AI and future-Creating machines smarter than us could be the biggest event in human history – and the last
Here’s a question scientists might ask more often: what if we succeed? That is, how will the world change if we achieve what we’re striving for? Tucked away in offices and labs, researchers can develop tunnel vision, the rosiest of outlooks for their creations. The unintended consequences and shoddy misuses become afterthoughts – messes for society to clean up later.
Today those messes spread far and wide: global heating, air pollution, plastics in the oceans, nuclear waste and babies with badly rewritten DNA. All are products of neat technologies that solve old problems by creating new ones. In the inevitable race to be first to invent, the downsides are dismissed, unexplored or glossed over.
In 1995, Stuart Russell wrote the book on AI. Co-authored with Peter Norvig, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach became one of the most popular course texts in the world (Norvig worked for Nasa; in 2001, he joined Google). In the final pages of the last chapter, the authors posed the question themselves: what if we succeed? Their answer was hardly a ringing endorsement. “The trends seem not to be too terribly negative,” they offered. A lot has happened since: – Google and Facebook for starters.
In Human Compatible, Russell returns to the question and this time does not hold back. The result is surely the most important book on AI this year. Perhaps, as Richard Brautigan’s poem has it, life is good when we are all watched over by machines of loving grace. But Russell, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, sees darker eventualities. Creating machines that surpass our intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. It may also be the last, he warns. Here he makes the convincing case that how we choose to control AI is “possibly the most important question facing humanity”.
Russell has picked his moment well. Tens of thousands of the world’s brightest minds are now building AIs. Most work on one-trick ponies – the “narrow” AIs that process speech, translate languages, spot people in crowds, diagnose diseases, or whip people at games from Go to Starcraft II. But these are a far cry from the field’s ultimate goal: general purpose AIs that match, or surpass, the broad-based brainpower of humans.