20 July 2018

Christopher Columbus and the surprising future of AI

Filed under: AGI, predictability, Singularity — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 5:49 pm

There are plenty of critics who are sceptical about the future of AI. The topic has been over-hyped, say these critics. According to these critics, we don’t need to be worried about the longer-term repercussions of AI with superhuman capabilities. We’re many decades – perhaps centuries – from anything approaching AGI (artificial general intelligence) with skills in common sense reasoning matching (or surpassing) that of humans. As for AI destroying jobs, that, too, is a false alarm – or so the critics insist. AI will create at least as many jobs as it destroys.

In my previous blog post, Serious question over PwC’s report on the impact of AI on jobs, I offered some counters to these critics. To my mind, this is no time for complacency: AI could accelerate in its capabilities, and take us by surprise. The kinds of breakthroughs that, in a previous era, might have been expected to take many decades, could actually take place in just a few short years. Rather than burying our head in the sands, denying the possibility of any such acceleration, we need to pay more attention to the trends of technological change and the potential for disruptive new innovations.

The Christopher Columbus angle

Overnight, I’ve been reminded of an argument that I’ve used previously – towards the end of a rather long blogpost. It’s the argument that critics of the future of AI are similar to the critics of Christopher Columbus – the people who said, before his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic in search of a westerly route to Asia, that the effort was bound to be a bad investment.

Bear with me while I retell this analogy.

For years, Columbus tried to drum up support for what most people considered to be a hare-brained scheme. Most observers concluded that Columbus had fallen victim to a significant mistake – he estimated that the distance from the Canary Islands (off the coast of Morocco) to Japan was around 3,700 km, whereas the generally accepted figure was closer to 20,000 km. Indeed, the true size of the sphere of the Earth had been known since the 3rd century BC, due to a calculation by Eratosthenes, based on observations of shadows at different locations.

Accordingly, when Columbus presented his bold proposal to courts around Europe, the learned members of the courts time and again rejected the idea. The effort would be hugely larger than Columbus supposed, they said. It would be a fruitless endeavour.

Columbus, an autodidact, wasn’t completely crazy. He had done a lot of his own research. However, he was misled by a number of factors:

  • Confusion between various ancient units of distance (the “Arabic mile” and the “Roman mile”)
  • How many degrees of latitude the Eurasian landmass occupied (225 degrees versus 150 degrees)
  • A speculative 1474 map, by the Florentine astronomer Toscanelli, which showed a mythical island “Antilla” located to the east of Japan (named as “Cippangu” in the map).

You can read the details in the Wikipedia article on Columbus, which provides numerous additional reference points. The article also contains a copy of Toscanelli’s map, with the true location of the continents of North and South America superimposed for reference.

No wonder Columbus thought his plan might work after all. Nevertheless, the 1490s equivalents of today’s VCs kept saying “No” to his pitches. Finally, spurred on by competition with the neighbouring Portuguese (who had, just a few years previously, successfully navigated to the Indian ocean around the tip of Africa), the Spanish king and queen agreed to take the risk of supporting his adventure. After stopping in the Canaries to restock, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set off westward. Five weeks later, the crew spotted land, in what we now call the Bahamas. And the rest is history.

But it wasn’t the history expected by Columbus, or by his backers, or by his critics. No-one had foreseen that a huge continent existed in the oceans in between Europe and Japan. None of the ancient writers – either secular or religious – had spoken of such a continent. Nevertheless, once Columbus had found it, the history of the world proceeded in a very different direction – including mass deaths from infectious diseases transmitted from the European sailors, genocide and cultural apocalypse, and enormous trade in both goods and slaves. In due course, it would the the ingenuity and initiatives of people subsequently resident in the Americas that propelled humans beyond the Earth’s atmosphere all the way to the moon.

What does this have to do with the future of AI?

Rational critics may have ample justification in thinking that true AGI is located many decades in the future. But this fact does not deter a multitude of modern-day AGI explorers from setting out, Columbus-like, in search of some dramatic breakthroughs. And who knows what intermediate forms of AI might be discovered, unexpectedly?

Just as the contemporaries of Columbus erred in presuming they already knew all the large features of the earth’s continents (after all: if America really existed, surely God would have written about it in the Bible…), modern-day critics of AI can err in presuming they already know all the large features of the landscape of possible artificial minds.

When contemplating the space of all possible minds, some humility is in order. We cannot foretell in advance what configurations of intelligence are possible. We don’t know what may happen, if separate modules of reasoning are combined in innovative ways. After all, there are many aspects of the human mind which are still in doubt.

When critics say that it is unlikely that present-day AI mechanisms will take us all the way to AGI, they are very likely correct. But it would be a horrendous error to draw the conclusion that meaningful new continents of AI capability are inevitably still the equivalent of 20,000 km into the distance. The fact is, we simply don’t know. And for that reason, we should keep an open mind.

One day soon, indeed, we might read news of some new “AUI” having been discovered – some Artificial Unexpected Intelligence, which changes history. It won’t be AGI, but it could have all kinds of unexpected consequences.

Beyond the Columbus analogy

Every analogy has its drawbacks. Here are three ways in which the discovery of an AUI could be different from the discovery by Columbus of America:

  1. In the 1490s, there was only one Christopher Columbus. Nowadays, there are scores (perhaps hundreds) of schemes underway to try to devise new models of AI. Many of these are proceeding with significant financial backing.
  2. Whereas the journey across the Atlantic (and, eventually, the Pacific) could be measured by a single variable (latitude), the journey across the vast multidimensional landscape of artificial minds is much less predictable. That’s another reason to keep an open mind.
  3. Discovering an AUI could drastically transform the future of exploration in the landscape of artificial minds. Assisted by AUI, we might get to AGI much quicker than without it. Indeed, in some scenarios, it might take only a few months after we reach AUI for us (now going much faster than before) to reach AGI. Or days. Or hours.


If you’re in or near Birmingham on 11th September, I’ll be giving a Funzing talk on how to assess the nature of the risks and opportunities from superhuman AI. For more details, see here.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: