Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat?

11 September 2014
by Angela Chen

When the world ends, it may not be by fire or ice or an evil robot overlord. Our demise may come at the hands of a superintelligence that just wants more paper clips.

So says Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who founded and directs the Future of Humanity Institute, in the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He created the "paper-clip maximizer" thought experiment to expose flaws in how we conceive of superintelligence. We anthropomorphize such machines as particularly clever math nerds, says Bostrom, whose book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies was released in Britain in July and arrived stateside this month. Spurred by science fiction and pop culture, we assume that the main superintelligence-gone-wrong scenario features a hostile organization programming software to conquer the world. But those assumptions fundamentally misunderstand the nature of superintelligence: The dangers come not necessarily from evil motives, says Bostrom, but from a powerful, wholly nonhuman agent that lacks common sense.

Imagine a machine programmed with the seemingly harmless, and ethically neutral, goal of getting as many paper clips as possible. First it collects them. Then. realizing that it could get more clips if it were smarter, it tries to improve its own algorithm to maximize computing power and collecting abilities. Unrestrained, its power grows by leaps and bounds, until it will do anything to reach its goal: collect paper clips, yes, but also buy paper clips, steal paper clips, perhaps transform all of earth into a paper-clip factory. "Harmless" goal, bad programming, end of the human race.

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