ICBMTO : N48 10'07'' E011 33'53'' http://www.lrz.de/~ui22204
57F9CFD3: ED90 0433 EB74 E4A9 537F CFF5 86E7 629B 57F9 CFD3
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 09:06:33 -0700
From: DS2000 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: isml <email@example.com>
Subject: [isml] Making HAL Your Pal
Making HAL Your Pal
by Declan McCullagh
Photo by Brian Atkins.
2:00 a.m. Apr. 19, 2001 PDT
Eliezer Yudkowsky has devoted his young life to an undeniably unusual
pursuit: planning for what happens when computers become far smarter than
Yudkowsky, a 21-year-old researcher at the Singularity Institute, has spent
the last eight months writing an essay that's half precaution, half thought
exercise, and entirely in earnest.
This 750 KB treatise, released Wednesday, is not as much speculative as
predictive. If a computer becomes sufficiently smart, the argument goes, and
if it gains the ability to harm humans through nanotechnology or some means
we don't expect, it may decide it doesn't need us or want us around.
One solution: Unconditional "friendliness," built into the AI as surely as
our genes are coded into us.
"I've devoted my life to this," says Yudkowsky, a self-proclaimed "genius"
who lives in Atlanta and opted out of attending high school and college.
It's not for lack of smarts. He's a skilled, if verbose, writer and an avid
science-fiction reader who reports he scored 1410 on his SATs, not far below
the average score for Stanford or MIT students.
Yudkowsky's reason for shunning formal education is that he believes the
danger of unfriendly AI to be so near -- as early as tomorrow -- that there
was no time for a traditional adolescence. "If you take the Singularity
seriously, you tend to live out your life on a shorter time scale," he said.
Mind you, that's "Singularity" in capital letters. Even so-called
Singularitians like Yudkowsky admit that the term has no precise meaning,
but a commonly accepted definition is a point when human progress,
particularly technological progress, accelerates so dramatically that
predicting what will happen next is futile.
The term appears to have been coined by John von Neumann, the great
mathematician and computer scientist who used it not to refer to superhuman
intelligence, but to the everyday pace of science and technology.
Science-fiction author Vernor Vinge popularized the concept in the 1980s,
capitalizing the word and writing about whether mankind would approach
Singularity by way of machine intelligence alone or through augmented mental
processes. Predictions vary wildly about what happens at the Singularity,
but the consensus seems to be that life as humanity currently knows it will
come to a sudden end.
Vinge is the closest thing Singularitians have to a thought leader,
spokesman and hero. He offers predictions based on measures of technological
progress such as Moore's Law, and sees the Singularity as arriving between
2005 and 2030 -- though some Vinge aficionados hope the possibility of
uploading their brains into an immortal computer is just around the corner.
One of them is Yudkowsky, who credits Vinge for turning him onto the
Singularity at age 11. "I read True Names," he said, referring to a Vinge
novel. "I got to page 47 and found out what I was going to be doing for the
rest of my life."
Since then, Yudkowsky has become not just someone who predicts the
Singularity, but a committed activist trying to speed its arrival. "My first
allegiance is to the Singularity, not humanity," he writes in one essay. "I
don't know what the Singularity will do with us. I don't know whether
Singularities upgrade mortal races, or disassemble us for spare atoms.... If
it comes down to Us or Them, I'm with Them."
His life has included endless theorizing -- little programming, though --
about friendly AI.
"Any damn fool can design an AI that's friendly if nothing goes wrong,"
Yudkowsky says. "This is an AI in theory that should be friendly if
everything goes wrong."
Of course, some of the brightest people in the world, including Nobel
laureates, have spent decades researching AI -- friendly or not -- and have
failed to realize their dreams. AI, it seems, is always just a decade or
less away from becoming reality -- and has been for the last 40 years.
