Don’t Fear the Terminator

Don’t Fear the Terminator

Artificial Intelligence never needed to evolve, so it didn’t develop the survival instinct that leads to the impulse to dominate others

Don't Fear the Terminator
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Artificial Intelligence revolution—worry is growing that it might be our last. The fear is that the intelligence of machines will soon match or even exceed that of humans. They could turn against us and replace us as the dominant “life” form on earth. Our creations would become our overlords—or perhaps wipe us out altogether. Such dramatic scenarios, exciting though they might be to imagine, reflect a misunderstanding of AI. And they distract from the more mundane but far more likely risks posed by the technology in the near future, as well as from its most exciting benefits.

Takeover by AI has long been the stuff of science fiction. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL, the sentient computer controlling the operation of an interplanetary spaceship, turns on the crew in an act of self-preservation. In The Terminator, an Internet-like computer defense system called Skynet achieves self-awareness and initiates a nuclear war, obliterating much of humanity. This trope has, by now, been almost elevated to a natural law of science fiction: a sufficiently intelligent computer system will do whatever it must to survive, which will likely include achieving dominion over the human race.

To a neuroscientist, this line of reasoning is puzzling. There are plenty of risks of AI to worry about, including economic disruption, failures in life-critical applications and weaponization by bad actors. But the one that seems to worry people most is power-hungry robots deciding, of their own volition, to take over the world. Why would a sentient AI want to take over the world? It wouldn’t.

We dramatically overestimate the threat of an accidental AI takeover, because we tend to conflate intelligence with the drive to achieve dominance. This confusion is understandable: During our evolutionary history as (often violent) primates, intelligence was key to social dominance and enabled our reproductive success. And indeed, intelligence is a powerful adaptation, like horns, sharp claws or the ability to fly, which can facilitate survival in many ways. But intelligence per se does not generate the drive for domination, any more than horns do.

It is just the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in pursuit of a goal. Intelligence does not provide the goal itself, merely the means to achieve it. “Natural intelligence”—the intelligence of biological organisms—is an evolutionary adaptation, and like other such adaptations, it emerged under natural selection because it improved survival and propagation of the species. These goals are hardwired as instincts deep in the nervous systems of even the simplest organisms.

But because AI systems did not pass through the crucible of natural selection, they did not need to evolve a survival instinct. In AI, intelligence and survival are decoupled, and so intelligence can serve whatever goals we set for it. R

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