Skip to content

Positive Intelligent Technologies

Self-Aware Systems is a Palo Alto think tank working to ensure that intelligent technologies are beneficial for humanity. We are in the midst of an AI and Robotics revolution. IBM, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Baidu, and others are spending billions of dollars per year on these technologies. Why? McKinsey predicts that these technologies will create 50 trillion dollars of value by 2025. This will drive increasing investment in coming years. Gartner predicts that one-third of current jobs will be automated by 2025.

The changes are coming in three phases: The current “AI Economy” is rapidly automating economic activities to increase productivity. The emergent “AI Military” is automating warfare and creating arms races to develop military drones, robot soldiers, swarm boats, and autonomous military vehicles. The future “AI Society” will expand legal and political institutions to regulate autonomous systems. Each phase introduces its own challenges.

Popular shows like “2001“, “Terminator”“Her”, “Person of Interest”, “Transcendence”, “Ex Machina”, “Humans”, and “Extant” portray dystopian futures in which machines turn on us in various ways. Humanity has long been fascinated by the idea of breathing life into inanimate objects, but petrified of the consequences. The ancient myths of golems, tulpas, and genies explore this theme. In the last few years, rapid advances in AI and robotics are being met with increasing popular uneasiness. In response, researchers and technology CEOs are writing defensive articles that argue that nothing they are working on is dangerous.

But are there reasons to proceed cautiously? Of course there are! This is likely to be the largest technological transformation in human history. We must approach it carefully and deliberately and make choices with great care. Are fear and “doomsaying” useful responses? Of course not! We are building these systems. We can build them however we want as long as we have the scientific understanding and the will to do so. This is a time for resolve, not for fear. What we really should be railing against is bad and sloppy design.

A system’s goals may be chosen independently from its intelligence and can lead to either harm or good. Simplistic goals give rise to unintended drives that can be anti-social. But even “superintelligences” are limited by the laws of mathematics, physics, and cryptography. Mathematical proof can be used to constrain systems with a high confidence of safety. New cryptographic techniques can be used to create a trusted computation and communication infrastructure. Cryptocurrency technology can enable decentralized systems to cooperate without prior trust. The “Safe-AI Scaffolding Strategy” can leverage this infrastructure to create a path to human thriving.

Humanity’s greatest achievement has been a series of mechanisms that enable us to cooperate on an unprecedented scale. Our moral emotions, language, and cooperative social structures enabled us to work together in groups of about 150. Those mechanisms stopped being sufficient when agriculture allowed us to form much larger groups about 10,000 years ago. Humans then created money, free markets, laws, and governments that enabled us to expand cooperation to the scale of cities and countries. The internet, social media, and decentralized technologies are currently expanding cooperation to the whole of humanity. Our next challenge is to also extend it to our emerging autonomous technologies.

This website contains our talks and papers on these topics over the past 10 years. Our recent paper “Autonomous technology and the greater human good” was downloaded 10,000 times in its first week and is the most downloaded paper ever published by the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. James Barrat’s book “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” is a popular account of some of the issues and is based in part on our work. For a one-hour summary of the issues, watch this March 2015 talk at IBM Research:

AI, Robotics, and Smart Contracts

For a quick introduction, watch this 18 minute TEDx video from May 2012:

Smart Technology for the Greater Good.

For more detail, watch this December 2012 talk at Oxford University:

Autonomous Technologies and the Greater Human Good,

this July 2011 talk at Monash University:

Rationally-Shaped Minds: A Framework for Analyzing Self-Improving AI,

or this October 2007 talk at Stanford University:

Self-Improving Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Computing.

For more depth, read the papers:

Autonomous Technology and the Greater Human Good

Cryptocurrencies, Smart Contracts, and Artificial Intelligence

2014 – A Turning Point in AI and Robotics

Rational Artificial Intelligence for the Greater Good

The Future of Computing: Meaning and Values

The Basic AI Drives

The Nature of Self-Improving Artificial Intelligence

Send email to Steve Omohundro:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,411 other followers

%d bloggers like this: