The Intelligence Revolution

The world has been revolutionized many times by the winds of change. In the 1700s and 1800s, the industrial revolution represented a massive shift. In the 1900s, we witnessed the computer revolution. By 1994, the Internet revolution was upon us. So what’s next?

In 2005, the DARPA grand challenge saw its first relatively successful autonomous car race, marking a symbolic if not significant upward shift in the proven ability of computers to interact with the physical world in a profound way. This inflection point was followed in 2007 with an urban version of the DARPA grand challenge, in 2009 with the launch of Wolfram Alpha, in 2010 with the launch of Siri, and in 2011 with Watson winning at Jeopardy. Since then, so-called “deep learning” has raised eyebrows at its impressive abilities to push the boundaries in all sorts of challenging areas, from facial recognition, to learning to play video games.

What is unfolding in front of our eyes is the beginnings of the intelligence revolution. Of note is that it has been a long time in coming. Some people in the 1960s thought it was just around the corner, but as it turns out, more computational power was needed, and more time was needed for researches to start to hone in on intelligence’s secrets.

The next 50-100 years are shaping up to be a fascinating period of history. At its core, the intelligence revolution will make it possible for computational systems to do things that previously only human beings could do. Beyond the philosophical intrigue, this is functionally significant for a three primary reasons.

The first reason is that human workers are extremely expensive, and so society currently must limit the application of intelligence. But imagine a world where there were the equivalent of 1 trillion people’s intellects to work on problems and yet still only 10 billion people’s needs to be met. Suddenly all of those areas of your life where you just don’t have enough time and energy to properly manage become neat and orderly. Anything from meal planning to weed picking to vacation planning.

The second reason the intelligence revolution will be profound is that the fusion of computers with intelligence will produce something with abilities quite unique from our own. Recall that computers can do math millions of times faster than we can, they can remember almost perfectly, they can do an operation millions of times exactly the same, they never get tired, and they can be perfectly copied extremely quickly to produce millions or billions of copies. In the 2030s, tens of thousands of lives will be saved by autonomous vehicles that are watching every angle around your vehicle with perfect concentration, and behaving using best practices. Such an example illustrates how the intelligence revolution will not only make intelligence more ubiquitous, but also apply it in ways that produce a significantly better end product.

Before we look at reason number three for why the intelligence revolution will be so profound, let’s pause for a moment and consider what the above two reasons imply about life beyond 2070. To do this, we’ll consider two more areas where the intelligence revolution will make significant impacts to society.

Consider the world’s energy issues in 2015. Now imagine that solar panels can be produced and deployed without any human labor. A computer system identifies geographic areas ideal for panels, gets human approval, and then goes ahead covering the land with solar panels and connecting them to the electricity grid. If and when a panel fails, it is fixed or replaced autonomously. Even the mining operations that find and harvest the raw materials needed from the ground are almost entirely autonomous. In such a world, it’s hard to imagine that there would be a scarcity of energy. Stop and think about that for a moment. Energy is perhaps humanity’s most basic and profound material requirement, and the intelligence revolution seems likely to eliminate its relative scarcity.

Next, consider the impacts on the physical construction and maintenance of infrastructure. We live in a world where our infrastructure is crumbling. Meanwhile, we’d love to have high speed rail connecting major cities, but the costs are astronomical. Now imagine that roads can be repaved by autonomous systems that can monitor the roads and repair them as needed, 24 hours a day. Want high speed rail between cities?  Done.  Want a hyperloop system between cities?  Done.  Even the air transportation industry is set to be transformed.  Autonomous air taxis one day will shuttle people around in a more granular manner than air travel today.  All of these things are possible in theory today, but constrained by the relative scarcity (and cost) of human intelligence and human labor.  Even housing will be dramatically affected, allowing new houses and buildings to be constructed for a fraction of the current cost.

The above societal changes are significant, and this leads us to now consider the third reason why the intelligence revolution will be profound. And that reason is that a world with a trillion intelligent agents will be able to more rapidly progress towards constructing what might be called “superintelligence”. Unlike other thinkers, I am not convinced that a dramatic superintelligence is a for sure thing. It may happen, it may not.  If it does happen, I think it’s very unlikely that it will happen quickly.  But I do highly suspect that, given enough time, the intelligence revolution will birth intelligent systems that leave us humans in the dust.  As we have already considered, the fusion of computers with intelligence will already come with valuable synergies. To review, recall that computers can do math millions of times faster than we can, they can remember almost perfectly, they can do an operation millions of times exactly the same, they never get tired, and they can be perfectly copied extremely quickly to produce millions or billions of copies.  If it comes to pass that we build intelligent systems that far surpass our intelligence abilities, those synergies, especially the ability to reproduce perfectly and very quickly, are reason to pause and think.

