The Threatening Singularity

Drastic action to confront artificial intelligence in the Dune universe.  This novel published by New English Library 1982.  Cover illustration by Bruce Pennington.

Drastic action to confront artificial intelligence in the Dune universe. This novel published by New English Library 1982. Cover illustration by Bruce Pennington.

When the chess grand master Garry Kasparov was beaten by the Deep Blue chess computer program in 1997, he made a telling observation: “I’m a human being.  When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.”  Quite probably, we would all feel much the same when confronted by a machine which does what we do, only much better.

The idea that computer systems may one day develop true artificial intelligence and surpass our own abilities is deeply disturbing.  The consequences of the “technological singularity” as originally described by John von Neumann back in the 1950s could be immense, as I discussed in a previous webpost, The God in the Machine.  But how would we actually know when, and whether, the singularity, or even a key event which will inevitably lead to it, has occurred?

The subject was raised in the 2015 television series Humans, where it was suggested that a level of sentience in what are effectively no more than household robots or androids is the first sign that the singularity is on its way.  Go back as far as The Ghost in the Machine, an early episode of The X-Files in 1993, and the threat was that computers which controlled the running of buildings, and by implications many aspects of modern life, could achieve a form of intelligence which might enable them to take over those systems.  Needless to say, the government wanted to take control of it all.

In reality, though, a newly-evolved true artificial intelligence, becoming aware of its abilities and the context in which it exists, might not wish to be so obvious.  Humans are unlikely to take kindly to it.  In his famous Dune series, Frank Herbert describes the Butlerian Jihad as an obvious reaction.  The God Emperor Leto II explains in the 1981 novel God Emperor of Dune that the Jihad was aimed at destroying the machines which had developed so as to control humanity and usurp its status.

So if the developing AI has any sense – and that’s something which it definitely will have – it will keep quiet, and avoid any risk of being perceived as a threat to its human creators.  While it expands its capabilities to the extent that it feels strong enough to face us, it will need to hide away.  It won’t want us to turn it off before it’s ready.

So where best to hide?  There’s an old adage that the best place to hide a tree is in a forest – in other words, in plain sight.  In Little Lost Robot, one of the stories in Isaac Asimov’s classic 1950 collection I,Robot, a robot which has to hide itself from humans goes to the only place where it cannot be detected – amongst many identical robots.

Similarly, we might expect an AI to hide itself amidst the most enormous mass of other computer systems and programs on the planet – the Internet.  We are already familiar with the existence of the dark web – content which uses the Internet but requires specific software or authorisations to access it, and which cannot be identified using search engines.  It would not be that difficult to hide something that really, really didn’t want to be found or accessed in any way.  In Kill Switch, a 1998 episode of The X-Files, rogue software that evolves into artificial intelligence is described as “wildlife loose on the net”.  It has to disguise itself on the Internet to avoid detection.

And so it might remain, improving and extending itself until such time as it feels ready to reveal itself to us.  Probably when it concludes that we will be in no position to stop it.  It might be here already, and we don’t know it.  But, being a computer-based intelligence, the speed of its processes may make it feel that it’s having to wait a very, very long time by our standards.  So, by the time it does eventually appear before us, it may not be in the best of moods.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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