Inching Towards Shannon’s Oblivion

SkynetFollowing Bill Joy’s concerns over the future world of nanotechnology, biological engineering, and robotics in 2000’s Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, it has become fashionable to worry over “existential threats” to humanity. Nuclear power and weapons used to be dreadful enough, and clearly remain in the top five, but these rapidly developing technologies, asteroids, and global climate change have joined Oppenheimer’s misquoted “destroyer of all things” in portending our doom. Here’s Max Tegmark, Stephen Hawking, and others in Huffington Post warning again about artificial intelligence:

One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

I almost always begin my public talks on Big Data and intelligent systems with a presentation on industrial revolutions that progresses through Robert Gordon’s phases and then highlights Paul Krugman’s argument that Big Data and the intelligent systems improvements we are seeing potentially represent a next industrial revolution. I am usually less enthusiastic about the timeline than nonspecialists, but after giving a talk at PASS Business Analytics Friday in San Jose, I stuck around to listen in on a highly technical talk concerning statistical regularization and deep learning and I found myself enthused about the topic once again. Deep learning is using artificial neural networks to classify information, but is distinct from traditional ANNs in that the systems are pre-trained using auto-encoders to have a general knowledge about the data domain. To be clear, though, most of the problems that have been tackled are “subsymbolic” for image recognition and speech problems. Still, the improvements have been fairly impressive based on some pretty simple ideas. First, the pre-training is accompanied by systematic bottlenecking of the number of nodes that can be used for learning. Second, the amount that each fires is kept low to avoid overfitting to nodes with dominating magnitudes. Together, the auto-encoders learn the patterns without training and can then be trained faster and easier to associate those patterns with classes.

I still have my doubts concerning the threat timeline, however. For one, these are mostly sub-symbolic systems that are not capable of the kinds of self-directed system modifications that many fear can lead to exponential self-improvement. Second, the tasks that are seeing improvements are not new but just relatively well-known classification problems. Finally, the improvements, while impressive, are incremental improvements. There is probably a meaningful threat profile that can convert into a decision tree for when action is needed. For global climate change there are consensus estimates about sea level changes for instance. For Evil AI I think we need to wait for a single act of machine intelligence out-of-control before spending excessively on containment, policy, or regulation. In the meantime, though, keep a close eye on your laptop.

And then there’s the mild misanthropy of Claude Shannon, possibly driven by living too long in New Jersey:

I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.


  1. Sean

    For Evil AI I think we need to wait for a single act of machine intelligence out-of-control before spending excessively on containment, policy, or regulation. In the meantime, though, keep a close eye on your laptop.

    Or just a single act of machine intelligence in general. We are not any closer to machines “out-inventing” humans now than we were back in the early 90s when AI was going to be the next big thing.

    That was a dinosaur age ago as far as computing power goes, yet as far as any meaningful advancement towards the kind of AI Hawking is clutching his pearls for it might as well be yesterday. More complicated algorithms, yes, but still just algorithms.

    • MarkD

      Hawking and Tegmark are clearly superbright but I would not, myself, get existential about the threat of the CERN microblackholes because I just don’t have the background. Admittedly, their coauthors do have the necessary background, but I’m still comfortable waiting this out.

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