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AI Is Evolving in a Way That Could Be Hard to Stop
AI is capable of self-reproduction—should humans be worried?
Eric Weinstein is an American mathematician and economist. He earned his Ph.D in mathematical physics from Harvard University in 1992, is a research fellow at the Mathematical Institute of Oxford University, and is a managing director of Thiel Capital in San Francisco. He has published works and is an expert speaker on a range of topics including economics, immigration, elite labor, mitigating financial risk and incentivizing of creative risks in the hard sciences.
Eric Weinstein: There are a bunch of questions next to or adjacent to general artificial intelligence that have not gotten enough alarm because, in fact, there’s a crowding out of mindshare. I think that we don’t really appreciate how rare the concept of selection is in the machines and creations that we make. So in general, if I have two cars in the driveway I don’t worry that if the moon is in the right place in the sky and the mood is just right that there’ll be a third car at a later point, because in general I have to go to a factory to get a new car. I don’t have a reproductive system built into my sedan. Now almost all of the other physiological systems—what are there, perhaps 11?—have a mirror.
So my car has a brain, so it’s got a neurological system. It’s got a skeletal system in its steel, but it lacks a reproductive system.So you could ask the question: are humans capable of making any machines that are really self-replicative? And the fact of the matter is that it’s very tough to do at the atomic layer but there is a command in many computer languages called Spawn. And Spawn can effectively create daughter programs from a running program.
Now as soon as you have the ability to reproduce you have the possibility that systems of selective pressures can act because the abstraction of life will be just as easily handled whether it’s based in our nucleotides, in our A, C, Ts and Gs, or whether it’s based in our bits and our computer programs. So one of the great dangers is that what we will end up doing is creating artificial life, allowing systems of selective pressures to act on it and finding that we have been evolving computer programs that we may have no easy ability to terminate, even if they’re not fully intelligent.
Further if we look to natural selection and sexual selection in the biological world we find some very strange systems, plants or animals with no mature brain to speak of effectively outsmart species which do have a brain by hijacking the victim species’ brain to serve the non-thinking species.So, for example, I’m very partial to the mirror orchid which is an orchid whose bottom petal typically resembles the female of a pollinator species. And because the male in that pollinator species detects a sexual possibility the flower does not need to give up costly and energetic nectar in order to attract the pollinator. And so if the plant can fool the pollinator to attempt to mate with this pseudo-female in the form of its bottom petal, it can effectively reproduce without having to offer a treat or a gift to the pollinator but, in fact, parasitizes its energy. Now how is it able to do this? Because if a pollinator is fooled then that plant is rewarded. So the plant is actually using the brain of the pollinator species, let’s say a wasp or a bee, to improve the wax replica, if you will, which it uses to seduce the males.
That which is being fooled is the more neurologically advanced of the two species. And so what I’ve talked about, somewhat controversially, is what I call artificial out-telligence. Where instead of actually having an artificially intelligent species you can imagine a dumb computer program that uses the reward, through let’s say genetic algorithms and selection within a computer framework, to increasingly parasitize, using better and better lures, fully intelligent humans. And in the case of artificial intelligence I don’t think we’re there yet. But in the case of artificial out-telligence I can’t find anything that’s missing from the equation. So we have self-modifying code. You have Bitcoin so you could have a reward structure and blockchains. And there’s nothing that I see that keeps us from creating. Now that’s such a strange and quixotic possibility.
In this framework I don’t see an existential risk so that my friends who worry about machine intelligence being a terminal invention for the human species probably don’t need to be worried. But I think there’s a lot of exotica around artificial intelligence which hasn’t been explored and I think which is much closer to fruition. Perhaps that’s good. Maybe it’s a warning shot so thatwe’re going to find that just as we woke up to Bitcoin as digital gold we may wake up to a precursor to artificial general intelligence which alerts us to the fact that we should probably be devoting more energy into this absolutely crazy-sounding future problem which no humans have ever encountered.
Those among us who fear world domination at the metallic hands of super-intelligent AI have gotten a few steps ahead of themselves. We might actually be outsmarted first by fairly dumb AI, says Eric Weinstein. Humans rarely create products with a reproductive system—you never have to worry about waking up one morning to see that your car has spawned a new car on the driveway (and if it did: cha-ching!), but artificial intelligence has the capability to respond to selective pressures, to self-replicate and spawn daughter programs that we may not easily be able to terminate. Furthermore, there are examples in nature of organisms without brains parasitizing more complex and intelligent organisms, like the mirror orchid. Rather than spend its energy producing costly nectar as a lure, it merely fools the bee into mating with its lower petal through pattern imitation: this orchid hijacks the bee's brain to meet its own agenda. Weinstein believes all the elements necessary for AI programs to parasitize humans and have us serve its needs already exists, and although it may be a "crazy-sounding future problem which no humans have ever encountered," Weinstein thinks it would be wise to devote energy to these possibilities that are not as often in the limelight.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>