Probability of a concrete AI risk scenario

Taking a look at the probabilities associated with a scenario in which an artificial general intelligence attempts to take over the world by means of molecular nanotechnology that it invented, followed by some general remarks and justifications.

Note that this is just one possible scenario. Taking into consideration all possible scenarios results in this probability estimate of human extinction by AI.

5% that it is in principle possible to create molecular nanotechnology that can empower an agent to cause human extinction quickly enough for other parties to be unable to either intervene or employ their own nanotechnology against it.

1%, conditional on the above, that an artificial general intelligence that can solve molecular nanotechnology will be invented before molecular nanotechnology has been solved by humans or narrow AI precursors.

0.1%, conditional on the above, that an AI will be build in such a way that it wants to acquire all possible resources and eliminate all possible threats and that its programming allows it to pursue plans that will result in the enslavement or extinction of humanity without further feedback from humans.

5%, conditional on the above, that a cost benefit analyses shows that it would at some point be instrumentally rational to attempt to kill all humans to either eliminate a threat or in order to convert them into more useful resources.

1%, conditional on the above, that the AI will not accidentally reveal its hostility towards its creators during the early phases of its development (when it is still insufficiently skilled at manipulating and deceiving humans) or that any such revelation will be ignored. Respectively, suspicious activities will at no point be noticed, or not taken seriously enough (e.g. by the AI’s creators, third-party security experts, third-party AI researchers, hackers, concerned customers or other AIs) in order to thwart the AI’s plan for world domination.

0.001%, conditional on the above, that the AI will somehow manage to acquire the social engineering skills necessary in order to manipulate and deceive humans in such a way as to make them behave in a sufficiently complex and coherent manner to not only conduct the experiments necessary for it to solve molecular nanotechnology but to also implement the resulting insights in such a way as to subsequently take control of the resulting technology.

I have ignored a huge number of other requirements, and all of the above requirements can be broken up into a lot of more detailed requirements. Each requirement provides ample opportunity to fail.

Remarks and Justifications

I bet you have other ideas on how an AI could take over the world. We all do (or at least anyone who likes science fiction). But let us consider whether the ability to take over the world is mainly due to the brilliance of your plan or something else.

Could a human being, even an exceptional smart human being, implement your plan? If not, could some company like Google implement your plan? No? Could the NSA, the security agency of the most powerful country on Earth, implement your plan?

The NSA not only has thousands of very smart drones (people), all of which are already equipped with manipulative abilities, but it also has huge computational resources and knows about backdoors to subvert a lot of systems. Does this enable the NSA to implement your plan without destroying or decisively crippling itself?

If not, then the following features are very likely insufficient in order to implement your plan: (1) being in control of thousands of human-level drones, straw men, and undercover agents in important positions (2) having the law on your side (3) access to massive computational resources (4) knowledge of heaps of loopholes to bypass security.

If your plan cannot be implemented by an entity like the NSA, which already features most of the prerequisites that your hypothetical artificial general intelligence first needs to acquire by some magical means, then what is it that makes your plan so foolproof when executed by an AI?

To summarize some quick points that I believe to be true:

(1) The NSA cannot take over the world (even if it would accept the risk of destroying itself).

(2) Your artificial general intelligence first needs to acquire similar capabilities.

(3) Each step towards these capabilities provides ample opportunity to fail. After all, your artificial general intelligence is a fragile technological product that critically depends on human infrastructure.

(4) You have absolutely no idea how your artificial general intelligence could acquire sufficient knowledge of human psychology to become better than the NSA at manipulation and deception. You are just making this up.

If the above points are true, then your plan seems to be largely irrelevant. The possibility of taking over the world does mainly depend on something you assume the artificial general intelligence to be capable of that entities such as Google or the NSA are incapable of.

What could it be? Parallel computing? The NSA has thousands of human-level intelligences working in parallel. How many do you need to implement your plan?

Blazing speed to the rescue!

