A group of billionaires, including Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, have established a new initiative called OpenAI. It will attempt to accelerate research into artificial intelligence (AI) but in way that assures that the resulting AI will be “friendly.” In my view, this is the most important philanthropic initiative of the year, perhaps of the decade, because it addresses a crucial issue of our time—dangers from the accelerating pace of technological change.
The development of AI can help navigate the rapids ahead, because progress in artificial intelligence can aid in assessing the consequences of social policy for other forms of accelerating technology, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, more accurately and quickly. More substantial machine intelligence can process data, simulate the world to test the effects of future policy, and offer hypotheses about the effects of past policy.
But as Musk and Stephen Hawking have argued, strong AI– defined as a general purpose intelligence that approximates that of humans—also could threaten humanity, because it might be unable to be controlled. Man will be in the unhappy position of the sorcerer’s apprentice—too weak to master the master machines.
A recent meeting in Geneva on the implementation of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons focused on regulating autonomous weapons. Autonomous weapons are systems that decide to deploy lethal force without direct human control. Imagine, for instance, drones guided by sensors and preprogrammed algorithms that would choose for themselves the time and place to release their deadly missiles.
There was substantial sentiment at the meeting for banning such weapons. Such a ban would prove an enormous mistake. It would harm the interests of the United States and make for a less peaceful world.
The first problem with such a ban is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify. First, autonomous systems depend on AI programs, which, unlike nuclear weapons, are very easy to hide. Second, autonomy is a matter of degree: limited human oversight would be hard to distinguish from full autonomy. The lack of verifiability will empower rogue nations in the arms race that has characterized military competition from the beginning of civilization. In the world of tomorrow that arms race will be paced by robotics and machine intelligence.
Second, because of the West’s technological superiority, the West in general and particularly the United States have an advantage in developing these weapons.