Visualization based on based on the graph from Mother Jones “Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?

The Road to Artificial Super Intelligence

An Entity Smarter than Whole Humanity Combined

Note: This is the 4th part of a short essay series aiming to condense knowledge on the Artificial Intelligence Revolution. Feel free to start reading here or navigate to Part 1, ← prev|next → essay or table of contents. The project is based on the two-part essay AI Revolution by Tim Urban of Wait But Why. I recreated all images, shortened it x3 and tweaked it a bit. Read more on why/how I wrote it here.

It’s very real that at some point we will achieve AGI — a computer that reaches human-level intelligence. Does this mean that at that very moment the computers will be equally capable as us? Actually, not at all — computers will be way more efficient. Because of the fact that they are electrical, they will have following advantages:

  • Speed. “The brain’s neurons max out at around 200 Hz, while today’s microprocessors … run at 2 GHz, or 10 million times faster.”⁵¹
  • Memory. Forgetting or confusing things doesn’t exist in an artificial world. Computers can memorize in one second more things than a human can over a period of 10 years. A computer’s memory is also more precise and has a much greater storage capacity.
  • Performance. “Computer transistors are more accurate than biological neurons, and they’re less likely to deteriorate (and can be repaired or replaced if they do). Human brains also get fatigued easily, while computers can run nonstop, at peak performance, 24/7.”⁵²
  • Collective capability. Group work is ridiculously challenging because of time-consuming communication and complex social hierarchies. The bigger the group gets, the slower the output of each person becomes. AI, on the other hand, isn’t biologically constrained to one body, doesn’t have an ego and is able to synchronize and update its own operating system.

AI “wouldn’t see ‘human-level intelligence’ as some important milestone — it’s only a relevant marker from our point of view — and wouldn’t have any reason to “stop” at our level. And given the advantages over us that even human intelligence-equivalent AGI would have, it’s pretty obvious that it would only hit human intelligence for a brief instant before racing onwards to the realm of superior-to-human intelligence.”⁵³

The true separator between humans and ASI [Artificial Super Intelligence—AI that achieves a level of intelligence smarter than all of humanity combined] wouldn’t be its advantage in intelligence speed, but “in intelligence quality — which is something completely different. What makes humans so much more intellectually capable than chimps isn’t a difference in thinking speed — it’s that human brains contain a number of sophisticated cognitive modules that enable things like complex linguistic representations or longterm planning or abstract reasoning, that chimps’ brains do not have. Speeding up a chimp’s brain by thousands of times wouldn’t bring him to our level — even with a decade’s time of learning, he wouldn’t be able to figure out how to … ”⁵⁴ assemble a semi-complicated Lego model by looking at its manual — something a young human could achieve in a few minutes. “There are worlds of human cognitive function a chimp will simply never be capable of, no matter how much time he spends trying.”⁵⁵

“And in the scheme of the biological intelligence range … the chimp-to-human quality intelligence gap is tiny.”⁵⁶

In order to render how big a deal it would be to exist with an entity of greater intelligence quality than our own, we need to imagine AI on the intelligence staircase two steps above us— “its increased cognitive ability over us would be as vast as the chimp–human gap ... And like the chimp’s incapacity to ever absorb …”⁵⁷ what kind of magic happens in the mechanism of a doorknob—“we will never be able to even comprehend the things … [a machine of that intelligence] can do, even if the machine tried to explain them to us … And that’s only two steps above us.”⁵⁸

“A machine on the second-to-highest step on that staircase would be to us as we are to ants.”⁵⁹ “Superintelligence of that magnitude is not something we can remotely grasp, any more than a bumblebee can wrap its head around Keynesian Economics. In our world, smart means a 130 IQ and stupid means an 85 IQ — we don’t have a word for an IQ of 12,952.”⁶⁰

“But the kind of superintelligence we’re talking about today is something far beyond anything on this staircase. In an intelligence explosion — where the smarter a machine gets, the quicker it’s able to increase its own intelligence — a machine might take years to rise from … ”⁶¹ the ant step to reach intelligence level of the average human, but it might take only another 40 days to become Einstein-smart. When that happens, “it works to improve its intelligence, with an Einstein-level intellect, it has an easier time and can make bigger leaps. These leaps will make it much smarter than any human, allowing it to make even bigger leaps.”⁶²

From then on, following the rule of exponential advancements and utilizing the speed and efficacy of electrical circuits, it may perhaps take only 20 minutes to jump another step, “and by the time it’s ten steps above us, it might be jumping up in four-step leaps every second that goes by. Which is why we need to realize that it’s distinctly possible that very shortly after the big news story about the first machine reaching human-level AGI, we might be facing the reality of coexisting on the Earth with something that’s here on the staircase (or maybe a million times higher):”⁶³

“And since we just established that it’s a hopeless activity to try to understand the power of a machine only two steps above us, let’s very concretely state once and for all that there is no way to know what ASI will do or what the consequences will be for us. Anyone who pretends otherwise doesn’t understand what superintelligence means.”⁶⁴

“If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time — everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us.”⁶⁵

“As far as we’re concerned, if an ASI comes into being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth — and the all-important question for us is: Will it be a good god?”⁶⁶

Let’s start from the brighter side of the story.

Read Part 5: “Immortality? Nanotechnology?”—Speculations on Technologies Brought on by Advanced AI. You can also see the ← prev|next → essay, Part 1 or table of contents. Subscribe below.

This series was inspired and based on an article from one of the best blogs in our galaxy. Wait But Why posts regularly. They send each post out by email to over 295,000 people — enter your email here and they’ll put you on the list (they only send a few emails each month). If you like this, check out The Fermi Paradox, How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars, or Why procrastinators procrastinate. You can also follow Wait But Why on Facebook and Twitter