International cooperation vs. AI arms race

by Brian_Tomasik 3 min read5th Dec 2013144 comments



I think there's a decent chance that governments will be the first to build artificial general intelligence (AI). International hostility, especially an AI arms race, could exacerbate risk-taking, hostile motivations, and errors of judgment when creating AI. If so, then international cooperation could be an important factor to consider when evaluating the flow-through effects of charities. That said, we may not want to popularize the arms-race consideration too openly lest we accelerate the race.

Will governments build AI first?

AI poses a national-security threat, and unless the militaries of powerful countries are very naive, it seems to me unlikely they'd allow AI research to proceed in private indefinitely. At some point the US military would confiscate the project from Google or Goldman Sachs, if the US military isn't already ahead of them in secret by that point. (DARPA already funds a lot of public AI research.)

There are some scenarios in which private AI research wouldn't be nationalized:

  • An unexpected AI foom before anyone realizes what was coming.
  • The private developers stay underground for long enough not to be caught. This becomes less likely the more government surveillance improves (see "Arms Control and Intelligence Explosions").
  • AI developers move to a "safe haven" country where they can't be taken over. (It seems like the international community might prevent this, however, in the same way it now seeks to suppress terrorism in other countries.)
Each of these scenarios could happen, but it seems most likely to me that governments would ultimately control AI development.

AI arms races

Government AI development could go wrong in several ways. Probably most on LW feel the prevailing scenario is that governments would botch the process by not realizing the risks at hand. It's also possible that governments would use the AI for malevolent, totalitarian purposes.

It seems that both of these bad scenarios would be exacerbated by international conflict. Greater hostility means countries are more inclined to use AI as a weapon. Indeed, whoever builds the first AI can take over the world, which makes building AI the ultimate arms race. A USA-China race is one reasonable possibility.

Arms races encourage risk-taking -- being willing to skimp on safety measures to improve your odds of winning ("Racing to the Precipice"). In addition, the weaponization of AI could lead to worse expected outcomes in general. CEV seems to have less hope of success in a Cold War scenario. ("What? You want to include the evil Chinese in your CEV??") (ETA: With a pure CEV, presumably it would eventually count Chinese values even if it started with just Americans, because people would become more enlightened during the process. However, when we imagine more crude democratic decision outcomes, this becomes less likely.)

Ways to avoid an arms race

Averting an AI arms race seems to be an important topic for research. It could be partly informed by the Cold War and other nuclear arms races, as well as by other efforts at nonproliferation of chemical and biological weapons.

Apart from more robust arms control, other factors might help:

  • Improved international institutions like the UN, allowing for better enforcement against defection by one state.
  • In the long run, a scenario of global governance (i.e., a Leviathan or singleton) would likely be ideal for strengthening international cooperation, just like nation states reduce intra-state violence.
  • Better construction and enforcement of nonproliferation treaties.
  • Improved game theory and international-relations scholarship on the causes of arms races and how to avert them. (For instance, arms races have sometimes been modeled as iterated prisoner's dilemmas with imperfect information.)
  • How to improve verification, which has historically been a weak point for nuclear arms control. (The concern is that if you haven't verified well enough, the other side might be arming while you're not.)
  • Moral tolerance and multicultural perspective, aiming to reduce people's sense of nationalism. (In the limit where neither Americans nor Chinese cared which government won the race, there would be no point in having the race.)
  • Improved trade, democracy, and other forces that historically have reduced the likelihood of war.

Are these efforts cost-effective?

World peace is hardly a goal unique to effective altruists (EAs), so we shouldn't necessarily expect low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, projects like nuclear nonproliferation seem relatively underfunded even compared with anti-poverty charities.

I suspect more direct MIRI-type research has higher expected value, but among EAs who don't want to fund MIRI specifically, encouraging donations toward international cooperation could be valuable, since it's certainly a more mainstream cause. I wonder if GiveWell would consider studying global cooperation specifically beyond its indirect relationship with catastrophic risks.

Should we publicize AI arms races?

When I mentioned this topic to a friend, he pointed out that we might not want the idea of AI arms races too widely known, because then governments might take the concern more seriously and therefore start the race earlier -- giving us less time to prepare and less time to work on FAI in the meanwhile. From David Chalmers, "The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis" (footnote 14):

When I discussed these issues with cadets and staff at the West Point Military Academy, the question arose as to whether the US military or other branches of the government might attempt to prevent the creation of AI or AI+, due to the risks of an intelligence explosion. The consensus was that they would not, as such prevention would only increase the chances that AI or AI+ would first be created by a foreign power. One might even expect an AI arms race at some point, once the potential consequences of an intelligence explosion are registered. According to this reasoning, although AI+ would have risks from the standpoint of the US government, the risks of Chinese AI+ (say) would be far greater.

We should take this information-hazard concern seriously and remember the unilateralist's curse. If it proves to be fatal for explicitly discussing AI arms races, we might instead encourage international cooperation without explaining why. Fortunately, it wouldn't be hard to encourage international cooperation on grounds other than AI arms races if we wanted to do so.

ETA: Also note that a government-level arms race might be preferable to a Wild West race among a dozen private AI developers where coordination and compromise would be not just difficult but potentially impossible.