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What, Me Worry? - I Don’t Share Most Concerns About Artificial Intelligence

Lawrence Krauss
By Lawrence Krauss
The Edge

Posted: May 28, 2015

There has of late been a great deal of ink devoted to concerns about artificial intelligence, and a future world where machines can “think,” where the latter term ranges from simple autonomous decision-making to full fledged self-awareness. I don’t share most of these concerns, and I am personally quite excited by the possibility of experiencing thinking machines, both for the opportunities they will provide for potentially improving the human condition, to the insights they will undoubtedly provide into the nature of consciousness.

First, let’s make one thing clear. Even with the exponential growth in computer storage and processing power over the past 40 years, thinking computers will require a digital architecture that bears little resemblance to current computers, nor are they likely to become competitive with consciousness in the near term. A simple physics thought experiment supports this claim:

Given current power consumption by electronic computers, a computer with the storage and processing capability of the human mind would require in excess of 10 Terawatts of power, within a factor of two of the current power consumption of all of humanity. However, the human brain uses about 10 watts of power. This means a mismatch of a factor of 1012, or a million million. Over the past decade the doubling time for Megaflops/watt has been about 3 years. Even assuming Moore’s Law continues unabated, this means it will take about 40 doubling times, or about 120 years, to reach a comparable power dissipation. Moreover, each doubling in efficiency requires a relatively radical change in technology, and it is extremely unlikely that 40 such doublings could be achieved without essentially changing the way computers compute.

Ignoring for a moment the logistical challenges, I imagine no other impediment in principle to developing a truly self-aware machine. Before this, machine decision-making will take an ever more important role in our lives. Some people see this as a concern, but it has already been happening for decades. Starting perhaps with the rudimentary computers called elevators, which determine how and when we will get to our apartments, we have allowed machines to autonomously guide us. We fly each week on airplanes that are guided by autopilot, our cars make decisions about when they should be serviced or when tires should be filled, and fully self-driving cars are probably around the corner.

For many, if not most, relatively automatic tasks, machines are clearly much better decision-makers than humans, and we should rejoice that they have the potential to make everyday activities safer and more efficient. In doing so we have not lost control because we create the conditions and initial algorithms that determine the decision-making. I envisage the human-computer interface as like having a helpful partner, and the more intelligent machines become the more helpful they can be partners.

Any partnership requires some level of trust and loss of control, but if the benefits often outweigh the losses, we preserve the partnership. If they don’t, we sever it. I see no difference if the partner is a human or a machine.

One area where we may have to be particularly cautious about partnerships involves the command and control infrastructure in modern warfare. Because we have the capability to destroy much of human life on this planet, it seems worrisome to imagine that intelligent machines might one day control the decision-making apparatus that leads to pushing the big red button, or even launching a less catastrophic attack. I think this is because when it comes to decision-making we often rely on intuition and interpersonal communication as much as rational analysis—the Cuban missile crisis is a good example—and we assume intelligent machines will not have these capabilities.

However, intuition is the product of experience and communication is, in the modern world, not restricted to telephones or face-to-face conversations. Once again, intelligent design of systems with numerous redundancies and safeguards built suggest to me that machine decision-making, even in the case of violent hostilities is not necessarily worse than decision-making by humans.

So much for possible worries. Let me end with what I think is the most exciting scientific aspect of machine intelligence. Machines currently help us do most of our science, by calculating for us. Beyond simple numeric programming, Most graduate students in physics now depend on Mathematica, which does most of the symbolic algebraic manipulation that we used to do ourselves when I was a student. But this just scratches the surface.

I am interested in what machines will focus on when they get to choose the questions as well as the answers. What questions will they choose? What will they find interesting? And will they do physics the same way we do? Surely quantum computers, if they ever become practical, will have a much better “intuitive” understanding of quantum phenomena than we will. Will they be able to make much faster progress unravelling the fundamental laws of nature? When will the first machine win a Nobel Prize? I suspect, as always, that the most interesting questions are the ones we haven’t yet thought of.

Lawrence Maxwell Krauss is an American theoretical physicist who is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing.
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Good article from professor Krauss. I am not worried about his caution to not link warhead firing systems to A.I.‘s. I am more troubled, on a regular basis, on missile systems in good, old fashioned human hands. I tend to side with George Dyson, from Darwin Among the Machines, as see the human future as being central to some sort of AI infrastructure.

The interesting question of power requirements is one which is seldom raised in such articles and certainly merits consideration.

In all other respects, however, it is pretty much standard fare. At least inasmuch as the composers of such articles, blinkered br specialization, seem unable to break free from the traditional science fiction based notions involving individual robots/computers. Either as potential threats, beneficial aids or serious basis for “artificial intelligence”.  In reality the real next cognitive entity quietly self assembles in the background, mostly unrecognized for what it is. 

And, contrary to our usual conceits, is not stoppable of directly within our control.

This is yet another illustration of the fact that the evolution of the internet (and, of course, major components such as Google) is actually an autonomous process. The difficulty in convincing people of this “inconvenient truth” seems to stem partly from our natural anthropocentric mind-sets and also the traditional illusion that in some way we are in control of, and distinct from, nature. Contemplation of the observed realities seems to be outside our comfort zone!

This evolution is not driven by any individual software company or team of researchers, but rather by the sum of many human requirements, whims and desires to which the current technologies react. Among the more significant motivators are such things as commerce, gaming, social interactions, education and sexual titillation.
Virtually all interests are catered for and, in toto provide the impetus for the continued evolution of the Internet. Netty is still in her larval stage, but we “workers” scurry round mindlessly engaged in her nurture.

By relinquishing our usual parochial approach to this issue in favor of the overall evolutionary “big picture” provided by many fields of science, the emergence of a new predominant cognitive entity (from the Internet, rather than individual machines) is seen to be not only feasible but inevitable.

The separate issue of whether it well be malignant, neutral or benign towards we snoutless apes is less certain, and this particular aspect I have explored elsewhere.
Stephen Hawking, for instance, is reported to have remarked “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all,”

This statement reflects the narrow-minded approach that is so common-place among those who make public comment on this issue. In reality, as much as it may offend our human conceits, the march of technology and its latest spearhead, the Internet is, and always has been, an autonomous process over which we have very little real control.

Seemingly unrelated disciplines such as geology, biology and “big history” actually have much to tell us about the machinery of nature (of which technology is necessarily a part) and the kind of outcome that is to be expected from the evolution of the Internet.

This much broader “systems analysis” approach, freed from the anthropocentric notions usually promoted by the cult of the “Singularity”, provides a more objective vision that is consistent with the pattern of autonomous evolution of technology that is so evident today.

Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet. It is effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly.

The “Internet of Things” is proceeding apace and pervading all aspects of our lives. We are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the increasingly cloudy net.

We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we perceive as a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

There are at present an estimated 2 Billion Internet users. There are an estimated 10 to 80 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the Internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.

That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the Internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion. Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but instead can adopt multiple states.

Without even crunching the numbers, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power. And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.

The emergence of a new and predominant cognitive entity that is a logical consequence of the evolutionary continuum that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars.

This is the main theme of my latest book “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill” which is now available as a 336 page illustrated paperback from Amazon, etc.

Netty, as you may have guessed by now, is the name I choose to identify this emergent non-biological cognitive entity

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