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October 12, 2015


Frequently Asked Questions about the Future of Artificial Intelligence

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Q: Who conceived of and wrote FLI’s open letter?

A: The open letter has been an initiative of the Future of Life Institute (especially the FLI founders and Berkeley AI researcher and FLI Advisory Board Member Stuart Russell) in collaboration with the AI research community (including a number of signatories).

Q: What sorts of AI systems is this letter addressing? 

A: There is indeed a proliferation of meanings of the term “Artificial Intelligence”, largely because the intelligence we humans enjoy is actually comprised of many different capabilities. Some draw a distinction between “Narrow AI” (like solving CAPTCHAs or completing Google searches) and “General AI” that could replicate most or all human capabilities, roughly at or above human level. The open letter concerns both types of systems.

Q: What are the concerns behind FLI’s open letter on autonomous weapons?

A: Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control. Read more about the arguments against offensive autonomous weapons here.

Q: Why is the future of AI suddenly in the news? What has changed?

A: In previous decades, AI research had proceeded more slowly than some experts predicted. According to experts in the field, however, this trend has reversed in the past 5 years or so. AI researchers have been repeatedly surprised by, for example, the effectiveness of new visual and speech recognition systems. AI systems can solve CAPTCHAs that were specifically devised to foil AIs, translate spoken text on-the-fly, and teach themselves how to play games they have neither seen before nor been programmed to play. Moreover, the real-world value of this effectiveness has prompted massive investment by large tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and IBM, creating a positive feedback cycle that could dramatically speed progress.

Q: What are the potential benefits of AI as it grows increasingly sophisticated?

A: It’s difficult to tell at this stage, but AI will enable many developments that could be terrifically beneficial if managed with enough foresight and care. For example, menial tasks could be automated, which could give rise to a society of abundance, leisure, and flourishing, free of poverty and tedium. As another example, AI could also improve our ability to understand and manipulate complex biological systems, unlocking a path to drastically improved longevity and health, and to conquering disease.

Q: What is the general nature of the concern about AI safety?

A: The basic concern as AI systems become increasingly powerful is that they won’t do what we want them to do – perhaps because they aren’t correctly designed, perhaps because they are deliberately subverted, or perhaps because they do what we tell them to do rather than what we really want them to do (like in the classic stories of genies and wishes.) Many AI systems are programmed to have goals and to attain them as effectively as possible – for example, a trading algorithm has the goal of maximizing profit. Unless carefully designed to act in ways consistent with human values, a highly sophisticated AI trading system might exploit means that even the most ruthless financier would disavow. These are systems that literally have a mind of their own, and maintaining alignment between human interests and their choices and actions will be crucial.

Q: What is FLI’s position on AI being a threat to humanity?

A: FLI’s general position is represented well by the open letter. We believe it is currently unknown whether over the coming decades AI will be more like the internet (vast upside, relatively small risks), more like nuclear technologies (enormous risks relative to upside to date), or something else. We suspect that in the long-term the upsides and the risks will both be huge, but most strongly believe that research into this question is warranted.

Q: A lot of concern appears to focus on human-level or ‚Äúsuperintelligent” AI. Is that a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future?

A: AI is already superhuman at some tasks, for example numerical computations, and will clearly surpass humans in others as time goes on. We don’t know when (or even if) machines will reach human-level ability in all cognitive tasks, but most of the AI researchers at FLI’s conference in Puerto Rico put the odds above 50% for this century, and many offered a significantly shorter timeline. Since the impact on humanity will be huge if it happens, it’s worthwhile to start research now on how to ensure that any impact is positive. Many researchers also believe that dealing with superintelligent AI will be qualitatively very different from more narrow AI systems, and will require very significant research effort to get right.

Q: Isn’t AI just a tool like any other? Won’t AI just do what we tell it to do?

A: It likely will – however, intelligence is, by many definitions, the ability to figure out how to accomplish goals. Even in today’s advanced AI systems, the builders assign the goal but don’t tell the AI exactly how to accomplish it, nor necessarily predict in detail how it will be done; indeed those systems often solve problems in creative, unpredictable ways. Thus the thing that makes such systems intelligent is precisely what can make them difficult to predict and control. They may therefore attain the goal we set them via means inconsistent with our preferences.

