This is a 5-minute spoken introduction to the Singularity I wrote for a small conference. I had to talk fast, though, so this is probably more like a 6.5 minute intro.
The rise of human intelligence in its modern form reshaped the Earth. Most of the objects you see around you, like these chairs, are byproducts of human intelligence. There’s a popular concept of “intelligence” as book smarts, like calculus or chess, as opposed to say social skills. So people say that “it takes more than intelligence to succeed in human society”. But social skills reside in the brain, not the kidneys. When you think of intelligence, don’t think of a college professor, think of human beings; as opposed to chimpanzees. If you don’t have human intelligence, you’re not even in the game.
Sometime in the next few decades, we’ll start developing technologies that improve on human intelligence. We’ll hack the brain, or interface the brain to computers, or finally crack the problem of Artificial Intelligence. Now, this is not just a pleasant futuristic speculation like soldiers with super-strong bionic arms. Humanity did not rise to prominence on Earth by lifting heavier weights than other species.
Intelligence is the source of technology. If we can use technology to improve intelligence, that closes the loop and potentially creates a positive feedback cycle. Let’s say we invent brain-computer interfaces that substantially improve human intelligence. What might these augmented humans do with their improved intelligence? Well, among other things, they’ll probably design the next generation of brain-computer interfaces. And then, being even smarter, the next generation can do an even better job of designing the third generation. This hypothetical positive feedback cycle was pointed out in the 1960s by I. J. Good, a famous statistician, who called it the “intelligence explosion”. The purest case of an intelligence explosion would be an Artificial Intelligence rewriting its own source code.
The key idea is that if you can improve intelligence even a little, the process accelerates. It’s a tipping point. Like trying to balance a pen on one end – as soon as it tilts even a little, it quickly falls the rest of the way.
The potential impact on our world is enormous. Intelligence is the source of all our technology from agriculture to nuclear weapons. All of that was produced as a side effect of the last great jump in intelligence, the one that took place tens of thousands of years ago with the rise of humanity.
So let’s say you have an Artificial Intelligence that thinks enormously faster than a human. How does that affect our world? Well, hypothetically, the AI solves the protein folding problem. And then emails a DNA string to an online service that sequences the DNA , synthesizes the protein, and fedexes the protein back. The proteins self-assemble into a biological machine that builds a machine that builds a machine and then a few days later the AI has full-blown molecular nanotechnology.
So what might an Artificial Intelligence do with nanotechnology? Feed the hungry? Heal the sick? Help us become smarter? Instantly wipe out the human species? Probably it depends on the specific makeup of the AI. See, human beings all have the same cognitive architecture. We all have a prefrontal cortex and limbic system and so on. If you imagine a space of all possible minds, then all human beings are packed into one small dot in mind design space. And then Artificial Intelligence is literally everything else. “AI” just means “a mind that does not work like we do”. So you can’t ask “What will an AI do?” as if all AIs formed a natural kind. There is more than one possible AI.
The impact, of the intelligence explosion, on our world, depends on exactly what kind of minds go through the tipping point.
I would seriously argue that we are heading for the critical point of all human history. Modifying or improving the human brain, or building strong AI, is huge enough on its own. When you consider the intelligence explosion effect, the next few decades could determine the future of intelligent life.
So this is probably the single most important issue in the world. Right now, almost no one is paying serious attention. And the marginal impact of additional efforts could be huge. My nonprofit, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, is trying to get things started in this area. My own work deals with the stability of goals in self-modifying AI, so we can build an AI and have some idea of what will happen as a result. There’s more to this issue, but I’m out of time. If you’re interested in any of this, please talk to me, this problem needs your attention. Thank you.
This document is ©2007 by Eliezer Yudkowsky and free under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License for copying and distribution, so long as the work is attributed and the text is unaltered.
Eliezer Yudkowsky’s work is supported by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute .
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