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New Left Review 111, May-June 2018

Leonardo Impett


Since the publishing success of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence in 2014, public debate about humanity’s impending self-destruction has increasingly tended to look beyond nuclear war and ecological catastrophe to worry about the rise of artificial intelligence. [1] Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Allen Lane: London 2017, £20, hardback, 364 pp, 978 0 241 23719 9The hyperbolic titles adopted by research foundations active in this field—The Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford), The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge), The Future of Life Institute (Boston)—indicate the importance that they, at least, attach to their work: it would appear that more is at stake in so-called ‘ai Safety’ than traffic accidents involving self-driving cars. Prognostications about the existential danger posed by what is variously termed General ai, the Singularity or Superintelligence all have technical nuances, but basically envisage the takeover of human civilization by a highly capable machine—in Richard Dooling’s words, a ‘rapture for the geeks’. It is proposed that through repeatedly upgrading its own processing equipment, such a machine could achieve a chain-reaction of ever-greater intelligence and rapidly outstrip the capacities of its original human creators. This scenario was first hypothesised by Bletchley Park codebreaker I. J. Good in 1965, a few years before he advised director Stanley Kubrick on the character of hal 9000. ‘The first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make’, argued Good, ‘provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.’

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Leonardo Impett, ‘Prometheus Wired’, NLR 111: £3

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