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September 12, 2018

Is an AI Future One to Fear? A Review of Life 3.0

The concept of artificial intelligence presents a whole range of concerns, ranging from the moral to the existential. With that in mind, Sparsh Jain reviews Life 3.0, beginning with the opening pages in which MIT (News - Alert) professor Max Tegmark abundantly announces the arrival of Life 3.0: “Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally fully free from its evolutionary shackles.” And in one way, the purpose of Tegmark’s exploration is to learn how to cope with this new-found freedom. Capitalism, democracy, the printing press, information technology, the decline of religious dogmatism and the rise of rational philosophy are all developments that have given humans greater freedom and greater control of our destiny. Tegmark argues that artificial intelligence will be the final step in the realisation of human freedom and destiny.

That said, greater freedom has always stoked fears of uncertainty and powerlessness, and one of the book’s most touching moments sees Tegmark crying after visiting the London Science Museum. Here, Tegmark highlights one of the anxieties that fuels the AI conversation: this “feeling of inevitability: that a disturbing future may be coming and there was nothing we could do about it.” Tegmark chooses to be optimistic about artificial intelligence, encouraging pragmatic cooperation on the problems of the future. To this end he devotes his book; introducing us to what he dubs “the most important conversation of our time”

First and foremost, Tegmark explains why he is confident that AI will be invented soon (albeit with a more eloquent and precise explanation). Intelligence, he explains, is simply an arrangement of quarks and electrons, and there is no law of physics preventing us from building even more intelligent quark blobs. Given that computation keeps getting half as expensive roughly every couple of years - cutting the computer cost a million-million-million (1018) times in the last century - this may be sooner than we think. Tegmark himself includes the perfect example of this idea: “Ernest Rutherford, arguably the greatest nuclear physicist of his time, said in 1933—less than twenty-four hours before Leo Szilard’s invention of the nuclear chain reaction—that nuclear energy was “moonshine”. Finally, Tegmark explains that if an intelligent being can create a being that is more intelligent than itself, this could cause a runaway reaction that would result in superintelligence only limited by the laws of physics. 

However, proving the possibility of artificial intelligence is not the purpose of Tegmark’s book. Though he charts developments in science and technology, Tegmark is primarily interested in answering broad philosophical questions in the context of a rapidly evolving world. Before looking at our creations, Tegmark looks at our own nature by explaining from first principles the concepts of intelligence, memory, computation, learning and consciousness. Purpose and goals are also important topics for Tegmark who believes that one of the main challenges in creating sentient artificial intelligence is in making sure that its goals are aligned with ours. To do this we must first look out our own goals: he explains our goals from a physicist’s, biologist’s, psychologist’s, engineer’s and philosopher’s point of view. Tegmark is essentially saying that our goals are the specific products of millions of years of evolution. Given this, he opens up the question of what kind of fundamental goals artificial intelligence would have and how this would affect its behaviour.

The concept of destiny is also extremely important to Tegmark. For him, artificial intelligence is the final key to unlocking mankind’s wildest dreams. One of the chapters is dedicated to drawing up many possible scenarios as to how the future could look with artificial intelligence and includes scenarios with names like “egalitarian utopia” and “enslaved god”. Perhaps the most striking chapter in the whole book is one titled “Our Cosmic Endowment: The Next Billion Years and Beyond”. Around this point, Tegmark begins to sound like a madman. He speaks of intergalactic cosmic civilisations that build dyson spheres around the sun and evaporate black holes to acquire energy for further computation. He entertains the ideas of creating wormholes, meeting advanced alien civilisations or, more frighteningly, finding out that we are alone in the universe. Though Tegmark is interested in destiny, he is also limited in the things that ultimately limit us. He cites the speed of light and the force of dark energy as limitations to human exploration. Though at times the gigantic scale of Tegmark’s ambitions may sound silly, perhaps the true purpose of Tegmark’s enthusiasm is to show that man has reached the stage where he need not doubt his wildest dreams, and instead of fearing the future, we should be excited by the boundless possibilities that lay ahead.

Although Tegmark’s book deals with deeply philosophical and wildly ambitious ideas, its purpose is surprisingly practical. Ultimately, Tegmark’s goal is to introduce people to an important conversation. He is optimistic about the future if the whole world works towards creating the best outcome. He encourages others to follow his lead in creating a conversation around AI, having himself founded the Future of Life Institute in which he has worked with the likes of Elon Musk, Larry Page (News - Alert), Stephen Hawking and Erik Brynjolfsson to raise awareness in the scientific community about the ethical problems of developing AI. During my own time as an intern with the robotics venture studio Rewired, I saw firsthand how much these questions matter to the field’s backers and thought leaders, like the entrepreneur Tej Kohli. Rewired and other, similar projects, are clear proof of Tegmark’s belief that the debate has changed from when AI will arrive, to how we deal with it when it does.

Tegmark finishes his book with the following words:

“We’re the guardians of the future of life now as we shape the age of AI. Although I cried in London, I now feel that there’s nothing inevitable about this future, and I know that it’s much easier to make a difference than I thought. Our future isn’t written in stone and just waiting to happen to us—it’s ours to create. Let’s create an inspiring one together!”

It’s a sobering call to arms that’s a fitting end to Tegmark’s journey into the implications of artificial intelligence and the life it creates.

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