Q: Can you give an example of achieving a beneficial goal via inappropriate means?

A: Imagine, for example, that you are tasked with reducing traffic congestion in San Francisco at all costs, i.e. you do not take into account any other constraints. How would you do it? You might start by just timing traffic lights better. But wouldn’t there be less traffic if all the bridges closed down from 5 to 10AM, preventing all those cars from entering the city? Such a measure obviously violates common sense, and subverts the purpose of improving traffic, which is to help people get around – but it is consistent with the goal of “reducing traffic congestion”.

Q: Why should we prepare for human-level AI technology now rather than decades down the line when it’s closer?

A: First, even “narrow” AI systems, which approach or surpass human intelligence in a small set of capabilities (such as image or voice recognition) already raise important questions regarding their impact on society. Making autonomous vehicles safe, analyzing the strategic and ethical dimensions of autonomous weapons, and the effect of AI on the global employment and economic systems are three examples. Second, the longer-term implications of human or super-human artificial intelligence are dramatic, and there is no consensus on how quickly such capabilities will be developed. Many experts believe there is a chance it could happen rather soon, making it imperative to begin investigating long-term safety issues now, if only to get a better sense of how much early progress is actually possible.

Q: Is the concern that autonomous AI systems could become malevolent or self aware, or develop “volition”, and turn on us? And can’t we just unplug them?

A: One important concern is that some autonomous systems are designed to kill or destroy for military purposes. These systems would be designed so that they could not be “unplugged” easily. Whether further development of such systems is a favorable long-term direction is a question we urgently need to address. A separate concern is that high-quality decision-making systems could inadvertently be programmed with goals that do not fully capture what we want. Antisocial or destructive actions may result from logical steps in pursuit of seemingly benign or neutral goals. A number of researchers studying the problem have concluded that it is surprisingly difficult to completely guard against this effect, and that it may get even harder as the systems become more intelligent. They might, for example, consider our efforts to control them as being impediments to attaining their goals.

Q: Are robots the real problem? How can AI cause harm if it has no ability to directly manipulate the physical world?

A: What’s new and potentially risky is not the ability to build hinges, motors, etc., but the ability to build intelligence. A human-level AI could make money on financial markets, make scientific inventions, hack computer systems, manipulate or pay humans to do its bidding – all in pursuit of the goals it was initially programmed to achieve. None of that requires a physical robotic body, merely an internet connection.

Q: Are there types of advanced AI that would be safer than others?

A: We don’t yet know which AI architectures are safe; learning more about this is one of the goals of our grants program. AI researchers are generally very responsible people who want their work to better humanity. If there are certain AI designs that turn out to be unsafe, then AI researchers will want to know this so they can develop alternative AI systems.

Q: Can humans stay in control of the world if human- or superhuman-level AI is developed?

A: This is a big question that it would pay to start thinking about. Humans are in control of this planet not because we are stronger or faster than other animals, but because we are smarter! If we cede our position as smartest on our planet, it’s not obvious that we’ll retain control.

Q: Is the focus on the existential threat of superintelligent AI diverting too much attention from more pressing debates about AI in surveillance and the battlefield and its potential effects on the economy?

A: The near term and long term aspects of AI safety are both very important to work on. Research into superintelligence is an important part of the open letter, but the actual concern is very different from the Terminator-like scenarios that most media outlets round off this issue to. A much more likely scenario is a superintelligent system with neutral or benevolent goals that is misspecified in a dangerous way. Robust design of superintelligent systems is a complex interdisciplinary research challenge that will likely take decades, so it is very important to begin the research now, and a large part of the purpose of our research program is to make that happen. That said, the alarmist media framing of the issues is hardly useful for making progress in either the near term or long term domain.

This content was first published at on October 12, 2015.

About the Future of Life Institute

The Future of Life Institute (FLI) is a global non-profit with a team of 20+ full-time staff operating across the US and Europe. FLI has been working to steer the development of transformative technologies towards benefitting life and away from extreme large-scale risks since its founding in 2014. Find out more about our mission or explore our work.

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