Calum Chace author of Surviving AI
Calum Chace is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, primarily on the subject of artificial intelligence. In March 2015 he published “Pandora’s Brain”, a techno-thriller about the creation of superintelligence. He is a regular speaker on artificial intelligence and related technologies and runs a blog on the subject at www.pandoras-brain.com.
Prior to writing “Pandora’s Brain”, Calum had a 30-year career in journalism and business, in which he was a marketer, a strategy consultant and a CEO. He maintains his interest in business by serving as chairman and coach for a selection of growing companies. In 2000 he co-wrote “The Internet Startup Bible”, a business best-seller published by Random House.
He studied philosophy at Oxford University, where he discovered that the science fiction he had been reading since boyhood was philosophy in fancy dress.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is humanity’s most powerful technology. Software that solves problems and turns data into insight has already revolutionised our lives, and the revolution is accelerating.
For most of us, the most obvious manifestation of AI today is the smartphone. We take them for granted now, but many of us are glued to them: they bring all the world’s knowledge to our fingertips, as well as angry birds and zombies. They are emphatically not just a luxury for people in developed countries: they provide clever payment systems, education, and market information which enable people in the emerging markets to compete and participate in the modern world.
The evolution of smartphones so far offers an intriguing analogy for the development of AI in the future. Nobody suggested thirty years ago that we would have powerful AIs in our pockets in the form of telephones, but now that it has happened it seems obvious. It is also entirely logical. We are highly social animals. Because we have language we can communicate complicated ideas, suggestions and instructions; we can work together in large teams and organise, produce economic surpluses, develop technologies. It’s because of our unrivalled ability to communicate that we control the fate of this planet and every species on it. It wasn’t and couldn’t have been predicted in advance, but in hindsight what could be more logical than our most powerful technology, AI, becoming available to most of us in the form of a communication device?
Thirty years ago we didn’t know how the mobile phone market would develop. Today we don’t know how the digital disruption which is transforming so many industries will evolve over the next thirty years. We don’t know whether technological unemployment will be the result of the automation of jobs by AI, or whether humans will find new jobs in the way we have done since the start of the industrial revolution. What is the equivalent of the smartphone phenomenon for digital disruption and automation? Chances are it will be something different from what most people expect today, but it will look entirely natural and predictable in hindsight.
Making forecasts is risky, especially about the future, but the argument of this book is that AI will present a series of formidable challenges alongside its enormous benefits; that we should monitor the changes that are happening, and adopt policies which will encourage the best possible outcomes. The range of possible outcomes is wide, from the terrible to the wonderful, and they are not pre-determined. They will be selected partly by luck, partly by their own internal logic, but partly also by the policies embraced at all levels of society. Individuals must prepare themselves to be as flexible as possible to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world. Organisations must try and anticipate the changes most relevant to them, and adapt their strategies and tactics accordingly. Governments must frame regulations which will encourage the better outcomes and fend off the worst ones. To some extent they must deploy the huge financial and human resources at their disposal too, although given the uncertainty about future developments which will prevail at all stages, they must be cautious about this.
Automation and superintelligence are the two forces which we can already see are likely to cause huge impacts. Many people remain sceptical about them, and other forces may emerge in the coming decades. Nevertheless they are the main focus of this book.
Automation could lead to an economic singularity. “Singularity” is a term borrowed from maths and physics, and means a point where the normal rules cease to apply, and what lies beyond is un-knowable to anyone this side of the event horizon. An economic singularity¹ might lead to an elite owning the means of production and suppressing the rest of us in a dystopian technological authoritarian regime. Or it could lead to an economy of radical abundance, where nobody has to work for a living, and we are all free to have fun, and stretch our minds and develop our faculties to the full. I hope and believe that the latter is possible, but we also need to make sure the process of getting there is as smooth as possible.
The arrival of superintelligence, if and when it happens, would represent a technological singularity (usually just referred to as “the singularity”), and would be the most significant event in human history, bar none. Working out how to survive it is the most important challenge facing humanity in this and the next generation(s). If we avoid the pitfalls, it will improve life in ways which are quite literally beyond our imagination. A superintelligence which recursively improved its own architecture and expanded its capabilities could very plausibly solve almost any human problem you can think of. Death could become optional and we could enjoy lives of constant bliss and excitement. If we get it wrong it could spell extinction. Because of the enormity of that risk, the majority of this book addresses superintelligence: the likelihood of it arriving, and of it being beneficial.
Surviving AI is a companion book to Pandora’s Brain, a techno-thriller about the arrival of the first superintelligence. Further information about the ideas explored in both books is available at www.pandoras-brain.com.
¹The term economic singularity was first used (as far as I can tell) by the economist Robin Hanson: http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/fastgrow.html