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From AI Apocalypse to Utopian Dream: Nick Bostrom Explores the Positive Potential of Superintelligence in ‘Deep Utopia



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Knight Will

Nick Bostrom Instilled a Fear of AI Globally. Now He Wonders: Could It Be Our Salvation?

Despite his deep engagement with thoughts of human extinction, philosopher Nick Bostrom appears surprisingly upbeat. His photographs usually portray him as intensely solemn, a reflection of the grave existential threats he contemplates. However, during our Zoom conversation, he presents a more laid-back demeanor, complete with smiles.

Bostrom has dedicated his career to reflecting on distant technological progress and the existential threats they pose to">kind. Through the release of his recent book, "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies," in 2014, he brought mainstream focus to a previously marginal concept—the notion that AI could evolve to a stage where it could potentially become hostile and eradicate humans.

For a number of people both within and beyond the field of AI research, the concept appeared to be far-fetched, yet notable individuals such as Elon Musk referenced Bostrom's work. This publication ignited a thread of catastrophic concern regarding AI that has intensified with the emergence of ChatGPT. Anxiety over the dangers of AI has not only become widespread but is also a topic of discussion in governmental circles focusing on AI policies.

In his latest publication, Bostrom adopts a unique perspective. Instead of focusing on grim scenarios, "Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World" explores a scenario where mankind has managed to create superintelligent machines without causing a catastrophe. Diseases are a thing of the past, and humans enjoy a life of endless abundance and immortality. The book delves into the significance of existence in a technological paradise, questioning whether such a life could ultimately feel empty. Bostrom shared his insights during a discussion with WIRED, which was subsequently refined for succinctness and clarity.

Will Knight: What prompted the shift from discussing the dangers of superintelligent AI to humanity to exploring its potential for positive impact?

Nick Bostrom highlights that there's been a significant increase in awareness regarding the potential risks associated with AI development. This change has been particularly noticeable over the past decade. Currently, top AI research facilities are actively working on creating methods to ensure AI can align with human values and goals. Additionally, in recent years, the topic has also caught the interest of political figures.

So far, there hasn't been a matching improvement in the complexity and depth of thought regarding the potential paths forward, should we manage to avoid these pitfalls. The level of analysis on the subject has remained rather shallow.

When you authored "Superintelligence," it was unexpected for the conversation around existential risks posed by AI to escalate into a widespread discussion so rapidly. Do you believe the issues highlighted in your latest publication will become a concern more swiftly than anticipated?

As automation begins to unfold, provided that advancements persist, discussions on this topic are likely to commence and ultimately become more profound.

Applications designed for social companionship are expected to gain more visibility and importance. There will be a wide range of opinions about this, potentially leading to some cultural conflicts. While these platforms might offer a sense of satisfaction to those who struggle to find it in their daily lives, there's a concern about a portion of users who might indulge in mistreating others within these spaces.

Within the realms of politics and information dissemination, there's potential to harness artificial intelligence for political campaign strategies, marketing endeavors, and the propagation of automated propaganda. However, with the right amount of discernment, such technologies could significantly enhance our capacity to engage as proactive participants in democracy, offering personalized insights into the implications of various policy proposals on an individual level. This could introduce a range of new dynamics within society.

Is it truly a negative scenario if artificial intelligence manages to tackle significant challenges such as global warming, health issues, and the necessity for labor in the future?

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In the end, I hold a hopeful view of the potential results if everything proceeds smoothly. However, that optimism comes after a significant reevaluation of the essence and value of human existence. With the advent of superintelligence capable of performing all tasks, many of our current activities could become obsolete, challenging our existing beliefs about the ultimate purpose of human life. This future may also include the presence of digital minds, adding another layer to this scenario.

Sharing our world with digital consciousnesses would represent a significant change. It prompts us to seriously consider our interactions with these beings.

In my opinion, the capability to experience suffering, also known as sentience, should be considered an adequate basis for granting moral status to an AI system, though it should not be regarded as an indispensable criterion.

It's possible that certain AI systems, despite lacking consciousness, could be assigned varying levels of moral consideration. Imagine an advanced system capable of complex reasoning, possessing a sense of self-identity over time, consistent desires, potentially even ambitions and objectives it strives to fulfill, and the ability to engage in mutual relationships with humans. Should such a system exist, it's conceivable that there would be inappropriate ways to interact with it.

Might it be safer to prevent artificial intelligence from evolving into entities with their own will and self-awareness?

Currently, there are compelling reasons to push forward with artificial intelligence development. The potential financial gains are substantial and will only become more apparent over time. Additionally, there are the prospects of scientific breakthroughs, including novel medications, renewable energy solutions, and more. Furthermore, it's becoming clear that AI will play a critical role in national defense, offering military advantages that encourage further investment in this technology.

It would be beneficial if those leading the development of future AI technology, especially the highly advanced superintelligent systems, possessed the capability to halt progress at critical moments. This pause would be crucial for ensuring safety.

I would approach any suggestions that appear to increase the chance of AI facing a permanent prohibition with a higher degree of skepticism. While this outcome seems less likely than others, it's more conceivable now than it would have been two years ago. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't be a catastrophic loss if AI was never realized, leaving us merely as primates grappling with scarcity, illness, and hardship. I mean, is this the scenario we're destined to endure for a million years?

Circling back to the topic of existential risk from AI, would you say you're satisfied with the measures being taken to address it?

The discussion appears to be somewhat scattered, touching on various topics. Additionally, there are several urgent matters that need to be addressed, including discrimination, privacy, and intellectual property rights, among others.

Businesses focused on the long-term impact of their actions are channeling resources into AI security and making efforts to connect with policy makers. It appears that standards will gradually need to be elevated as we progress.

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Contrary to those who express severe pessimism about AI, there are individuals pushing for a reduction in fear and an increase in progress. How do you perceive this trend?

Individuals tend to categorize themselves into distinct groups which subsequently engage in intense conflicts. From my perspective, it's evident that the situation is quite complicated and it's challenging to discern what truly improves or deteriorates specific aspects.

For thirty years, I've deeply contemplated these topics and have formed some opinions on certain aspects, yet I continue to feel quite uninformed overall. It seems others might have discovered quicker paths to understanding.

Could their response also be to what they perceive as an automatic pessimism towards technology?

Indeed, that is correct. When things veer excessively towards one extreme, it inherently leads to this outcome. I remain hopeful that despite the presence of numerous possibly illogical individuals adopting firm and decisive positions on opposing ends, it will somehow converge into a collective rationality.

There appears to be growing discontent. While their intentions for correction may be valid, I believe that ultimately, a harmonious resolution is necessary.

Since founding the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University in 2005, you've been a part of it. However, last month, it was revealed that the institute would shut down due to conflicts with the university's administrative processes. Can you share what transpired?

For quite some time now, navigating through local administrative hurdles has been an ongoing challenge. Encountering obstacles such as a halt on hiring and restrictions on fundraising efforts has significantly hampered our ability to function as an energetic and multidisciplinary research center. To be frank, our presence within the philosophy department has always felt somewhat out of place.

What are your upcoming plans?

I experience a profound sense of freedom, after being engaged with various responsibilities for what seems like an eternity. I'm inclined to take a moment to simply observe and ponder life, without any strict plans. The concept of enjoying unrestricted liberty is very attractive to me.

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