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What do we do if AI doesn't take over the world, but still causes a significant global problem?

by James_Banks1 min read2nd Aug 20205 comments

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AI is getting more powerful, and at some point could cause significant damage.

There's a certain amount of damage that an AI could do that would scare the whole world (similar effects on government and populace psychology as coronavirus -- both willing to make sacrifices). The AI that could cause this (I naively expect) could be well short of the sophistication / power needed to really "rule the world", be unstoppable by humans.

So it seems likely to me (but not certain) that we will get a rude (coronavirus-like) awakening as a species before it gets to the point that we are totally helpless to suppress AI. This awakening would give us the political will / sense of urgency to be willing and feel compelled to do something to limit AI.

(Limiting / suppressing AI: making it hard to make supercomputers, concentrate compute -- technologically, legally. Also, maybe, making the world less computer-legible so that AI that do get made have less data to work with / have less connection to the world. Making it so that the inevitable non-aligned AI are stoppable. Or anything else along those lines.)

It seems like if suppressing AI were easy / safe, that would have been the first choice of AI safety people, at least until such time as alignment is thoroughly solved. But it seems like most discussion is about alignment, not suppression, I would assume on the assumption that suppression is not actually a viable option. However, given the possibility that governments may all be scrambling to do something in the wake of a "coronavirus AI", what kind of AI suppression techniques would they be likely to try? What problems could come from them? (One obvious fear being that a government powerful enough to suppress AI could itself cause a persistent dystopia.) Is there a good, or at least better, way to deal with this situation, which EAs might work toward?

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I think this is an interesting question. I don't have a solid answer, but here are some related thoughts:

  • How likely we are to land in this scenario in the first place, and what shape it might take, seems related to:
    • Questions around how "hard", "fast", and/or "discontinuous" AI takeoff will be
    • Questions like "Will we know when transformative AI is coming soon? How far in advance? How confidently?"
    • Questions like "Would there be clearer evidence of AI risk in future, if it’s indeed quite risky? Will that lead to better behaviours regarding AI safety and governance?"
    • (For notes and sources on those questions, see Crucial questions for longtermists, and particularly this doc.)
  • Your question as a whole seems similar to the last of the questions listed above.
    • And you seem to highlight the interesting idea that clearer evidence of AI risk in future (via a "sub-existential" catastrophe) could lead to worse behaviours regarding AI safety and governance.
    • And you also seem to highlight that we can/should think now about how to influence what behaviours might occur at that point (rather than merely trying to predict behaviours).

It seems like if suppressing AI were easy / safe, that would have been the first choice of AI safety people, at least until such time as alignment is thoroughly solved

  • My tentative impression is that this is true of many AI safety people, but I'm not sure it's true of all of them. That is, it's plausible to me that a decent number of people concerned about AI risk might not want to "suppress AI" even if this was tractable and wouldn't pose risks of e.g. making mainstream AI researchers angry at longtermists.
    • Here's one argument for that position: There are also other existential risks, and AI might help us with many of them. If you combine that point with certain empirical beliefs, it might suggest that slowing down (non-safety-focused) AI research could actually increase existential risk. (See Differential technological development: Some early thinking.)
    • (I'm not saying that that conclusion is correct; I don't know what the best estimates of the empirical details would reveal.)

One obvious fear being that a government powerful enough to suppress AI could itself cause a persistent dystopia.

  • I think it's slightly worse than this; I think permanent and complete suppression of AI would probably itself be an existential catastrophe, as it seems it would likely result in humanity falling far short of fulfilling its potential.
    • This seems related to Bostrom's notion of "plateauing". (I also review some related ideas here.)
    • This is distinct from (and in addition to) your point that permanent and complete suppression of AI is evidence that a government is powerful enough to cause other bad outcomes.
    • (This isn't a strong argument against temporary or partial suppression of AI, though.)