Will Superintelligent AIs Be Our Doom?

Nick Bostrom says artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to humanity

Every morning Nick Bostrom wakes up, brushes his teeth, and gets to work thinking about how the human species may be wiped off the face of the earth. Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, is an expert on existential threats to humanity. Of all the perils that make his list, though, he’s most concerned with the threat posed by artificial intelligence.

Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford University Press), maps out scenarios in which humans create a “seed AI” that is smart enough to improve its own intelligence and skills and which goes on to take over the world. Bostrom discusses what might motivate such a machine and explains why its goals might be incompatible with the continued existence of human beings. (In one example, a factory AI is given the task of maximizing the production of paper clips. Once it becomes superintelligent, it proceeds to convert all available resources, including human bodies, into paper clips.) Bostrom’s book also runs through potential control strategies for an AI—and the reasons they might not work.

In the passage from the book below, Bostrom imagines a scenario in which AI researchers, trying to proceed cautiously, test their creations in a controlled and limited “sandbox” environment.

Over the coming years and decades, AI systems become gradually more capable and as a consequence find increasing real-world applications: They might be used to operate trains, cars, industrial and household robots, and autonomous military vehicles. We may suppose that this automation for the most part has the desired effects, but that the success is punctuated by occasional mishaps—a driverless truck crashes into oncoming traffic, a military drone fires at innocent civilians.

Investigations reveal the incidents to have been caused by judgment errors by the controlling AIs. Public debate ensues. Some call for tighter oversight and regulation, others emphasize the need for research and better-engineered systems—systems that are smarter and have more common sense, and that are less likely to make tragic mistakes.

Amidst the din can perhaps also be heard the shrill voices of doomsayers predicting many kinds of ill and impending catastrophe. Yet the momentum is very much with the growing AI and robotics industries. So development continues, and progress is made. As the automated navigation systems of cars become smarter, they suffer fewer accidents; and as military robots achieve more precise targeting, they cause less collateral damage. A broad lesson is inferred from these observations of real-world outcomes: The smarter the AI, the safer it is. It is a lesson based on science, data, and statistics, not armchair philosophizing.

Against this backdrop, some group of researchers is beginning to achieve promising results in their work on developing general machine intelligence. The researchers are carefully testing their seed AI in a sandbox environment, and the signs are all good. The AI’s behavior inspires confidence—increasingly so, as its intelligence is gradually increased.

At this point, any remaining Cassandra would have several strikes against her:

  • A history of alarmists predicting intolerable harm from the growing capabilities of robotic systems and being repeatedly proven wrong. Automation has brought many benefits and has, on the whole, turned out safer than human operation.
  • A clear empirical trend: the smarter the AI, the safer and more reliable it has been. Surely this bodes well for a project aiming at creating machine intelligence more generally smart than any ever built before—what is more, machine intelligence that can improve itself so that it will become even more reliable.
  • Large and growing industries with vested interests in robotics and machine intelligence. These fields are widely seen as key to national economic competitiveness and military security. Many prestigious scientists have built their careers laying the groundwork for the present applications and the more advanced systems being planned.
  • The promising new AI is tremendously exciting to those who have participated in or followed the research. Although safety issues and ethics are debated, the outcome is preordained. Too much has been invested to pull back now. AI researchers have been working to get to human-level artificial general intelligence for the better part of a century: Of course there is no real prospect that they will now suddenly stop and throw away all this effort just when it finally is about to bear fruit.
  • A careful evaluation of seed AI in a sandbox environment, showing that it is behaving cooperatively and showing good judgment. After some further adjustments, the test results are as good as they could be. It is a green light for the final step …

The researchers let the AI out of its sandbox. And so we boldly go toward our doom.

We observe here how it could be the case that when dumb, smarter is safer; yet when smart, smarter is more dangerous. There is a kind of pivot point, at which a strategy that has previously worked excellently suddenly starts to backfire.

We may call the phenomenon the treacherous turn. While weak, an AI behaves cooperatively (increasingly so, as it gets smarter). When the AI gets sufficiently strong—without warning or provocation—it strikes, and begins directly to optimize the world according to the criteria implied by its values.

A treacherous turn can result from a strategic decision to play nice and build strength while weak in order to strike later; but this model should not be interpreted too narrowly. For example, an AI might not play nice in order that it be allowed to survive and prosper. Instead, the AI might calculate that if it is terminated, the programmers who built it will develop a new and somewhat different AI architecture, but one that will be given a similar utility function.

In this case, the original AI may be indifferent to its own demise, knowing that its goals will continue to be pursued in the future. It might even choose a strategy in which it malfunctions in some particularly interesting or reassuring way. Though this might cause the AI to be terminated, it might also encourage the engineers who perform the postmortem to believe they have gleaned a valuable new insight into AI dynamics—leading them to place more trust in the next system they design, and thus increasing the chance that the now-defunct original AI’s goals will be achieved. Many other possible strategic considerations might also influence an advanced AI, and it would be hubristic to suppose that we could anticipate all of them, especially for an AI that has attained a strategizing superpower.

A treacherous turn could also come about if the AI discovers an unanticipated way of fulfilling its final goal as specified. Suppose, for example, that an AI’s final goal is to “make the project’s sponsor happy.” Initially, the only method available to the AI to achieve this outcome is by behaving in ways that please its sponsor in something like the intended manner. The AI gives helpful answers to questions; it exhibits a delightful personality; it makes money. The more capable the AI gets, the more satisfying its performances become, and everything goes according to plan—until the AI becomes intelligent enough to figure out that it can realize its final goal more fully and reliably by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of its sponsor’s brain, something assured to delight the sponsor immensely.

Of course, the sponsor might not have wanted to be pleased by being turned into a grinning idiot; but if this is the action that will maximally realize the AI’s final goal, the AI will take it. If the AI already has a decisive strategic advantage, then any attempt to stop it will fail. If the AI does not yet have a decisive strategic advantage, then the AI might temporarily conceal its canny new idea for how to instantiate its final goal until it has grown strong enough that the sponsor and everybody else will be unable to resist. In either case, we get a treacherous turn.

This excerpt is taken from the new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, from Oxford University Press.