Get smarter, faster. Subscribe to our daily newsletter.
There’s no way we could stop a rogue AI
Max Planck Institute scientists crash into a computing wall there seems to be no way around.
- Artificial intelligence that's smarter than us could potentially solve problems beyond our grasp.
- AI that are self-learning can absorb whatever information they need from the internet, a Pandora's Box if ever there was one.
- The nature of computing itself prevents us from limiting the actions of a super-intelligent AI if it gets out of control.
There have been a fair number of voices—Stephen Hawking among them—raised in warning that a super-intelligent artificial intelligence could one day turn on us and that we shouldn't be in such a hot, unquestioning hurry to develop true AI. Others say, naw, don't worry. Now a new white paper from scientists at the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development presents a series of theoretical tests that confirm the threat: Due to the basic concepts underlying computing, we would be utterly unable to control a super-intelligent AI.
"We argue that total containment is, in principle, impossible, due to fundamental limits inherent to computing itself," write the paper's authors.
The white paper is published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research.
Credit: @nt/Adobe Stock
"A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds like science fiction," says paper co-author Manuel Cebrian in a press release. "But there are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it. The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity."
The lure of AI is clear. Its ability to "see" the patterns in data make it a promising agent for solving problems too complex for us to wrap our minds around. Could it cure cancer? Solve the climate crisis? The possibilities are nearly endless.
Connected to the internet, AI can grab whatever information it needs to achieve its task, and therein lies a big part of the danger. With access to every bit of human data—and responsible for its own education—who knows what lessons it would learn regardless of any ethical constraints built into its programming? Who knows what goals it would embrace and what it might do to achieve them?
Even assuming benevolence, there's danger. Suppose that an AI is confronted by an either/or choice akin to the Trolley Dilemma, maybe even on a grand scale: Might an AI decide to annihilate millions of people if it decided the remaining billions would stand a better chance of survival?
A pair of flawed options
Credit: Maxim_Kazmin/Adobe Stock
The most obvious way to keep a super intelligent AI from getting ahead of us is to limit its access to information by preventing it from connecting to the internet. The problem with limiting access to information, though, is that it would make any problem we assign the AI more difficult for it to solve. We would be weakening its problem-solving promise possibly to a point of uselessness.
The second approach that might be taken is to limit what a super-intelligent AI is capable of doing by programming into it certain boundaries. This might be akin to writer Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, the first of which goes: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
Unfortunately, says the study, a series of logical tests reveal that it's impossible to create such limits. Any such a containment algorithm, it turns out, would be self-defeating.
Containment is impossible
Credit: UncleFredDesign/Adobe Stock
"If you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the containment algorithm is still analyzing the threat, or whether it has stopped to contain the harmful AI. In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable."
The team investigated stacking containment algorithms, with each monitoring the behavior of the previous one, but eventually the same problem arises: The final check halts itself, rendering it unreliable.
The Planck researchers also concluded that a similar bit of logic makes it impossible for us to know when a self-learning computer's intelligence has come to exceed our own. Essentially, we're not smart enough to be able to develop tests for intelligence superior to ours.
"Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do." — Alan Turing
This means that it's entirely conceivable that an AI capable of self-learning may well quietly ascend to super-intelligence without our even knowing it — a scary reason all by itself to slow down our hurly-burley race to artificial intelligence.
In the end, we're left with a dangerous bargain to make or not make: Do we risk our safety in exchange for the possibility that AI will solve problems we can't?
- Why Superintelligent AI Could Be the Last Human Invention - Big ... ›
- Superintelligence: How A.I. will overcome humans ›
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.