An alien species is headed for planet Earth and we have no reason to believe it will be friendly. Some experts predict it will get here within 30 years, while others insist it will arrive far sooner. Nobody knows what it will look like, but it will share two key traits with us humans – it will be intelligent and self-aware.
No, this alien will not come from a distant planet – it will be born right here on Earth, hatched in a research lab at a major university or large corporation. I am referring to the first artificial general intelligence (AGI) that reaches (or exceeds) human-level cognition.
As I write these words, billions are being spent to bring this alien to life, as it would be viewed as one of the greatest technological achievements in human history. But unlike our other inventions, this one will have a mind of its own, literally. And if it behaves like every other intelligent species we know, it will put its own self-interests first, working to maximize its prospects for survival.
AI in our own image
Should we fear a superior intelligence driven by its own goals, values and self-interests? Many people reject this question, believing we will build AI systems in our own image, ensuring they think, feel and behave just like we do. This is extremely unlikely to be the case.
Artificial minds will not be created by writing software with carefully crafted rules that make them think like us. Instead engineers feed massive datasets into simple algorithms that automatically adjust their own parameters, making millions upon millions of tiny changes to their structure until an intelligence emerges – an intelligence with inner workings that are far too complex for us to comprehend.
And no – feeding it data about humans will not make it think like humans do. This is a common misconception – the false belief that by training an AI on data that describes human behaviors, we will ensure it ends up thinking, feeling and acting like we do. It will not.
Instead, we will build these AI creatures to know humans, not to be human. And yes, they will know us inside and out, able to speak our languages and interpret our gestures, read our facial expressions and predict our actions. They will understand how we make decisions, for good and bad, logical and illogical. After all, we will have spent decades teaching AI systems how we humans behave in almost every situation.
But profoundly different
But still, their minds will be nothing like ours. To us, they will seem omniscient, linking to remote sensors of all kinds, in all places. In my 2020 book, Arrival Mind, I portray AGI as “having a billion eyes and ears,” for its perceptual abilities could easily span the globe. We humans can’t possibly imagine what it would feel like to perceive our world in such an expansive and wholistic way, and yet we somehow presume a mind like this will share our morals, values, and sensibilities. It will not.
Artificial minds will be profoundly different than any biological brains we know of on Earth – from their basic structure and functionality to their overall physiology and psychology. Of course, we will create human-like bodies for these alien minds to inhabit, but they will be little more than robotic façades to make ourselves feel comfortable in their presence.
In fact, we humans will work very hard to make these aliens look like us and talk like us, even smile and laugh like us, but deep inside they will not be anything like us. Most likely, their brains will live in the cloud (fully or partially) connected to features and functions both inside and outside the humanoid forms that we personify them as.
Still, the façade will work – we will not fear these aliens – not the way we would fear creatures speeding toward us in a mysterious starship. We may even feel a sense of kinship, viewing them as our own creation, a manifestation of our own ingenuity. But if we push those feelings aside, we start to realize that an alien intelligence born here is far more dangerous than those that might come from afar.
The danger within
After all, an alien mind built here will know everything about us from the moment it arrives, having been designed to understand humans inside and out – optimized to sense our emotions and anticipate our actions, predict our feelings, influence our beliefs and sway our opinions. If creatures speeding toward us in sleek silver spaceships had such deep knowledge of our behaviors and tendencies, we’d be terrified.
Already AI can defeat our best players at the hardest games on Earth. But really, these systems don’t just master the games of chess, poker and Go, they master the game of humans, learning to accurately forecast our actions and reactions, anticipating our mistakes and exploiting our weaknesses. Researchers around the world are already developing AI systems to out-think us, out-negotiate us and out-maneuver us.
Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?
We certainly can’t stop AI from getting more powerful, as no innovation has ever been contained. And while some are working to put safeguards in place, we can’t assume it will be enough to eliminate the threat. In fact, a poll by Pew Research indicates that few professionals believe the industry will implement meaningful “ethical AI” practices by 2030.
So how can we prepare for arrival?
The best first step is to realize that AGI will happen in the coming decades and it will not be a digital version of human intelligence. It will be an alien intelligence as foreign and dangerous as if it came from a distant planet.
Bringing urgency to artificial intelligence ethics
If we frame the problem this way, we might address it with urgency, pushing to regulate AI systems that monitor and manipulate the public, sensing our emotions and anticipating our behaviors. Such technologies may not seem like an existential threat today, as they’re mostly being developed to optimize the effectiveness of AI-driven advertising, not to facilitate world domination. But that doesn’t diminish the danger – AI technologies designed to analyze human sentiments and influence our beliefs can easily be used against us as weapons of mass persuasion.
We should also be more cautious when automating human decisions. While it’s undeniable that AI can assist in effective decision-making, we should always keep humans in the loop. This means using AI to enhance human intelligence rather than working to replace it.
Whether we prepare or not, alien minds are headed our way and they could easily become our rivals, competing for the same niche at the top of the intellectual food chain. And while there’s an earnest effort in the AI community to push for safe technologies, there’s also a lack of urgency. That’s because too many of us wrongly believe that a sentient AI created by humanity will somehow be a branch of the human tree, like a digital descendant that shares a very human core.
This is wishful thinking. It is more likely that a true AGI will be profoundly different from us in almost every way. Yes, it will be remarkably skilled at pretending to be human, but beneath a people-friendly façade, each one will be a rival mind that thinks and feels and acts like no creature we have ever met on Earth. The time to prepare is now.
Louis Rosenberg, PhD is a technology pioneer in the fields of VR, AR and AI. He is known for developing the first augmented reality system for the US Air Force in 1992, for founding the early virtual reality company Immersion Corp (Nasdaq IMMR) in 1993, and founding the early AR company Outland Research in 2004. He is currently founder & CEO of Unanimous AI.