Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Preventing an AI-related catastrophe

Benjamin Hilton
8000 Hours
Originally Published August 25th, 2022


We expect that there will be substantial progress in AI in the next few decades, potentially even to the point where machines come to outperform humans in many, if not all, tasks. This could have enormous benefits, helping to solve currently intractable global problems, but could also pose severe risks. These risks could arise accidentally (for example, if we don’t find technical solutions to concerns about the safety of AI systems), or deliberately (for example, if AI systems worsen geopolitical conflict). We think more work needs to be done to reduce these risks.

Some of these risks from advanced AI could be existential — meaning they could cause human extinction, or an equally permanent and severe disempowerment of humanity. There have not yet been any satisfying answers to concerns — discussed below — about how this rapidly approaching, transformative technology can be safely developed and integrated into our society. Finding answers to these concerns is very neglected, and may well be tractable. We estimate that there are around 300 people worldwide working directly on this.3 As a result, the possibility of AI-related catastrophe may be the world’s most pressing problem — and the best thing to work on for those who are well-placed to contribute.

Promising options for working on this problem include technical research on how to create safe AI systems, strategy research into the particular risks AI might pose, and policy research into ways in which companies and governments could mitigate these risks. If worthwhile policies are developed, we’ll need people to put them in place and implement them. There are also many opportunities to have a big impact in a variety of complementary roles, such as operations management, journalism, earning to give, and more — some of which we list below.


When can we expect transformative AI?

It’s difficult to predict exactly when we will develop AI that we expect to be hugely transformative for society (for better or for worse) — for example, by automating all human work or drastically changing the structure of society. But here we’ll go through a few approaches.

One option is to survey experts. Data from the 2019 survey of 300 AI experts implies that there is 20% probability of human-level machine intelligence (which would plausibly be transformative in this sense) by 2036, 50% probability by 2060, and 85% by 2100. There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of these estimates,8 but we take it as one data point.

Ajeya Cotra (a researcher at Open Philanthropy) attempted to forecast transformative AI by comparing modern deep learning to the human brain. Deep learning involves using a huge amount of compute to train a model, before that model is able to perform some task. There’s also a relationship between the amount of compute used to train a model and the amount used by the model when it’s run. And — if the scaling hypothesis is true — we should expect the performance of a model to predictably improve as the computational power used increases. So Cotra used a variety of approaches (including, for example, estimating how much compute the human brain uses on a variety of tasks) to estimate how much compute might be needed to train a model that, when run, could carry out the hardest tasks humans can do. She then estimated when using that much compute would be affordable.

Cotra’s 2022 update on her report’s conclusions estimates that there is a 35% probability of transformative AI by 2036, 50% by 2040, and 60% by 2050 — noting that these guesses are not stable.22

Tom Davidson (also a researcher at Open Philanthropy) wrote a report to complement Cotra’s work. He attempted to figure out when we might expect to see transformative AI based only on looking at various types of research that transformative AI might be like (e.g. developing technology that’s the ultimate goal of a STEM field, or proving difficult mathematical conjectures), and how long it’s taken for each of these kinds of research to be completed in the past, given some quantity of research funding and effort.

Davidson’s report estimates that, solely on this information, you’d think that there was an 8% chance of transformative AI by 2036, 13% by 2060, and 20% by 2100. However, Davidson doesn’t consider the actual ways in which AI has progressed since research started in the 1950s, and notes that it seems likely that the amount of effort we put into AI research will increase as AI becomes increasingly relevant to our economy. As a result, Davidson expects these numbers to be underestimates.