Imagine a world with a trillion intelligent agents, each of which makes a human being in comparison seem like a serious dimwit. That is a profound thing, but what might it actually look like?  Here are a few possibilities…

The first possibility is a revolution in science. In a few hundred years, a relatively small collection of scientists have made a wealth of discoveries in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. On one hand, we feel amazed on how much is now known about the universe and how it works. And yet we also sense that there are significant pieces to the puzzle that are missing. We wouldn’t be shocked if 300 years from now, people look back at 2015 and smirk at how little we understood. It’s quite possible that superintelligence will be an important part of that continuing story of discovery, and coincidentally, those discoveries are likely to feed right back into allowing yet more intelligent systems.

The second possibility is a revolution in management, governance and justice.  Let’s look at the governance piece.  Currently, we elect leaders, hoping that their intelligence, experience, and character will be good predictors of their ability to govern our city/state/country.  But in a world of superintelligence, we would need to face the question of who should be leading the country.  And this is where we get into some uncomfortable territory.  But I’d argue that our discomfort, while perfectly rational, is based on our vantage point.  We’ve never seen a superintelligence.  We have no experience with one. Any system of trust must be earned.  The real question is this: If and when superintelligences earn a strong degree of trust, will be put them in positions of leadership, subject to democratic vote?  I’m not sure, but I suspect that at least some humans would, and I wouldn’t be surprised if doing so led to stronger decision making as judged by what we typically call rationality.  What would the societal, philosophical, and religious fallout of being led at a national, state, and city level, by a superintelligent system?

A third possibility is the expansion of human beings onto other planets and solar systems.  If labor were “free” relative to what it is today, and we had superintelligences to design very complex systems very rapidly, it seems highly unlikely that enterprising people wouldn’t want to seek the adventure of populating Mars.  Even without superintelligence, this seems likely.  But with the scientific gains that a superintelligence would possibly bring, it becomes more likely/possible that it would be uncovered how to travel faster than light. Or failing that, it might become possible to send a probe on a hundreds-of-years journey to another solar system with human DNA on board and the ability to gestate and care for humans on the new planet.  While very fantastical, there’s nothing about a long distance probe and gestational system that seems absurdly difficult given a world where intelligence is super-ubiquitous. (I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen pictures on the Internet of animals being gestated outside of a biological womb)

A fourth possibility, and the one that makes me most squeamish, is the altering of human DNA. It seems almost for certain that at some point, people will want to eliminate genetic disease by altering DNA, and I’m all for that, but beyond that, there are many possibilities. Quite possibly, having good outcomes here is beyond human intelligence, but it might not be beyond the limits of a superintelligence to made modifications, simulate the outcome computationally, and then once a high enough certainty is obtained, gestate people with those modifications, or modify already-existing people’s genomes. And what might be modified? All sorts of things… aging characteristics, intelligence, appearance, personality, etc. My spiritual sensibilities are very uncomfortable with this possibility, but it seems like something humanity is bound to crash into.

One final note in conclusion: It should be recognized that the revolutionary changes we’ve been observing in the last few hundred years tend not to “end” so much as they allow subsequent revolutions to begin. It could be argued that the industrial revolution is very much still alive and progressing, just as the computer revolution is very much alive and progressing, just as the Internet revolution is very much alive and progressing. Likewise, it seems likely that the intelligence revolution will be a long process, spanning many decades, and if we’re around long enough, many centuries.

So what comes after the intelligence revolution?  The answers may lay in the above paragraphs… the energy revolution, the infrastructure revolution, the DNA revolution, the superintelligence revolution, the governance revolution, the superintelligence scientific revolution, the Mars revolution, and the interstellar revolution.  There’s lots of uncertainty in all of this, but make no mistake, this computational intelligence thing is going to make for an interesting story.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is to consider how all of this intersects God's plan for planet Earth and for the universe as a whole. If the intelligence revolution ramps up quickly in this century, I will be fascinated to see how Christians navigate such a rapidly changing world.