Philosophically, intellectually — in every way — human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence
By Henry A. Kissenger | The Atlantic
Three years ago, at a conference on transatlantic issues, the subject of artificial intelligence appeared on the agenda. I was on the verge of skipping that session—it lay outside my usual concerns—but the beginning of the presentation held me in my seat.
The speaker described the workings of a computer program that would soon challenge international champions in the game Go. I was amazed that a computer could master Go, which is more complex than chess. In it, each player deploys 180 or 181 pieces (depending on which color he or she chooses), placed alternately on an initially empty board; victory goes to the side that, by making better strategic decisions, immobilizes his or her opponent by more effectively controlling territory.
The speaker insisted that this ability could not be preprogrammed. His machine, he said, learned to master Go by training itself through practice. Given Go’s basic rules, the computer played innumerable games against itself, learning from its mistakes and refining its algorithms accordingly. In the process, it exceeded the skills of its human mentors. And indeed, in the months following the speech, an AI program named AlphaGo would decisively defeat the world’s greatest Go players.
As I listened to the speaker celebrate this technical progress, my experience as a historian and occasional practicing statesman gave me pause. What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines—machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? Were we at the edge of a new phase of human history?
“There is much hand-wringing about artificial intelligence. Thoughtful people wonder might this technology erode or supplant our social, spiritual, and ethical experience? But their anxiety is misplaced for two reasons. First, technological development is inevitable, and, by its nature, increasingly rapid. People shouldn’t worry about the inevitable; it will come to pass regardless. But, more importantly, we have every reason to expect that the human condition will improve with access to greater intelligence.
“In fact, the entire history of progress might be the story of furthering our development by technologically augmenting our intelligence. We were less before we developed writing, when our capacity for thought was limited by the stories we might hear around a fire. We were less before we developed computer science and our investigations were limited by what we might scrawl on papyrus. It is true that radical discovery begets significant change. But history gives us reason to be optimistic about that change.
“Modern technology may have eroded and supplanted the social, spiritual, and ethical concerns of the stone age. But we are undeniably better off sitting in the back of Ubers browsing the entire collected knowledge of humanity in our phones than we were dragging rocks around to build henges to intuit the future from heavenly movements. I am excited about what greater knowledge and more powerful tools have allowed us to accomplish. I can’t wait to see what artificial intelligence helps us devise next.”