Thanks for Kaj for making me think along these lines.
It's agreed on this list that general intelligences - those that are capable of displaying high cognitive performance across a whole range of domains - are those that we need to be worrying about. This is rational: the most worrying AIs are those with truly general intelligences, and so those should be the focus of our worries and work.
But I'm wondering if we're overestimating the probability of general intelligences, and whether we shouldn't adjust against this.
First of all, the concept of general intelligence is a simple one - perhaps too simple. It's an intelligence that is generally "good" at everything, so we can collapse its various abilities across many domains into "it's intelligent", and leave it at that. It's significant to note that since the very beginning of the field, AI people have been thinking in terms of general intelligences.
And their expectations have been constantly frustrated. We've made great progress in narrow areas, very little in general intelligences. Chess was solved without "understanding"; Jeopardy! was defeated without general intelligence; cars can navigate our cluttered roads while being able to do little else. If we started with a prior in 1956 about the feasibility of general intelligence, then we should be adjusting that prior downwards.
But what do I mean by "feasibility of general intelligence"? There are several things this could mean, not least the ease with which such an intelligence could be constructed. But I'd prefer to look at another assumption: the idea that a general intelligence will really be formidable in multiple domains, and that one of the best ways of accomplishing a goal in a particular domain is to construct a general intelligence and let it specialise.
First of all, humans are very far from being general intelligences. We can solve a lot of problems when the problems are presented in particular, easy to understand formats that allow good human-style learning. But if we picked a random complicated Turing machine from the space of such machines, we'd probably be pretty hopeless at predicting its behaviour. We would probably score very low on the scale of intelligence used to construct the AIXI. The general intelligence, "g", is a misnomer - it designates the fact that the various human intelligences are correlated, not that humans are generally intelligent across all domains.
Humans with computers, and humans in societies and organisations, are certainly closer to general intelligences than individual humans. But institutions have their own blind spots and weakness, as does the human-computer combination. Now, there are various reasons advanced for why this is the case - game theory and incentives for institutions, human-computer interfaces and misunderstandings for the second example. But what if these reasons, and other ones we can come up with, were mere symptoms of a more universal problem: that generalising intelligence is actually very hard?
There are no free lunch theorems that show that no computable intelligences can perform well in all environments. As far as they go, these theorems are uninteresting, as we don't need intelligences that perform well in all environments, just in almost all/most. But what if a more general restrictive theorem were true? What if it was very hard to produce an intelligence that was of high performance across many domains? What if the performance of a generalist was pitifully inadequate as compared with a specialist. What if every computable version of AIXI was actually doomed to poor performance?
There are a few strong counters to this - for instance, you could construct good generalists by networking together specialists (this is my standard mental image/argument for AI risk), you could construct an entity that was very good at programming specific sub-programs, or you could approximate AIXI. But we are making some assumptions here - namely, that we can network together very different intelligences (the human-computer interfaces hints at some of the problems), and that a general programming ability can even exist in the first place (for a start, it might require a general understanding of problems that is akin to general intelligence in the first place). And we haven't had great success building effective AIXI approximations so far (which should reduce, possibly slightly, our belief that effective general intelligences are possible).
Now, I remain convinced that general intelligence is possible, and that it's worthy of the most worry. But I think it's worth inspecting the concept more closely, and at least be open to the possibility that general intelligence might be a lot harder than we imagine.
EDIT: Model/example of what a lack of general intelligence could look like.
Imagine there are three types of intelligence - social, spacial and scientific, all on a 0-100 scale. For any combinations of the three intelligences - eg (0,42,98) - there is an effort level E (how hard is that intelligence to build, in terms of time, resources, man-hours, etc...) and a power level P (how powerful is that intelligence compared to others, on a single convenient scale of comparison).
Wei Dai's evolutionary comment implies that any being of very low intelligence on one of the scale would be overpowered by a being of more general intelligence. So let's set power as simply the product of all three intelligences.
This seems to imply that general intelligences are more powerful, as it basically bakes in diminishing returns - but we haven't included effort yet. Imagine that the following three intelligences require equal effort: (10,10,10), (20,20,5), (100,5,5). Then the specialised intelligence is definitely the one you need to build.
But is it plausible that those could be of equal difficulty? It could be, if we assume that high social intelligence isn't so difficult, but is specialised. ie you can increase the spacial intelligence of a social intelligence, but that messes up the delicate balance in its social brain. Or maybe recursive self-improvement happens more easily in narrow domains. Further assume that intelligences of different types cannot be easily networked together (eg combining (100,5,5) and (5,100,5) in the same brain gives an overall performance of (21,21,5)). This doesn't seem impossible.
So let's caveat the proposition above: the most effective and dangerous type of AI might be one with a bare minimum amount of general intelligence, but an overwhelming advantage in one type of narrow intelligence.