On the (Im)possiblity of intelligence explosion

(In this post I am following the venerable tradition of bloggers opining about matters on which they don’t really know much about. I hope I learn something from the feedback –Boaz).

Nothing is impossible,
Child, nothing is impossible.
Every bridge is crossable.
Every tooth is flossable.
Every win is lossable.
Every worker’s bossable.
Every cookie’s tossable.
Every yak’s a lhasa bull.
Nothing is impossible,
Child, nothing is impossible.

Okay, teacher, can you name something that ISN’T possible?

No, Child. Nothing is impossible.

So, there IS something that’s impossible. Naming something that’s impossible is impossible.

(From “The Teacher and The Child”by Chris Harris)


In this world where reasoned arguments and respect for facts seem increasigly rare, some people are actually worried about the opposite problem of “intelligence explosion”.
Recently, through a blog post of Scott Aaronson, I came across this essay by François Chollet. Given Scott’s less than raving review, I fully expected not to like it, but actually found myself agreeing with some parts of this essay (though not all, and in particular not with the title).

The basic fear of “intelligence explosion” is that:

  1. Once we develop sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence, it will go on to use this intelligence to build better and better AI, quickly leaving us behind.
  2. The AI will develop some form of consciousness and rather than using their intelligence to make our lives better, will be about as kind to us as we were to the Neanderthals.

Consciousness is a hard concept to define. Humans used to attribute consciousness to the weather, praying to the sun and sea gods. After all it made perfect sense, the weather is unpredictable and dangerous, and seemed to vary in capricious ways. As we have grown to understand weather better, we no longer think that it is conscious. Yes, there is still an element of unpredictability and randomness to it, but we do understand the basic mechanisms at play, and can place some probabilities or bounds on its behavior. So these days the weather is stochastic rather than adversarial.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”. Similarly, one can say that any system that is sufficiently adversarial is indistinguishable from being conscious.

If we follow this definition, then we have already created conscious machines, since we can definitely already create technologies that we understand so poorly that we cannot model it in any way other than adversarial. In some sense this is the underlying lesson of results such as the Halting problem and NP completeness. Moreover, ever since the Atom bomb, mankind’s potential to damage the planet and ourselves has gone far beyond what nature can do (and of course, as witnessed by global warming, nuclear energy is not the only technology that can affect the whole planet). Also, as anyone getting “on the air updates” for their gadgets can attest to, we already have systems that continuously improve over time, often with a feedback loop. With more and more of the world’s economy becoming dependent on the transfer of information as opposed to goods (which of course is somewhat of an artificial distinction), the speed of progress has become much faster. So, if the question is whether we should worry about us developing and deploying technology whose behavior we can’t completely predict, and one that could result in very bad consequences, then I am with the alarmists.


What I find less appealing about the “AI risk” position is the focus on notions such as “intelligence” and “conciousness”. There is already an algorithm outperforming most humans on IQ tests and surely soon there will be an algorithm with an IQ of 300, or whatever the maximum possible value is. However, as Chollet points out, while some individual humans have had profound influence on the course of humanity, it is typically not intelligence alone that helped them (see e.g. the rather sad story of William James Sidis). That said, one can’t dispute that in the 200K years we’ve been around, Homo Sapiens have managed to make some significant progress, and so if you could simulate a population of even average humans, but do it with more people and larger speed, you’d speed up scientific discovery. Indeed (and this is where I part ways with Chollet) scientific progress has been accelerating, precisely because we use scientific progress to make more progress, whether it’s computer simulations helping in doing physics or quantum physics helping us build new computers, and so on and so forth. We are likely to continue to progress at an accelerating pace, not by trying to simulate a population of average or genius humans, but rather by continuously applying our tools and understanding to build better tools and improve our understanding.


But all of the above does not mean that modelling computation and communication systems as a new species and anthropomorphizing them is helpful. Research can and should be done on trying to verify that the behavior of computing systems does not deviate from certain parameters, whether it is Windows 10 or an AI algorithm.
With the progress of time computers are likely to continue to do more and more tasks currently associated with human intelligence, and yes, we do have a nontrivial chance of creating a technology that may eventually destroy us. But I don’t see why thinking of algorithms in anthropomorphic terms is helpful any more than thinking of the weather in terms of deities. If anything, understanding human “intelligence” and “consciousness” in more algorithmic ways  seems like a better path forward.

3 thoughts on “On the (Im)possiblity of intelligence explosion

  1. thx for redrawing attn to the chollet essay, think its brilliant, “genius”! have been wanting to write something very similar for quite awhile, have blogged a bit on it, but really like his measured/ analytical/ impartial/ antialarmist tone. his ideas reflect some of my own key thinkings/ thought destinations over last few yrs. a very nice counterpoint to the frothiness-verging-on-religious-extremism of kurzweil. seems in short there is a huge misconception (even by highly intelligent individuals) that the core problems facing our world are related to lack of intelligence. quite to the contrary. “pockets” of intelligence is quite plentiful in our current world. what is at the heart of the failure is the semi-to-unintelligent emergent properties/ weaving that has ensued.

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