Asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses, artificial intelligence, and even aliens — the end may be closer than you think. For the next two weeks, OneZero will be featuring essays drawn from editor Bryan Walsh’s forthcoming book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, which hits shelves on August 27 and is available for pre-order now, as well as pieces by other experts in the burgeoning field of existential risk. But we’re not helpless. It’s up to us to postpone the apocalypse.
There is no easy definition for artificial intelligence, or A.I. Scientists can’t agree on what constitutes “true A.I.” versus what might simply be a very effective and fast computer program. But here’s a shot: intelligence is the ability to perceive one’s environment accurately and take actions that maximize the probability of achieving given objectives. It doesn’t mean being smart, in a sense of having a great store of knowledge, or the ability to do complex mathematics.
My toddler son doesn’t know that one plus one equals two, and when I was writing my book End Times his vocabulary was largely limited to excitedly shouting “Dog!” every time he saw anything that is vaguely furry and walks on four legs. (I would not put money on him in the annual ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge, the World Cup of computer vision.) But when he toddles into our kitchen and figures out how to reach up to the counter and pull down a cookie, he’s perceiving and manipulating his environment to achieve his goal — even if his goal, in this case, boils down to sugar. That’s the spark of intelligence, a quality that only organic life — and humans most of all — has so far demonstrated.
Computers can already process information far faster than we can. They can remember much more, and they can remember it without decay or delay, without fatigue, without errors. That’s not new. But in recent years the computing revolution has become a revolution in artificial intelligence. A.I.s can trounce us in games like chess and Go that were long…