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Why Artificial Intelligence is Not an Existential Threat

OVER THE YEARS EXISTENTIAL THREAT WARNINGS have been sounded for global thermonuclear war, overpopulation, ecological destruction, species extinction, exhaustion of natural resources, global pandemics, biological weapons, asteroid strikes, ISIS and Islamism, nanotechnology, global warming, and even Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The modifier “existential” is usually meant to convey a threat to the survival of our country, civilization, or species. Here I will focus on fears about runaway Artificial Intelligence (AI). These concerns go beyond the Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, or Hollywood’s Skynet and Matrix, and yet they are still permutations on one of the oldest myths in history—the perils of humans playing God with their technologies in which matters get out of hand for the worse.

Before we consider the AI doomsayers, however, let’s recognize that not all AI experts are so pessimistic. In fact, most AI scientists are neither utopian or dystopian, and instead spend most of their time thinking of ways to make our machines incrementally smarter and our lives gradually better. Think of cars becoming smart cars and, soon, fully autonomous vehicles. Each model is just another step toward making moving our atoms around the world safer and simpler. Then there are the AI Utopians, most notably represented by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near, in which he demonstrates what he calls “the law of accelerating returns”—not just that change is accelerating, but that the rate of change is accelerating. This is Moore’s Law—the doubling rate of computer power since the 1960s—on steroids and applied to all science and technology. This has led the world to change more in the past century than it did in the previous 1000 centuries. As we approach the Singularity, says Kurzweil, the world will change more in a decade than in 1000 centuries, and as the acceleration continues and we reach the Singularity the world will change more in a year than in all pre- Singularity history. Singulartarians project a future in which benevolent computers, robots, and replicators produce limitless prosperity, end poverty and hunger, conquer disease and death, achieve immortality, colonize the galaxy, and eventually even spread throughout the universe by reaching the so called Omega point where we/they become omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deities.1

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Other Articles in this Issue

pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction
Are You An Unconscious Racist?
The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization
How the “Tractor”—an Early 19th Century Medical Quack Device—Was Debunked by One of the Earliest Single Blind Placebo Studies
UFOs and U-2s, Aliens and A-12s
How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God
The human brain isn’t magic; nor are the problem-solving
After over 50 years of mostly empty promises and disappointments
Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole
A review of How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality by Richard G. Bribiescas
A Review of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan.
Reviews of: Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff by Edward J. Balliesen Houdini’s ‘Girl Detective’ compiled by Tony Wolf The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time by Maria Konnikova
Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.
We’ve all heard the story of Chicken Little—a fanciful