuristics. This also roughly happened with Go, where it turned out that the game was not as difficult as we thought it was.

The general lesson is that determining how hard it is to do a given thing is a difficult task. Historically, many people have got this wrong. This means that even if you think something should be easy, you have to think carefully and do experiments in order to determine if it’s easy or not.

This isn’t to say that there is no clever solution to AI Safety. I assign a low, but non-trivial probability that AI Safety turns out to not be very difficult. However, most of the things that people initially suggest turn out to be unfeasible or more difficult than expected.

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A potential solution is to create an AI that has the same values and morality as a human by creating a child AI and raising it. There’s nothing intrinsically flawed with this procedure. However, this suggestion is deceptive because it sounds simpler than it is.

If you get a chimpanzee baby and raise it in a human family, it does not learn to speak a human language. Human babies can grow into adult humans because the babies have specific properties, e.g. a prebuilt language module that gets activated during childhood.

In order to make a child AI that has the potential to turn into the type of adult AI we would find acceptable, the child AI has to have specific properties. The task of building a child AI with these properties involves building a system that can interpret what humans mean when we try to teach the child to do various tasks. People are currently working on ways to program agents that can cooperatively interact with humans to learn what they want.

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One possible way to ensure the safety of a powerful AI system is to keep it contained in a software environment. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this procedure - keeping an AI system in a secure software environment would make it safer than letting it roam free. However, even AI systems inside software environments might not be safe enough.

Humans sometimes put dangerous humans inside boxes to limit their ability to influence the external world. Sometimes, these humans escape their boxes. The security of a prison depends on certain assumptions, which can be violated. Yoshie Shiratori reportedly escaped prison by weakening the door-frame with miso soup and dislocating his shoulders.

Human written software has a high defect rate; we should expect a perfectly secure system to be difficult to create. If humans construct a software system they think is secure, it is possible that the security relies on a false assumption. A powerful AI system could potentially learn how its hardware works and manipulate bits to send radio signals. It could fake a malfunction and attempt social engineering when the engineers look at its code. As the saying goes: in order for someone to do something we had imagined was impossible requires only that they have a better imagination.

Experimentally, humans have convinced other humans to let them out of the box. Spooky.

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In previous decades, AI research had proceeded more slowly than some experts predicted. According to experts in the field, however, this trend has reversed in the past 5 years or so. AI researchers have been repeatedly surprised by, for example, the effectiveness of new visual and speech recognition systems. AI systems can solve CAPTCHAs that were specifically devised to foil AIs, translate spoken text on-the-fly, and teach themselves how to play games they have neither seen before nor been programmed to play. Moreover, the real-world value of this effectiveness has prompted massive investment by large tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and IBM, creating a positive feedback cycle that could dramatically speed progress.

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It’s difficult to tell at this stage, but AI will enable many developments that could be terrifically beneficial if managed with enough foresight and care. For example, menial tasks could be automated, which could give rise to a society of abundance, leisure, and flourishing, free of poverty and tedium. As another example, AI could also improve our ability to understand and manipulate complex biological systems, unlocking a path to drastically improved longevity and health, and to conquering disease.

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AI is already superhuman at some tasks, for example numerical computations, and will clearly surpass humans in others as time goes on. We don’t know when (or even if) machines will reach human-level ability in all cognitive tasks, but most of the AI researchers at FLI’s conference in Puerto Rico put the odds above 50% for this century, and many offered a significantly shorter timeline. Since the impact on humanity will be huge if it happens, it’s worthwhile to start research now on how to ensure that any impact is positive. Many researchers also believe that dealing with superintelligent AI will be qualitatively very different from more narrow AI systems, and will require very significant research effort to get right.

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It likely will – however, intelligence is, by many definitions, the ability to figure out how to accomplish goals. Even in today’s advanced AI systems, the builders assign the goal but don’t tell the AI exactly how to accomplish it, nor necessarily predict in detail how it will be done; indeed those systems often solve problems in creative, unpredictable ways. Thus the thing that makes such systems intelligent is precisely what can make them difficult to predict and control. They may therefore attain the goal we set them via means inconsistent with our preferences.

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Imagine, for example, that you are tasked with reducing traffic congestion in San Francisco at all costs, i.e. you do not take into account any other constraints. How would you do it? You might start by just timing traffic lights better. But wouldn’t there be less traffic if all the bridges closed down from 5 to 10AM, preventing all those cars from entering the city? Such a measure obviously violates common sense, and subverts the purpose of improving traffic, which is to help people get around – but it is consistent with the goal of “reducing traffic congestion”.

