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How to deal with a misleading conference talk about AI risk?

by rmoehn3 min read27th Jun 201913 comments


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Does it make sense to give a public response? Who would be able to do it?

The conference organizer, who had asked me to evaluate the talk, offered to interview me to set things straight. However, I don't know if that is sensible, and given my level of experience, I'm afraid I would misrepresent AI risk myself.

To be concrete: the talk was Should We Fear Intelligent Machines? by Gerald Sussman of SICP fame. He touched on important research questions and presented some interesting ideas. But much of what he said was misleading and not well-reasoned.

In response to the comments I add specifics. This is the same as I sent to the conference organizer, who had asked me for an evaluation. Note that this evaluation is separate from the interview mentioned above. The evaluation was private, the interview would be public.

  • Because of the low sound quality, I might have misunderstood some statements.

  • Mr. Sussman touched on important research questions.

  • His solution approaches might be useful.

  • He touched on some of the concerns about (strong) AI, especially the shorter term ones.

  • He acknowledged AI as a threat, which is good. But he wrongly dismissed some concerns about strong AI.

    • It's correct that current AI is not existential threat. But future AI is one.
    • He says that it won't be an existential threat, because it doesn't compete with us for resources. This is wrong.
      • Humans don't need silicon to live, but they do need silicon (and many other computer ingredients) to build much of their infrastructure. Of course we don't need that infrastructure to survive as a species. But when people talk about existential risks, they're usually not satisfied with bare survival: https://nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html (section 1.2)
      • There is enough energy from the sun only if you figure out how to use it. We haven't and AI might not either in the beginning. We can't expect that it will say ‘let me be nice and leave the fossil fuels to the humans and figure out a way to use something else myself’. (Mind that I don't necessarily expect AI to be conscious like that.)
      • If AI plasters every available surface (or orbit) with solar panels, life will be dire for humans.
      • Even if it doesn't compete for resources (inputs), the outputs might be problematic. – A computer can work swimming in a lake of toxic waste at 190 °F, a human cannot.
      • (Note that I'm not assuming ‘evil AI’, but misunderstood/misaligned values. That's why it's called ‘AI alignment’.)
    • Competing with us for resources is only one way that AI is a threat. See the third section of https://futureoflife.org/background/benefits-risks-of-artificial-intelligence/ for what people are most worried about.
    • Hawking and Musk are not the people who have thought most about AI. One needs to refute other people's arguments (FLI, Nick Bostrom, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Paul Christiano) to make a case against AI concerns.
  • Many of his arguments made big jumps.

    • He gave examples about how dumb AI is now/how shallow its understanding of the world is. These are true. But I didn't know what point he wanted to make. Then he says that there won't be any jobs left for intellectual work ‘fairly soon’, because productivity/person goes to infinity. This would require quite strong AI, which means that all the safety concerns are on the table, too.
    • The whole question about enforcement. – If AI is much more clever than we, how do we make sure it doesn't evade rule enforcement? If it has a "rule following module", how do we make sure it doesn't have subtle bugs? Free software might help here, but free software has bugs, too.
    • Also, AI might lie low and then bring everything down before we can enforce anything. This is called the treacherous turn. See also https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-2.html
  • It was hard to understand, but I think he made fun of Max Tegmark and Eliezer Yudkowsky who are very active in the field. At least Tegmark would laugh with anyone joking about him. [(This is my expectation given his public appearances. I don't know him personally.)] But those remarks do give the audience a wrong impression and are therefore not helpful.

  • Having such a talk at an engineering conference might be good, because it raises awareness, and there was a call to action. There is also the downside of things being misrepresented and misunderstood.

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I've given responses before where I go into detail about how I disagree with some public presentation on AI; the primary example is this one from January 2017, which Yvain also responded to. Generally this is done after messaging the draft to the person in question, to give them a chance to clarify or correct misunderstandings (and to be cooperative instead of blindsiding them).

I generally think it's counterproductive to 'partially engage' or to be dismissive; for example, one consequence of XiXiDu's interviews with AI experts was that some of them (that received mostly dismissive remarks in the LW comments) came away with the impression that people interested in AI risk were jerks who aren't really worth engaging with. For example, I might think someone is confused if they think climate change is more important than AI safety, but I don't think that it's useful to just tell them that they're confused or off-handedly remark that "of course AI safety is more important," since the underlying considerations (like the difference between catastrophic risks and existential risks) are actually non-obvious.