Forget the on/off switch and mind the pedals

Nick Bostrom’s recent TED talk posited several interesting thoughts, among which one of the most quoted has been his suggestion that, once computers get to be smarter than humans, there will be no off switch. Without getting into definitional hair-splitting as to which computers and what do we mean by “smarter”, perhaps the most fundamental reply might be: has there ever been an off switch? Would the course of Newtonian physics have been different if someone had encouraged Isaac to put a lid on his musings about apples (as it will only open a can of worms)?

Even if today we should vote to flip the off switch, some decades ahead of The Singularity, would that succeed? Given humanity’s problematic record even with dimmer switches, maybe a more productive approach would lie in understanding and adapting humanity’s successes with Artificial Intelligence so far, and in distinguishing AI failures driven by human stewardship (think Hollywood narratives, drone missiles, rogue drug formulations) and those inherent in AI itself ( . . . ?).

Building on the successes of AI, and given the other existential challenges on humanity’s table – climate change, enfeebled antibiotics, nuclear proliferation, renewable energy sources, aging populations, (phew, wait, there’s more) incoming comets, our mortality and the comparatively slow rate of cognitive evolution – can we realistically suppose that Human Intelligence on its own will survive?

There is a pretty compelling argument for ignoring the ignition switch and stepping on the accelerator, keeping an eye on the brake and reflecting on how best to use both pedals judiciously as we hit the curves in the road. While we retain control of the vehicle, we should bear in mind that humanity is not in any sense a singularity itself: the challenge will lie in keeping the boy racers away from the controls.

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