Why Superintelligent AI Could Be the Last Human Invention

When we create something more intelligent than we could ever be, what happens after that? We have to teach it.

MAX TEGMARK: Hollywood movies make people worry about the wrong things in terms of super intelligence. What we should really worry about is not malice but competence, where we have machines that are smarter than us whose goals just aren’t aligned with ours. For example, I don’t hate ants, I don’t go out of my way to stomp an ant if I see one on the sidewalk, but if I’m in charge of this hydroelectric dam construction and just as I’m going to flood this valley with water I see an ant hill there, tough luck for the ants. Their goals weren’t aligned with mine and because I’m smarter it’s going to be my goals, not the ant’s goals, that get fulfilled. We never want to put humanity in the role of those ants. 

On the other hand it doesn’t have to be bad if you solve the goal alignment problem. Little babies tend to be in a household surrounded by human level intelligence as they’re smarter than the babies, namely their parents. And that works out fine because the goals of the parents are wonderfully aligned with the goals of the child’s so it’s all good. And this is one vision that a lot of AI researchers have, the friendly AI vision that we will succeed in not just making machines that are smarter than us, but also machines that then learn, adopt and retain our goals as they get ever smarter.

It might sound easy to get machines to learn, adopt and retain our goals, but these are all very tough problems. First of all, if you take a self-driving taxi and tell it in the future to take you to the airport as fast as possible and then you get there covered in vomit and chased by helicopters and you say, “No, no, no! That’s not what I wanted!” and it replies, “That is exactly what you asked for,” then you’ve appreciated how hard it is to get a machine to understand your goals, your actual goals. 

A human cabdriver would have realized that you also had other goals that were unstated because she was also a human and has all this shared reference frame, but a machine doesn’t have that unless we explicitly teach it that. And then once the machine understands our goals there’s a separate problem of getting them to adopt the goals. Anyone who has had kids knows how big the difference is between making the kids understand what you want and actually adopt your goals to do what you want. 

And finally, even if you can get your kids to adopt your goals that doesn’t mean they’re going to retain them for life. My kids are a lot less excited about Lego now than they were when they were little, and we don’t want machines as they get ever-smarter to gradually change their goals away from being excited about protecting us and thinking of this thing about taking care of humanity as this little childhood thing (like Legos) that they get bored with eventually. 

If we can solve all three of these challenges, getting machines to understand our goals, adopt them and retain them then we can create an awesome future. Because everything I love about civilization is a product of intelligence. Then if we can use machines to amplify our intelligence then we have this potential to solve all the problems that are stumping us today and create a better future than we even dare to dream of. 

If machines ever surpass us and can outsmart us at all tasks that’s going to be a really big deal because intelligence is power. The reason that we humans have more power on this planet than tigers is not because we have larger muscles or sharper claws, it’s because we’re smarter than the tigers. And in the exact same way if machines are smarter than us it becomes perfectly plausible for them to control us and become the rulers of this planet and beyond. When I. J. Good made this famous analysis of how you could get an intelligence explosion, or intelligence just kept creating greater and greater intelligence leaving us far behind, he also mentioned that this super intelligence would be the last invention that man need ever make. And what he meant by that, of course, was that so far the most intelligent being on this planet that’s been doing all the inventing—it’s been us. But once we make machines that are better than us at inventing, all future technology that we ever need can be created by those machines if we can make sure that they do things for us that we want and help us create an awesome future where humanity can flourish like never before.

Max Tegmark has a bone to pick with Hollywood. We shouldn't be afraid of AI or, for that matter, a robot uprising. We should be more afraid of the next few years while we try and get AI through this early phase. Right now, just the same way a child would, machines take us literally. The key to the next few years is getting them to understand and adopt human logic—i.e. killing is bad and that just because you can doesn't mean you should—because if we don't set those boundaries now, in the future we may be viewed as nothing more than ants in their way.

Max's latest book is Life 3.0


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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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