This post is partly excerpted from the preprint to:
Omohundro, Steve (forthcoming 2013) “Autonomous Technology and the Greater Human Good”, Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence (special volume “Impacts and Risks of Artificial General Intelligence”, ed. Vincent C. Müller).
To ensure the greater human good over the longer term, autonomous technology must be designed and deployed in a very careful manner. These systems have the potential to solve many of today’s problems but they also have the potential to create many new problems. We’ve seen that the computational infrastructure of the future must protect against harmful autonomous systems. We would also like it to make decisions in alignment with the best of human values and principles of good governance. Designing that infrastructure will probably require the use of powerful autonomous systems. So the technologies we need to solve the problems may themselves cause problems.
To solve this conundrum, we can learn from an ancient architectural principle. Stone arches have been used in construction since the second millennium BC. They are stable structures that make good use of stone’s ability to resist compression. But partially constructed arches are unstable. Ancient builders created the idea of first building a wood form on top of which the stone arch could be built. Once the arch was completed and stable, the wood form could be removed.
We can safely develop autonomous technologies in a similar way. We build a sequence of provably-safe autonomous systems which are used in the construction of more powerful and less limited successor systems. The early systems are used to model human values and governance structures. They are also used to construct proofs of safety and other desired characteristics for more complex and less limited successor systems. In this way we can build up the powerful technologies that can best serve the greater human good without significant risk along the development path.
Many new insights and technologies will be required during this process. The field of positive psychology was formally introduced only in 1998. The formalization and automation of human strengths and virtues will require much further study. Intelligent systems will also be required to model the game theory and economics of different possible governance and legal frameworks.
The new infrastructure must also detect dangerous systems and prevent them from causing harm. As robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology develop and become widespread, the potential destructive power of harmful systems will grow. It will become increasingly crucial to detect harmful systems early, preferably before they are deployed. That suggests the need for pervasive surveillance which must be balanced against the desire for freedom. Intelligent systems may introduce new intermediate possibilities that restrict surveillance to detecting precisely specified classes of dangerous behavior while provably keeping other behaviors private.
In conclusion, it appears that humanity’s great challenge for this century is to extend cooperative human values and institutions to autonomous technology for the greater good. We have described some of the many challenges in that quest but have also outlined an approach to meeting those challenges.