Reply to Etzioni on AI risk

Back in December 2014, AI scientist Oren Etzioni wrote an article called “AI Won’t Exterminate Us — it Will Empower Us.” He opens by quoting the fears of Musk and Hawking, and then says he’s not worried. 1 Why not?

The popular dystopian vision of AI is wrong for one simple reason: it equates intelligence with autonomy. That is, it assumes a smart computer will create its own goals, and have its own will, and… beat humans at their own game.

But of course, the people talking about AI as a potential existential risk aren’t worried about AIs creating their own goals, either. Instead, the problem is that an AI optimizing very competently for the goals we gave it presents a threat to our survival. (For details, read just about anything on the topic that isn’t a news story, from Superintelligence to Wait But Why to Wikipedia, or watch this talk by Stuart Russell.)

Etzioni continues:

…the emergence of “full artificial intelligence” over the next twenty-five years is far less likely than an asteroid striking the earth and annihilating us.

First, most of the people concerned about AI as a potential extinction risk don’t think “full artificial intelligence” (aka AGI) will arrive in the next 25 years, either.

Second, I think most of Etzioni’s colleagues in AI would disagree with his claim that the arrival of AGI within 25 years is “far less likely than an asteroid striking the earth and annihilating us” (in the same 25-year time horizon).

Step one: what do AI scientists think about the timing of AGI? In a recent survey of the top-cited living AI scientists in the world, the median response for (paraphrasing) “year by which you’re 10% confident AGI will be built” was 2024. The median response for 50% confidence of AGI was 2050. So, top-of-the-field AI researchers tend to be somewhere between 10% and 50% confident that AGI will be built within Etzioni’s 25-year timeframe. 2

Step two: how likely is it that an asteroid will strike Earth and annihilate us in the next 25 years? The nice thing about this prediction is that we actually know quite a lot about how frequently large asteroids strike Earth. We have hundreds of millions of years’ worth of data. And even without looking at that data, we know that an asteroid large enough to “annihilate us” hasn’t struck Earth throughout all of primate history — because if it had, we wouldn’t be here! Also, NASA conducted a pretty thorough search for nearby asteroids a while back, and — long story short — they’re pretty confident they’ve identified all the civilization-ending asteroids nearby, and none of them are going to hit Earth. The probability of an asteroid annihilating us in the next 25 years is much, much smaller than 1%.

(Note that although I work as a GiveWell research analyst, I do not study AI impacts for GiveWell, and my view on this is not necessarily GiveWell’s view.)

  1. Interestingly, Etzioni actually co-authored one of the most widely-cited papers on AI safety back in 1994. MIRI’s technical agenda overview even cites it.[]
  2. Technically, the survey asked for confidence of AGI conditional on no major disruption to scientific progress, but I’d be very surprised if the median top-cited AI researcher has a >5% probability of major disruption to scientific progress in the next 25 years.[]

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