Monday, June 5, 2017

On Resignation

I’m kind of harping on this A.I. thing, but I read an article that helped put my Neuralink post (On the Connections Between Brains and Computers) in perspective — and not in a good way. The self-selected summary is as follows:
  1. Artificial Intelligence cannot be stopped.
  2. Initiatives (cl)aiming to "stop AI" will either fail to slow or actively hasten it.
  3. Attempting to subtly influence the development of AI is a waste of time.
  4. Other people have already figured out 1, 2, & 3 and [have] chosen not to tell anyone.
Obviously, not everyone in the field is as concerned with destructive A.I. scenarios, but this isn’t the place to split hairs; a wise man cautioned us to “avoid world-ending assumptions”. While the reasoning flies a bit closer to Pascal’s wager, then I’d prefer, it’s still good advice. Many of the optimistic assumptions and predictions about A.I. are the kind of assumption that if it’s wrong (or wrong in the right sort of way), that’s it. Near-instant extinction for planet earth.
Or at least death to Sarah Connor

It’s an embarrassing lapse, but I did not think much about how the very people who already know all the stuff I’m learning would behave. I wasn’t thinking enough steps ahead. Seen in this context, Neuralink isn’t an exciting new tech venture so much as a desperate hope to mitigate an unavoidable disaster.
I don’t really have anywhere fancy I’m going with this, but controlling A.I. is extremely difficult. They are, in many ways, faster, smarter, and more resourceful than we are, and the disparity will only grow with time. Even the simple A.I. we have now are more than capable of surprising their creators with unforeseen loopholes and undesirable outcomes (like the Tetris-playing A.I. that paused the game in order to not lose). Adding to this complication is the fact that neural networks learn in ways that are difficult to track. They’re complicated. Not as complicated as brains, but they're still black boxes — not even the people operating Alpha-Go know exactly how it decides on the strategies it uses. 

This is fine for Go, but less fine when A.I. is running everything in society. Much like editing, it is nearly impossible to find every mistake. Humans are imperfect; there is a crack in everything. We’re still quite a ways off from an Artificial General Intelligence, but humans are error-prone. Eventually, someone will slip up, and if it’s bad enough, that’s it (again). We've already outsourced prison sentencing to A.I. and the fact that these systems are likely to make better predictions than the people doesn't mean there aren't unaccountable errors. While the first errors are likely going to be more benign (potentially unjust prison sentencing), the later ones will be far worse.

But circling back to number 4, this isn’t conjecture. For instance, Elon Musk has stated publicly that the existential threat from A.I. is one of the main motivators for SpaceX. Likewise, Neuralink is an awful, awkward, messy fix to the problem of A.I., but it’s at least theoretically sound. In this case, capitulation, resignation, and surrender look like spending a billion dollars to computerize our brains before the computers don’t need us anymore.

Postscript: I don’t want this to be interpreted as a ringing endorsement of Mr. Musk, he is certainly a man with many faults (as is readily evidenced by SpaceX’s labor lawsuits). Certainly, some of Silicon Valley’s more reprehensible practices are hard to justify, though I imagine it’s easier to sleep at night if you imagine yourself as working tirelessly to save humanity (Another checkmark in his favor is his recent resignation from Trump’s advisory council, since Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord made it clear that there’s no point trying to steer that ship).

Edit: Added a few more links. Also of note: optimism towards the future of AI seems to be limited to non-experts.

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