You’ll find the Future of Humanity Institute down a medieval backstreet in the center of Oxford. It is beside St Ebbe’s church, which has stood on this site since 1005, and above a Pure Gym, which opened in April. The institute, a research faculty of Oxford University, was established a decade ago to ask the very biggest questions on our behalf. Notably: what exactly are the “existential risks” that threaten the future of our species; how do we measure them; and what can we do to prevent them? Or to put it another way: in a world of multiple fears, what precisely should we be most terrified of?
When I arrive to meet the director of the institute, Professor Nick Bostrom, a bed is being delivered to the second-floor office. Existential risk is a round-the-clock kind of operation; it sleeps fitfully, if at all.
Bostrom, a 43-year-old Swedish-born philosopher, has lately acquired something of the status of prophet of doom among those currently doing most to shape our civilization: the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley. His reputation rests primarily on his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which was a surprise New York Times bestseller last year and now arrives in paperback, trailing must-read recommendations from Bill Gates and Tesla’s Elon Musk. (In the best kind of literary review, Musk also gave Bostrom’s institute £1m to continue to pursue its inquiries.)
The book is a lively, speculative examination of the singular threat that Bostrom believes – after years of calculation and argument – to be the one most likely to wipe us out. This threat is not climate change, nor pandemic, nor nuclear winter; it is the possibly imminent creation of a general machine intelligence greater than our own.
The cover of Bostrom’s book is dominated by a mad-eyed, pen-and-ink picture of an owl, drawn by the philosopher himself. The owl is the subject of the book’s opening parable. A group of sparrows are building their nests. “We are all so small and weak,” tweets one, feebly. “Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!” There is general twittering agreement among sparrows everywhere; an owl could defend the sparrows! It could look after their old and their young! It could allow them to live a life of leisure and prosperity! With these fantasies in mind, the sparrows can hardly contain their excitement and fly off in search of the swivel-headed savior who will transform their existence.
There is only one voice of dissent: “Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quote he: ‘This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?’” His warnings, inevitably, fall on deaf sparrow ears. Owl-taming would be complicated; why not get the owl first and work out the fine details later? Bostrom’s book, which is a shrill alarm call about the darker implications of artificial intelligence, is dedicated to Scronkfinkle.
Bostrom articulates his own warnings in a suitably fretful manner. He has a reputation for obsessiveness and for workaholism; he is slim, pale and semi-nocturnal, often staying in the office into the early hours. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for a man whose days are dominated by whiteboards filled with formulae expressing the relative merits of 57 varieties of apocalypse, he appears to leave as little as possible to chance. In place of meals he favors a green-smoothie elixir involving vegetables, fruit, oat milk and whey powder. Other interviewers have remarked on his avoidance of handshakes to guard against infection. He does proffer a hand to me, but I have the sense he is subsequently isolating it to disinfect when I have gone. There is, perhaps as a result, a slight impatience about him, which he tries hard to resist.
In his book he talks about the “intelligence explosion” that will occur when machines much cleverer than us begin to design machines of their own. “Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb,” he writes. “We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.” Talking to Bostrom, you have a feeling that for him that faint ticking never completely goes away.
“Machine learning and deep learning [the pioneering ‘neural’ computer algorithms that most closely mimic human brain function] have over the last few years moved much faster than people anticipated,” he says. “That is certainly one of the reasons why this has become such a big topic just now. People can see things moving forward in the technical field, and they become concerned about what next.”
Read Article (Tim Adams | theguardian.com | 06/12/2016)
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