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Last year, a curious nonfiction book became a Times best-seller: a dense meditation on artificial intelligence by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, who holds an appointment at Oxford. Titled “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” it argues that true artificial intelligence, if it is realized, might pose a danger that exceeds every previous threat from technology—even nuclear weapons—and that if its development is not managed carefully humanity risks engineering its own extinction. Central to this concern is the prospect of an “intelligence explosion,” a speculative event in which an A.I. gains the ability to improve itself, and in short order exceeds the intellectual potential of the human brain by many orders of magnitude.
Such a system would effectively be a new kind of life, and Bostrom’s fears, in their simplest form, are evolutionary: that humanity will unexpectedly become outmatched by a smarter competitor. He sometimes notes, as a point of comparison, the trajectories of people and gorillas: both primates, but with one species dominating the planet and the other at the edge of annihilation. “Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb,” he concludes. “We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.”
At the age of forty-two, Bostrom has become a philosopher of remarkable influence. “Superintelligence” is only his most visible response to ideas that he encountered two decades ago, when he became a transhumanist, joining a fractious quasi-utopian movement united by the expectation that accelerating advances in technology will result in drastic changes—social, economic, and, most strikingly, biological—which could converge at a moment of epochal transformation known as the Singularity. Bostrom is arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today, a position achieved by bringing order to ideas that might otherwise never have survived outside the half-crazy Internet ecosystem where they formed. He rarely makes concrete predictions, but, by relying on probability theory, he seeks to tease out insights where insights seem impossible.
Some of Bostrom’s cleverest arguments resemble Swiss Army knives: they are simple, toylike, a pleasure to consider, with colorful exteriors and precisely calibrated mechanics. He once cast a moral case for medically engineered immortality as a fable about a kingdom terrorized by an insatiable dragon. A reformulation of Pascal’s wager became a dialogue between the seventeenth-century philosopher and a mugger from another dimension.
“Superintelligence” is not intended as a treatise of deep originality; Bostrom’s contribution is to impose the rigors of analytic philosophy on a messy corpus of ideas that emerged at the margins of academic thought. Perhaps because the field of A.I. has recently made striking advances—with everyday technology seeming, more and more, to exhibit something like intelligent reasoning—the book has struck a nerve. Bostrom’s supporters compare it to “Silent Spring.” In moral philosophy, Peter Singer and Derek Parfit have received it as a work of importance, and distinguished physicists such as Stephen Hawking have echoed its warning. Within the high caste of Silicon Valley, Bostrom has acquired the status of a sage. Elon Musk, the C.E.O. of Tesla, promoted the book on Twitter, noting, “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” Bill Gates recommended it, too. Suggesting that an A.I. could threaten humanity, he said, during a talk in China, “When people say it’s not a problem, then I really start to get to a point of disagreement. How can they not see what a huge challenge this is?”
The people who say that artificial intelligence is not a problem tend to work in artificial intelligence. Many prominent researchers regard Bostrom’s basic views as implausible, or as a distraction from the near-term benefits and moral dilemmas posed by the technology—not least because A.I. systems today can barely guide robots to open doors. Last summer, Oren Etzioni, the C.E.O. of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Seattle, referred to the fear of machine intelligence as a “Frankenstein complex.” Another leading researcher declared, “I don’t worry about that for the same reason I don’t worry about overpopulation on Mars.” Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher and tech commentator, told me that even framing the differing views as a debate was a mistake. “This is not an honest conversation,” he said. “People think it is about technology, but it is really about religion, people turning to metaphysics to cope with the human condition. They have a way of dramatizing their beliefs with an end-of-days scenario—and one does not want to criticize other people’s religions.”
Because the argument has played out on blogs and in the popular press, beyond the ambit of peer-reviewed journals, the two sides have appeared in caricature, with headlines suggesting either doom (“Will Super-intelligent Machines Kill Us All?”) or a reprieve from doom (“Artificial intelligence ‘will not end human race’ ”). Even the most grounded version of the debate occupies philosophical terrain where little is clear. But, Bostrom argues, if artificial intelligence can be achieved it would be an event of unparalleled consequence—perhaps even a rupture in the fabric of history. A bit of long-range forethought might be a moral obligation to our own species.
Source: The New Yorker