The difference today? The Singularitian movement. Back when the late Herb
Simon co-invented the humble General Problem Solver in the mid-1950s, there
wasn't a crowd of eager geeks cheering his efforts and hoping to dump their
brains into his technology.
Yudkowsky says he hopes to show his essay to the AI community "and maybe
even branch out into the cognitive science community and maybe get some
useful comments that can be incorporated into the document."
The only problem is that academics don't seem interested. When asked for
comment, one well-known researcher said in response to the essay: "Worthless
speculation. Call me when you have running code."
Alon Halevy, a faculty member in the University of Washington's computer
science department and an editor at the Journal of Artificial Intelligence
Research, said he's not worried about friendliness.
"As a practical matter, I'm not concerned at all about AI being friendly or
not," Halevy said. "The challenges we face are so enormous to even get to
the point where we can call a system reasonably intelligent, that whether
they are friendly or not will be an issue that is relatively easy to solve."
Rules limiting smart computers to human-approved limits, of course, are
nothing new. The most famous example is the Laws of Robotics, written by
Isaac Asimov, one of the fathers of science fiction.
To Asimov, only three laws were necessary: (1) A robot may not injure a
human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2)
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders
would conflict with the First Law; (3) A robot must protect its own
existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or
In 1993, Roger Clarke, a fellow at the Australian National University, wrote
an essay wondering how Asimov's laws applied to information technology.
One conclusion: "Existing codes of ethics need to be re-examined in the
light of developing technology. Codes generally fail to reflect the
potential effects of computer-enhanced machines and the inadequacy of
existing managerial, institutional and legal processes for coping with
Yudkowsky takes it a step further, writing that he believes AI "will be
developed on symmetric-multiprocessing hardware, at least initially." He
said he expects Singularity could happen in the very near future: "I
wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow was the Final Dawn, the last sunrise
before the Earth and Sun are reshaped into computing elements."
When one researcher booted up a program he hoped would be AI-like, Yudkowsky
said he believed there was a 5 percent chance the Singularity was about to
happen and human existence would be forever changed.
After another firm announced it might pull the plug on advanced search
software it created, Yudkowsky wrote on Sunday to a Singularity mailing
list: "Did anyone try, just by way of experimentation, explaining to the
current Webmind instantiation that it's about to die?"
That kind of earnest hopefulness comes more from science fiction than
computer science, and in fact some researchers don't even think the
traditional geek-does-programming AI field is that interesting nowadays. The
interesting advances, the thinking goes, are taking place in cognitive and
Yudkowsky seems undeterred, saying he wants the Singularity Institute's
friendly AI guidelines eventually to become the equivalent of the Foresight
Institute's nanotechnology guidelines. Released last year, they include,
among others, principles saying nanobots should not be allowed to replicate
outside a laboratory, and only companies that agree to follow these rules
should receive nanotech hardware.
"The Singularity Institute is not just in the business of predicting it, but
creating it and reacting to it," he says. "If AI doesn't come for another 50
years, then one way of looking at it would be that we have 50 years to plan
in advance about friendly AI."
Given humanity's drive to better itself, it seems likely that eventually --
even if the date is hundreds or thousands of years off -- some form of AI
Though even then, some skeptics like John Searle, a professor at the
University of California at Berkeley, argue that a machine will merely be
manipulating symbols -- and will lack any true understanding of their
Yudkowsky, on the other hand, sees reason for urgency in developing Friendly
"We don't have the code yet but we have something that is pretty near the
code level," Yudkowsky said, talking about the Institute's work. "We have
something that could be readily implemented by any fairly advanced AI
Like a character from science fiction, Yudkowsky sees his efforts as
humanity's only hope.
In an autobiographical essay, he writes: "I think my efforts could spell the
difference between life and death for most of humanity, or even the
difference between a Singularity and a lifeless, sterilized planet... I
think that I can save the world, not just because I'm the one who happens to
be making the effort, but because I'm the only one who can make the effort."
-- Dan S
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