[memetic status: stating directly despite it being a clear consequence of core AI risk knowledge because many people have "but nature will survive us" antibodies to other classes of doom and misapply them here.]

Unfortunately, no.[1]

Technically, “Nature”, meaning the fundamental physical laws, will continue. However, people usually mean forests, oceans, fungi, bacteria, and generally biological life when they say “nature”, and those would not have much chance competing against a misaligned superintelligence for resources like sunlight and atoms, which are useful to both biological and artificial systems.

There’s a thought that comforts many people when they imagine humanity going extinct due to a nuclear catastrophe or runaway global warming: Once the mushroom clouds or CO2 levels have settled, nature will reclaim the cities. Maybe mankind in our hubris will have wounded Mother Earth and paid the price ourselves, but she’ll recover in time, and she has all the time in the world.

AI is different. It would not simply destroy human civilization with brute force, leaving the flows of energy and other life-sustaining resources open for nature to make a resurgence. Instead, AI would still exist after wiping humans out, and feed on the same resources nature needs, but much more capably.

You can draw strong parallels to the way humanity has captured huge parts of the biosphere for ourselves. Except, in the case of AI, we’re the slow-moving process which is unable to keep up.

A misaligned superintelligence would have many cognitive superpowers, which include developing advanced technology. For almost any objective it might have, it would require basic physical resources, like atoms to construct things which further its goals, and energy (such as that from sunlight) to power those things. These resources are also essential to current life forms, and, just as humans drove so many species extinct by hunting or outcompeting them, AI could do the same to all life, and to the planet itself.

Planets are not a particularly efficient use of atoms for most goals, and many goals which an AI may arrive at can demand an unbounded amount of resources. For each square meter of usable surface, there are millions of tons of magma and other materials locked up. Rearranging these into a more efficient configuration could look like strip mining the entire planet and firing the extracted materials into space using self-replicating factories, and then using those materials to build megastructures in space to harness a large fraction of the sun’s output. Looking further out, the sun and other stars are themselves huge piles of resources spilling unused energy out into space, and no law of physics renders them invulnerable to sufficiently advanced technology.

Some time after a misaligned, optimizing AI wipes out humanity, it is likely that there will be no Earth and no biological life, but only a rapidly expanding sphere of darkness eating through the Milky Way as the AI reaches and extinguishes or envelops nearby stars.

This is generally considered a less comforting thought.

This is an experiment in sharing highlighted content from aisafety.info. Browse around to view some of the other 300 articles which are live, or explore related questions!

  1. ^

     There are some scenarios where this might happen, especially in extreme cases of misuse rather than agentic misaligned systems, or in edge cases where a system is misaligned with respect to humanity but terminally values keeping nature around, but this is not the mainline way things go.

  2. ^

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I think literal extinction is unlikely even conditional on misaligned AI takeover due to:

  • The potential for the AI to be at least a tiny bit "kind" (same as humans probably wouldn't kill all aliens).[1]
  • Decision theory/trade reasons

This is discussed in more detail here and here.

Insofar as humans and/or aliens care about nature, similar arguments apply there too, though this is mostly beside the point: if humans survive and have (even a tiny bit of) resources they can preserve some natural easily.

I find it annoying how confident this article is without really bother to engage with the relevant arguments here.

(Same goes for many other posts asserting that AIs will disassemble humans for their atoms.)

(This comment echos Owen's to some extent.)

  1. ^

    This includes the potential for the AI to have preferences that are morally valueable from a typical human perspective.

(cross posting my reply to your cross-posted comment)

I'm not arguing about p(total human extinction|superintelligence), but p(nature survives|total human extinction from superintelligence), as this conditional probability I see people getting very wrong sometimes.

It's not implausible to me that we survive due to decision theoretic reasons, this seems possible though not my default expectation (I mostly expect Decision theory does not imply we get nice things, unless we manually win a decent chunk more timelines than I expect).

My confidence is in the claim "if AI wipes out humans, it will wipe out nature". I don't engage with counterarguments to a separate claim, as that is beyond the scope of this post and I don't have much to add over existing literature like the other posts you linked.

I just wanted to say that the new aisafety.info website looks great! I have not looked at everything in detail, just clicking around a bit, but the article seem of good quality to me.

I will probably mainly recommend aisafety as an introductory resource.

Thanks! Feel free to leave comments or suggestions on the google docs which make up our backend.

I think this is a plausible consequence, but not a clear one.

Many people put significant value on conservation. It is plausible that some version of this would survive in an AI which was somewhat misaligned (especially since conservation might be a reasonably simple goal to point towards), such that it would spend some fraction of its resources towards preserving nature -- and one planet is a tiny fraction of the resources it could expect to end up with.

The most straightforward argument against this is that such an AI maybe wouldn't wipe out all humans. I tend to agree, and a good amount of my probability mass on "existential catastrophe from misaligned AI" does not involve human extinction. But I think there's some possible middle ground where an AI was not capable of reliably seizing power without driving humans extinct, but was capable if it allowed itself to do so, could wipe them out without eliminating nature (which would presumably pose much less threat to its ascendancy).

Whether AI would wipe out humans entirely is a separate question (and one which has been debated extensively, to the point where I don't think I have much to add to that conversation, even if I have opinions)

What I'm arguing for here is narrowly: Would AI which wipes out humans leave nature intact? I think the answer to that is pretty clearly no by default.

Yeah, I understood this. This is why I've focused on a particular case for it valuing nature which I think could be compatible with wiping out humans (not going into the other cases that Ryan discusses, which I think would be more likely to involve keeping humans around). I needed to bring in the point about humans surviving to address the counterargument "oh but in that case probably humans would survive too" (which I think is probable but not certain). Anyway maybe I was slightly overstating the point? Like I agree that in this scenario the most likely outcome is that nature doesn't meaningfully survive. But it sounded like you were arguing that it was obvious that nature wouldn't survive, which doesn't sound right to me.

I don't claim it's impossible that nature survives an AI apocalypse which kills off humanity, but I do think it's an extremely thin sliver of the outcome space (<0.1%). What odds would you assign to this?

Ok, I guess around 1%? But this is partially driven by model uncertainty; I don't actually feel confident your number is too small.

I'm much higher (tens of percentage points) on "chance nature survives conditional on most humans being wiped out"; it's just that most of these scenarios involve some small number of humans being kept around so it's not literal extinction. (And I think these scenarios are a good part of things people intuitively imagine and worry about when you talk about human extinction from AI, even though the label isn't literally applicable.)

Thanks for asking explicitly about the odds, I might not have noticed this distinction otherwise.

I thought about where the logic in the post seemed to be going wrong, and it led me to write this quick take on why most possible goals of AI systems are partially concerned with process and not just outcomes.

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