“Tech company singularities”, and steering them to reduce x-risk

The purpose of this post (also available on the EA Forum) is to share an alternative notion of “singularity” that I’ve found useful in timelining/forecasting.

  • fully general tech company is a technology company with the ability to become a world-leader in essentially any industry sector, given the choice to do so — in the form of agreement among its Board and CEO — with around one year of effort following the choice. 

Notice here that I’m focusing on a company’s ability to do anything another company can do, rather than an AI system’s ability to do anything a human can do.  Here, I’m also focusing on what the company can do if it chooses rather than what it actually ends up choosing to do.  If a company has these capabilities and chooses not to use them — for example, to avoid heavy regulatory scrutiny or risks to public health and safety — it still qualifies as a fully general tech company.

This notion can be contrasted with the following:

  • Artificial general intelligence (AGI) refers to cognitive capabilities fully generalizing those of humans.
  • An autonomous AGI (AAGI) is an autonomous artificial agent with the ability to do essentially anything a human can do, given the choice to do so — in the form of an autonomously/internally determined directive — and an amount of time less than or equal to that needed by a human.

Now, consider the following two types of phase changes in tech progress:

  1. A tech company singularity is a transition of a technology company into a fully general tech company.  This could be enabled by safe AGI (almost certainly not AAGI, which is unsafe), or it could be prevented by unsafe AGI destroying the company or the world.
  2. An AI singularity is a transition from having merely narrow AI technology to having AGI technology.

I think the tech company singularity concept, or some variant of it, is important for societal planning, and I’ve written predictions about it before, here:

  • 2021-07-21 — prediction that a tech company singularity will occur between 2030 and 2035
  • 2022-04-11 — updated prediction that a tech company singularity will occur between 2027 and 2033.

A tech company singularity as a point of coordination and leverage

The reason I like this concept is that it gives an important point of coordination and leverage that is not AGI, but which interacts in important ways with AGI.  Observe that a tech company singularity could arrive

  1. before AGI, and could play a role in
    1. preventing AAGI, e.g., through supporting and enabling regulation;
    2. enabling AGI but not AAGI, such as if tech companies remain focussed on providing useful/controllable products (e.g., PaLM, DALL-E);
    3. enabling AAGI, such as if tech companies allow experiments training agents to fight and outthink each other to survive.
  2. after a tech company singularity, such as if the tech company develops safe AGI, but not AAGI (which is hard to control, doesn’t enable the tech company to do stuff, and might just destroy it).

Points (1a) and (1b) are, I think, humanity’s best chance for survival.  Moreover, I think there is some chance that the first tech company singularity could come before the first AI singularity, if tech companies remain sufficiently oriented on building systems that are intended to be useful/usable, rather than systems intended to be flashy/scary.

How to steer tech company singularities?

The above suggests an intervention point for reducing existential risk: convincing a mix of

  • scientists
  • regulators
  • investors, and
  • the public

… to shame tech companies for building useless/flashy systems (e.g., autonomous agents trained in evolution-like environments to exhibit survival-oriented intelligence), so they remain focussed on building usable/useful systems (e.g., DALL-E, PaLM) preceding and during a tech company singularity.  In other words, we should try to steer tech company singularities toward developing comprehensive AI services (CAIS) rather than AAGI.

How to help steer scientists away from AAGI: 

  • point out the relative uselessness of AAGI systems, e.g., systems trained to fight for survival rather than to help human overseers;
  • appeal to the badness of nuclear weapons, which are — after detonation — the uncontrolled versions of nuclear reactors.
  • appeal to the badness of gain-of-function lab leaks, which are — after getting out — the uncontrolled versions of pathogen research.

How to convince the public that AAGI is bad: 

  • this is already somewhat easy; much of the public is already scared of AI because they can’t control it.
  • do not make fun of the public or call people dumb for fearing things they cannot control; things you can’t control can harm you, and in the case of AGI, people are right to be scared.

How to convince regulators that AAGI is bad:

  • point out that uncontrollable autonomous systems are mainly only usable for terrorism
  • point out the obvious fact that training things to be flashy (e.g., by exhibiting survival instincts) is scary and destabilizing to society.
  • point out that many scientists are already becoming convinced of this (they are)

How to convince investors that AAGI is bad: point out

  • the uselessness and badness of uncontrollable AGI systems, except for being flashy/scary;
  • point out that scientists (potential hires) are already becoming convinced of this;
  • point out that regulators should, and will, be suspicious of companies using compute to train uncontrollable autonomous systems, because of their potential to be used in terrorism.

Speaking personally, I have found it fairly easy to make these points since around 2016.  Now, with the rapid advances in AI we’ll be seeing from 2022 onward, it should be easier.  And, as Adam Scherlis (sort of) points out [EA Forum comment], we shouldn’t assume that no one new will ever care about AI x-risk, especially as AI x-risk becomes more evidently real.  So, it makes sense to re-try making points like these from time to time as discourse evolves.

Summary

In this post, I introduced the notion of a “tech company singularity”, discussed how the idea might be usable as an important coordination and leverage point for reducing x-risk, and gave some ideas for convincing others to help steer tech company singularities away from AAGI.

All of this isn’t to say we’ll be safe from AI risk, and far from it; e.g., see What Multipolar Failure Looks Like.  Efforts to maintain cooperation on safety across labs and jurisdictions remains paramount, IMHO.

In any case, try on the “tech company singularity” concept and see if does anything for you 🙂

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