Slow motion videos as AI risk intuition pumps
tl;dr: When making the case for AI as a risk to humanity, trying showing people an evocative illustration of what differences in processing speeds can look like, such as this video.
Over the past ~12 years of making the case for AI x-risk to various people inside and outside academia, I’ve found folks often ask for a single story of how AI “goes off the rails”. When given a plausible story, the mind just thinks of a way humanity could avoid that-particular-story, and goes back to thinking there’s no risk, unless provided with another story, or another, etc.. Eventually this can lead to a realization that there’s a lot of ways for humanity to die, and a correspondingly high level of risk, but it takes a while.
Nowadays, before getting into a bunch of specific stories, I try to say something more general, like this:
There’s a ton of ways humanity can die out from the introduction of AI. I’m happy to share specific stories if necessary, but plenty of risks arise just from the fact that humans are extremely slow. Transistors can fire about 10 million times faster than human brain cells, so it’s possible we’ll eventually have digital minds operating 10 million times faster than us, meaning from a decision-making perspective we’d look to them like stationary objects, like plants or rocks. This speed differential exists whether or not you believe in a centralized AI system calling the shots, or an economy of many, so it applies to a wide variety of “stories” for how the future could go. To give you a sense, here’s what humans look like when slowed down by only around 100x:
https://vimeo.com/83664407 <-- (cred to an anonymous friend for suggesting this one)
[At this point, I wait for the person I’m chatting with to watch the video.]
Now, when you try imagining things turning out fine for humanity over the course of a year, try imagining advanced AI technology running all over the world and making all kinds of decisions and actions 10 million times faster than us, for 10 million subjective years. Meanwhile, there are these nearly-stationary plant-like or rock-like “human” objects around that could easily be taken apart for, say, biofuel or carbon atoms, if you could just get started building a human-disassembler. Visualizing things this way, you can start to see all the ways that a digital civilization can develop very quickly into a situation where there are no humans left alive, just as human civilization doesn’t show much regard for plants or wildlife or insects.
I’ve found this kind of argument — including an actual 30 second pause to watch a video in the middle of the conversation — to be more persuasive than trying to tell a single, specific story, so I thought I’d share it.