Take 6: CAIS is actually Orwellian.
As a writing exercise, I’m writing an AI Alignment Hot Take Advent Calendar—one new hot take, written every day for 25 days. Or until I run out of hot takes.
CAIS, or Comprehensive AI Services, was a mammoth report by Eric Drexler from 2019. (I think reading the table of contents is a good way of getting the gist of it.) It contains a high fraction of interesting predictions and also a high fraction of totally wrong ones—sometimes overlapping!
The obvious take about CAIS is that it’s wrong when it predicts that agents will have no material advantages over non-agenty AI systems. But that’s long been done, and everyone already knows it.
What not everyone knows is that CAIS isn’t just a descriptive report about technology, it also contains prescriptive implications, and relies on predictions about human sociocultural adaptation to AI. And this future that it envisions is Orwellian.
This isn’t totally obvious. Mostly, the report is semi-technical arguments about AI capabilities. But even if you’re looking for the parts of the report about what AI capabilities people will or should develop, or even the parts that sound like predictions about the future, they sound quite tame. It envisions that humans will use superintelligent AI services in contexts where defense trumps offense, and where small actors can’t upset the status quo and start eating the galaxy.
The CAIS worldview expects us to get to such a future because humans are actively working for it—no AI developer, or person employing AI developers, wants to get disassembled by a malevolent agent, and so we’ll look for solutions that shape the future such that that’s less likely (and the technical arguments claim that such solutions are close to hand). If the resulting future looks kinda like business as usual—in terms of geopolitical power structure, level of human autonomy, maybe even superficial appearance of the economy, it’s because humans acted to make it happen because they wanted business as usual.
Setting up a defensive equilibrium where new actors can’t disrupt the system is hard work. Right now, just anyone is allowed to build an AI. This capability probably has to be eliminated for the sake of long-term stability. Ditto for people being allowed to have unfiltered interaction with existing superintelligent AIs. Moore’s law of mad science says that the IQ needed to destroy the world drops by 1 point every 18 months. In the future where that IQ is 70, potentially world-destroying actions will have to be restricted if we don’t want the world destroyed.
In short, this world where people successfully adapt to superintelligent AI services is a totalitarian police state. The people who currently have power in the status quo are the ones who are going to get access to the superintelligent AI, and they’re going to (arguendo) use it to preserve the status quo, which means just a little bit of complete surveillance and control.
Hey, at least it’s preferable to getting turned into paperclips.
These implications shouldn’t surprise you too much if you know that Eric Drexler produced this report at FHI, and remember the works of Nick Bostrom. In fact, also in 2019, Bostrom published The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which much more explicitly lays out the arguments for why adaptation to future technology might look like a police state.
Now, one might expect an Orwellian future to be unlikely (even if we suspend our disbelief about the instability of the system to an AI singleton). People just aren’t prepared to support a police state—especially if they think “it’s necessary for you own good” sounds like a hostile power-grab. On the other hand, the future elites will have advanced totalitarianism-enabling technology.
Maybe another objection is that the people who have access to the AI might not want to preserve the status quo—they might be non-elites who want to seize power for themselves, or elites who want to disrupt the status quo themselves. Drexler suggests that preventative preparation ahead of time will win out—in other words, present-day elites will recognize that this could happen and act to lock in the current power structure. So far, elite attempts to do this seem really feeble to me, but if you wake up in five years praising Big Brother, don’t say Eric Drexler didn’t warn you.