Reply to Tabarrok on AI risk

At Marginal Revolution, economist Alex Tabarrok writes:

Stephen Hawking fears that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk and Bill Gates offer similar warnings. Many researchers in artificial intelligence are less concerned primarily because they think that the technology is not advancing as quickly as doom scenarios imagine, as Ramez Naam discussed.

First, remember that Naam quoted only the prestigious AI scientists who agree with him, and conspicuously failed to mention that many prestigious AI scientists past and present have taken AI risk seriously.

Second, the common disagreement is not, primarily, about the timing of AGI. As I’ve explained many times before, the AI timelines of those talking about the long-term risk are not noticeably different from those of the mainstream AI community. (Indeed, both Nick Bostrom and myself, and many others in the risk-worrying camp, have later timelines than the mainstream AI community does.)

But the main argument of Tabarrok’s post is this:

Why should we be worried about the end of the human race? Oh sure, there are some Terminator like scenarios in which many future-people die in horrible ways and I’d feel good if we avoided those scenarios. The more likely scenario, however, is a glide path to extinction in which most people adopt a variety of bionic and germ-line modifications that over-time evolve them into post-human cyborgs. A few holdouts to the old ways would remain but birth rates would be low and the non-adapted would be regarded as quaint, as we regard the Amish today. Eventually the last humans would go extinct and 46andMe customers would kid each other over how much of their DNA was of the primitive kind while holo-commercials advertised products “so easy a homo sapiens could do it.”  I see nothing objectionable in this scenario.

The people who write about existential risk at FHI, MIRI, CSER, FLI, etc. tend not to be worried about Tabarrok’s “glide” scenario. Speaking for myself, at least, that scenario seems pretty desirable. I just don’t think it’s very likely, for reasons partially explained in books like SuperintelligenceGlobal Catastrophic Risks, and others.

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

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