Risks and Benefits of AI

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As with any form of technology, artificial intelligence has the potential to greatly benefit humankind, along with the potential to do real harm. Decisions we make today regarding how we implement AI in various aspects of our lives will have consequences far into the noosphere’s future.

In this conversation, David Sloan Wilson explores those potential consequences with Stuart Russell and Terrence Deacon, both of whom are professors at Berkeley. Stuart is author of Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control. Terry has written two books that explore some of the underlying ideas, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, and Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter.

We can only guess at what Teilhard may have thought about the current debate over implementation of AI, were he alive today. In the Formation of the Noosphere — finished in 1947 — he wrote about the coming together of information and communication technology (ICT) that was already underway:

“…how can we fail to see the machine as playing a constructive part in the creation of a truly collective consciousness? It is not merely a matter of the machine which liberates, relieving both individual and collective thought of the trammels which hinder its progress, but also of the machine which creates, helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth.

I am thinking, of course, in the first place of the extraordinary network of radio and television communications which, perhaps anticipating the direct syntonization of brains through the mysterious power of telepathy, already link us all in a sort of “etherized” universal consciousness.

But I am also thinking of the insidious growth of those astonishing electronic computers which, pulsating with signals at the rate of hundreds of thousands a second, not only relieve our brains of tedious and exhausting work but, because they enhance the essential (and too little noted) factor of “speed of thought,” are also paving the way for a revolution in the sphere of research.”

As Teilhard discussed at length, what he dubbed “the mechanical apparatus” — technology writ large — has played a role in the formation of the noosphere since its inception, from the first stone tools to the wonders of the modern world. But early in the discussion, Terry reminds us that ICT and AI represent a major change in the human relationship with its own technology:

“The key innovation that’s happened really just within the past few decades, of course, as a result of computer technology and communications, added to that, artificial intelligence, that is offloading not just work, physical work, but now cognitive work onto devices, is intermingled with and entangled with this process of human communication playing more and more of a role. And since Stuart is an expert in thinking about the future of AI, what AI has done, what it could do and where it’s going, it’s appropriate to pursue this question about what it’s going to be doing, not just in and of itself as the technology, but what it’s doing to us, as now being in a sense cyborgs within that technology.”

The role of human preferences is central to Stuart’s perspective on AI. Near the beginning of the discussion, he explains why he considers preferences to be such an important factor:

“A topic that I think pervades much of my recent thinking about AI and its role, and that’s what human preferences are. And so version zero of the theory is that roughly speaking, humans do have preferences about the future. There are futures we want to avoid, such as extinction and enslavement and various other dystopias, and futures that we would like to bring about. And this concept of the noosphere is really important to that because we’re not born with these preferences, they result from our immersion in the noosphere. And so understanding the dynamics of that is extremely important because to some extent, our preferences about the future end up determining what future we get.”

This conversation between Stuart, Terry, and David makes for a wonderful exploration of these ideas.

Stuart Russell and Terrence Deacon Transcript