Tuesday, 20 October 2015


by Dirk Helbing

Machines that think are here. 

The explosive increase in processing power and data, fueled by powerful machine learning algorithms, finally empowers silicium-based intelligence to overtake carbon-based intelligence. Intelligent machines don't need to be programmed anymore, they can learn and evolve by themselves, at a speed much faster than human intelligence progresses.

Humans weren't very good at accepting that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and they still have difficulties accepting that they are the result of chance and selection, as evolutionary theory teaches us. Now, we are about to lose the position of the most intelligent species on Earth. Are people ready for this? How will this change the role of humans, our economy, and our society?

It would be nice to have machines that think for us, machines that do the boring paper work and other tasks that we don't like. It might also be great to have machines that know us well: that know what we think and how we feel. Will machines be better friends?

But who will be responsible for what intelligent machines decide and do? Can we control them? Can we tell them what to do, and how to do it? Humans have learned to ride horses and elephants. But will they be able to control 10 times more intelligent machines? Would we enslave them or would they enslave us? Could we really pull the plug, when machines start to emancipate themselves?

If we can't control intelligent machines on the long run, can we at least build them to act morally? I believe, machines that think will eventually follow ethical principles. However, it might be bad if humans determined them. If they acted according to our principles of self-regarding optimization, we could not overcome crime, conflict, crises, and war. So, if we want such "diseases of today's society" to be healed, it might be better if we let machines evolve their own, superior ethics.

Intelligent machines would probably learn that it is good to network and cooperate, to decide in other-regarding ways, and to pay attention to systemic outcomes. They would soon learn that diversity is important for innovation, systemic resilience, and collective intelligence. Humans would become nodes in a global network of intelligences and a huge ecosystem of ideas.

In fact, we will have to learn it's ideas that matter, not genes. Ideas can "run" on different hardware architectures. It does not really matter whether it's humans who produce and spread them or machines, or both. What matters is that beneficial ideas spread and others don't get much impact. It's tremendously important to figure out, how to organize our information systems to get there. If we manage this, then, humans will enter the history book as the first species that figured it out. Otherwise, do we really deserve to be remembered?