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Many of the people with the deepest understanding of artificial intelligence are concerned about the risks of unaligned superintelligence. In 2014, Google bought world-leading artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for $400 million; DeepMind added the condition that Google promise to set up an AI Ethics Board. DeepMind cofounder Shane Legg has said in interviews that he believes superintelligent AI will be “something approaching absolute power” and “the number one risk for this century”.

Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science at Berkeley, author of the standard AI textbook, and world-famous AI expert, warns of “species-ending problems” and wants his field to pivot to make superintelligence-related risks a central concern. He went so far as to write Human Compatible, a book focused on bringing attention to the dangers of artificial intelligence and the need for more work to address them.

Many other science and technology leaders agree. Late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said that superintelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Tech billionaire Bill Gates describes himself as “in the camp that is concerned about superintelligence…I don’t understand why some people are not concerned”. SpaceX/Tesla CEO Elon Musk calls superintelligence “our greatest existential threat” and, along with Sam Altman and others, donated $1 billion to found OpenAI in an attempt to mitigate AI risks. Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom, who has been studying AI risks for over 20 years, has said: “Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time.”

Holden Karnofsky, the CEO of Open Philanthropy, has written a carefully reasoned account of why transformative artificial intelligence means that this might be the most important century.

The argument goes: yes, a superintelligent AI might be far smarter than Einstein, but it’s still just one program, sitting in a supercomputer somewhere. That could be bad if an enemy government controls it and asks its help inventing superweapons – but then the problem is the enemy government, not the AI per se. Is there any reason to be afraid of the AI itself? Suppose the AI did feel hostile – suppose it even wanted to take over the world? Why should we think it has any chance of doing so?

Compounded over enough time and space, intelligence is an awesome advantage. Intelligence is the only advantage we have over lions, who are otherwise much bigger and stronger and faster than we are. But we have total control over lions, keeping them in zoos to gawk at, hunting them for sport, and holding them on the brink of extinction. And this isn’t just the same kind of quantitative advantage tigers have over lions, where maybe they’re a little bigger and stronger but they’re at least on a level playing field and enough lions could probably overpower the tigers. Humans are playing a completely different game than the lions, one that no lion will ever be able to respond to or even comprehend. Short of human civilization collapsing or lions evolving human-level intelligence, our domination over them is about as complete as it is possible for domination to be.

Since superintelligences will be as far beyond Einstein as Einstein is beyond a village idiot, we might worry that they would have the same kind of qualitative advantage over us that we have over lions.

Blindly following the trendlines while forecasting technological progress is certainly a risk (affectionately known in AI circles as “pulling a Kurzweill”), but sometimes taking an exponential trend seriously is the right response.

Consider economic doubling times. In 1 AD, the world GDP was about $20 billion; it took a thousand years, until 1000 AD, for that to double to $40 billion. But it only took five hundred more years, until 1500, or so, for the economy to double again. And then it only took another three hundred years or so, until 1800, for the economy to double a third time. Someone in 1800 might calculate the trend line and say this was ridiculous, that it implied the economy would be doubling every ten years or so in the beginning of the 21st century. But in fact, this is how long the economy takes to double these days. To a medieval, used to a thousand-year doubling time (which was based mostly on population growth!), an economy that doubled every ten years might seem inconceivable. To us, it seems normal.

Likewise, in 1965 Gordon Moore noted that semiconductor complexity seemed to double every eighteen months. During his own day, there were about five hundred transistors on a chip; he predicted that would soon double to a thousand, and a few years later to two thousand. Almost as soon as Moore’s Law become well-known, people started saying it was absurd to follow it off a cliff – such a law would imply a million transistors per chip in 1990, a hundred million in 2000, ten billion transistors on every chip by 2015! More transistors on a single chip than existed on all the computers in the world! Transistors the size of molecules! But of course all of these things happened; the ridiculous exponential trend proved more accurate than the naysayers.

None of this is to say that exponential trends are always right, just that they are sometimes right even when it seems they can’t possibly be. We can’t be sure that a computer using its own intelligence to discover new ways to increase its intelligence will enter a positive feedback loop and achieve superintelligence in seemingly impossibly short time scales. It’s just one more possibility, a worry to place alongside all the other worrying reasons to expect a moderate or hard takeoff.

Superintelligence has an advantage that an early human didn’t – the entire context of human civilization and technology, there for it to manipulate socially or technologically.

It might look like there are straightforward ways to eliminate the problems of unaligned superintelligence, but so far all of them turn out to have hidden difficulties. There are many open problems identified by the research community which a solution would need to reliably overcome to be successful.

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