Books by Barrat, James

Barrat, James. Our Final Invention. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-312-62237-4.
As a member of that crusty generation who began programming mainframe computers with punch cards in the 1960s, the phrase “artificial intelligence” evokes an almost visceral response of scepticism. Since its origin in the 1950s, the field has been a hotbed of wildly over-optimistic enthusiasts, predictions of breakthroughs which never happened, and some outright confidence men preying on investors and institutions making research grants. John McCarthy, who organised the first international conference on artificial intelligence (a term he coined), predicted at the time that computers would achieve human-level general intelligence within six months of concerted research toward that goal. In 1970 Marvin Minsky said “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.” And these were serious scientists and pioneers of the field; the charlatans and hucksters were even more absurd in their predictions.

And yet, and yet…. The exponential growth in computing power available at constant cost has allowed us to “brute force” numerous problems once considered within the domain of artificial intelligence. Optical character recognition (machine reading), language translation, voice recognition, natural language query, facial recognition, chess playing at the grandmaster level, and self-driving automobiles were all once thought to be things a computer could never do unless it vaulted to the level of human intelligence, yet now most have become commonplace or are on the way to becoming so. Might we, in the foreseeable future, be able to brute force human-level general intelligence?

Let's step back and define some terms. “Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) means a machine with intelligence comparable to that of a human across all of the domains of human intelligence (and not limited, say, to playing chess or driving a vehicle), with self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes and improve its performance. It need not be embodied in a robot form (although some argue it would have to be to achieve human-level performance), but could certainly pass the Turing test: a human communicating with it over whatever channels of communication are available (in the original formulation of the test, a text-only teleprinter) would not be able to determine whether he or she were communicating with a machine or another human. “Artificial Super Intelligence” (ASI) denotes a machine whose intelligence exceeds that of the most intelligent human. Since a self-aware intelligent machine will be able to modify its own programming, with immediate effect, as opposed to biological organisms which must rely upon the achingly slow mechanism of evolution, an AGI might evolve into an ASI in an eyeblink: arriving at intelligence a million times or more greater than that of any human, a process which I. J. Good called an “intelligence explosion”.

What will it be like when, for the first time in the history of our species, we share the planet with an intelligence greater than our own? History is less than encouraging. All members of genus Homo which were less intelligent than modern humans (inferring from cranial capacity and artifacts, although one can argue about Neanderthals) are extinct. Will that be the fate of our species once we create a super intelligence? This book presents the case that not only will the construction of an ASI be the final invention we need to make, since it will be able to anticipate anything we might invent long before we can ourselves, but also our final invention because we won't be around to make any more.

What will be the motivations of a machine a million times more intelligent than a human? Could humans understand such motivations any more than brewer's yeast could understand ours? As Eliezer Yudkowsky observed, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” Indeed, when humans plan to construct a building, do they take into account the wishes of bacteria in soil upon which the structure will be built? The gap between humans and ASI will be as great. The consequences of creating ASI may extend far beyond the Earth. A super intelligence may decide to propagate itself throughout the galaxy and even beyond: with immortality and the ability to create perfect copies of itself, even travelling at a fraction of the speed of light it could spread itself into all viable habitats in the galaxy in a few hundreds of millions of years—a small fraction of the billions of years life has existed on Earth. Perhaps ASI probes from other extinct biological civilisations foolish enough to build them are already headed our way.

People are presently working toward achieving AGI. Some are in the academic and commercial spheres, with their work reasonably transparent and reported in public venues. Others are “stealth companies” or divisions within companies (does anybody doubt that Google's achieving an AGI level of understanding of the information it Hoovers up from the Web wouldn't be a overwhelming competitive advantage?). Still others are funded by government agencies or operate within the black world: certainly players such as NSA dream of being able to understand all of the information they intercept and cross-correlate it. There is a powerful “first mover” advantage in developing AGI and ASI. The first who obtains it will be able to exploit its capability against those who haven't yet achieved it. Consequently, notwithstanding the worries about loss of control of the technology, players will be motivated to support its development for fear their adversaries might get there first.

This is a well-researched and extensively documented examination of the state of artificial intelligence and assessment of its risks. There are extensive end notes including references to documents on the Web which, in the Kindle edition, are linked directly to their sources. In the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of “searchable terms”, not linked to references in the text. There are a few goofs, as you might expect for a documentary film maker writing about technology (“Newton's second law of thermodynamics”), but nothing which invalidates the argument made herein.

I find myself oddly ambivalent about the whole thing. When I hear “artificial intelligence” what flashes through my mind remains that dielectric material I step in when I'm insufficiently vigilant crossing pastures in Switzerland. Yet with the pure increase in computing power, many things previously considered AI have been achieved, so it's not implausible that, should this exponential increase continue, human-level machine intelligence will be achieved either through massive computing power applied to cognitive algorithms or direct emulation of the structure of the human brain. If and when that happens, it is difficult to see why an “intelligence explosion” will not occur. And once that happens, humans will be faced with an intelligence that dwarfs that of their entire species; which will have already penetrated every last corner of its infrastructure; read every word available online written by every human; and which will deal with its human interlocutors after gaming trillions of scenarios on cloud computing resources it has co-opted.

And still we advance the cause of artificial intelligence every day. Sleep well.

December 2013 Permalink