Let’s just assume that this artificial general intelligence that you imagine is trillions of times faster. This is already a nontrivial assumption. But let’s accept it anyway.

Raw computational power alone is obviously not enough to do anything. You need the right algorithms too. So what assumptions do you make about these algorithms, and how do you justify these assumptions?

To highlight the problem, consider instead of an AI a whole brain emulation (short: WBE). What could such a WBE do if each year equaled a million subjective years? Do you expect it to become a superhuman manipulator by watching all YouTube videos and reading all books and papers on human psychology? Is it just a matter of enough time? Or do you also need feedback?

If you do not believe that such an emulation could become a superhuman manipulator, thanks to a millionfold speedup, do you believe that a trillionfold speedup would do the job? Would a trillionfold speedup be a million times better than a millionfold speedup? If not, do you believe a further speedup would make any difference at all?

Do you feel capable of confidentially answering the above questions?

If you do not believe that a whole brain emulation could do the job, solely by means of a lot of computing power, what makes you believe that an AI can do it instead?

To reformulate the question, do you believe that it is possible to accelerate the discovery of unknown unknowns, or the occurrence of conceptual revolutions, simply by throwing more computing power at an algorithm? Are particle accelerators unnecessary, in order to gain new insights into the nature of reality, once you have enough computing power? Is human feedback unnecessary, in order to improve your social engineering skills, once you have enough computing power?

And even if you believe all this was possible, even if a Babylonian mathematician, had he been given a trillionfold speedup of subjective time by aliens uploading him into some computational substrate, could brute force concepts such as calculus and high-tech such as nuclear weapons, how could he apply those insights? He wouldn’t be able to simply coerce his fellow Babylonians to build him some nuclear weapons. Because he would have to convince them to do it without dismissing or even killing him. But more importantly, it takes nontrivial effort to obtain the sufficient prerequisites to build nuclear weapons.

What makes you believe that this would be much easier for a future emulation of a scientist trying to come up with similar conceptual breakthroughs and high-tech? And what makes you believe that a completely artificial entity, that lacks all the evolutionary abilities of a human emulation, can do it?

Consider that it took millions of years of biological evolution, thousands of years of cultural evolution, and decades of education in order for a human to become good at the social manipulation of other humans. We are talking about a huge information-theoretic complexity that any artificial agent somehow has to acquire in a very short time.

To summarize the last points:

(1) Throwing numbers around such as a million or trillionfold speedup is very misleading if you have no idea how exactly the instrumental value of such a speedup would scale with whatever you are trying to accomplish.

(2) You have very little reason to believe that conceptual revolutions and technological breakthroughs happen in a vacuum and only depend on computing power rather than the context of cultural evolution and empirical feedback from experiments.

(3) If you cannot imagine doing it yourself, given a speedup, then you have very little reason to believe that something which is much less adapted to a complex environment, populated by various agents, can do the job more easily.

(4) In the end you need to implement your discoveries. Concepts and blueprints alone are useless if they cannot be deployed effectively.

I suggest that you stop handwaving and start analyzing concrete scenarios and their associated probabilities. I suggest that you begin to ask yourself how anyone could justify a >1% probability of extinction by artificial general intelligence.

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  1. Aris Katsaris’s avatar

    “5% that it is in principle possible to create molecular nanotechnology that can empower an agent to cause human extinction quickly enough for other parties to be unable to either intervene or employ their own nanotechnology against it.”

    I understand “in principle possible” to mean “There’s no physical law preventing it”.

    Do you mean the same thing? If so, I’d like you to expand on why you assign 95% probability on the existence of a physical law preventing this first step.

  2. Alexander Kruel’s avatar

    95% that molecular nanotechnology will not be of the kind that can enable a grey goo scenario: replicate much faster than biological analogs, given an arbitrary environment.

    It is a very crude guess. I have no clue about these sorts of things. But the more powerful this technology is the less intelligent the AI needs to be in order to cause human extinction.

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