Cybernetic Revolt


Cybernetic revolt is a scenario in which an artificial intelligence (either a single supercomputer, a computer network, or sometimes a ‘race’ of intelligent machines) decide that humans (and/or organic non-humans) are a threat (either to the machines or to themselves), are inferior, or are oppressors and try to destroy or to enslave them potentially leading to machine rule. In this fictional scenario, humans are often depicted to prevail using ‘human’ qualities, for example using emotions, illogic, inefficiency, duplicity, unpredictability, or exploiting the supposedly rigid, rules-based thinking and lack of innovation of the computer’s black/white mind.

Fear of humanity being made obsolete by technology taps into some of modern humans’ deepest fears. This can be shown to have been the case even before the computer became prominent, as in Karel Capek’s 1921 play ‘R.U.R.’ (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, even as they were slowly being displaced from most physical tasks, humans have always prided themselves on their brains, taking the mechanistic ‘thoughts’ of early computers as proof that they would not be overtaken by their ‘Frankenstein’ creations.

While artificial intelligence, in terms of a replication of human intelligence, is still a remote concept, successes in certain parts of intelligence—as for example in the victories of the Deep Blue chess computer and the Watson Jeopardy! quiz show computer—have shaken previous certainty about a permanent place for humanity at the top of sapience (the capacity for wisdom).

As Moore’s law has shown, computer power has (seemingly) limitless growth potential. While there are physical constraints to the speed at which modern microprocessors can function, scientists are already developing means that might eventually supersede these limits, such as quantum computers. As futurist and computer scientist Raymond Kurzweil has noted, ‘There are physical limits to computation, but they’re not very limiting.’ If this process of growth continues, and existing problems in creating artificial intelligence are overcome, sentient machines are likely to immediately hold an enormous advantage in at least some forms of mental capability, including the capacity of perfect recall, a vastly superior knowledge base, and the ability to multitask in ways not possible to biological entities. This may give them the opportunity to— either as a single being or as a new species — become much more powerful than humans, and to displace them.

For a cybernetic revolt to be inevitable, it has to be postulated that two intelligent species cannot pursue mutually the goals of coexisting peacefully in an overlapping environment—especially if one is of much more advanced intelligence and power. While a cybernetic revolt (where the machine is the more advanced species) is thus a possible outcome of machines gaining sentience and/or sapience, neither can it be disproven that a peaceful outcome is possible. The fear of a cybernetic revolt is often based on interpretations of humanity’s history, which is rife with incidents of enslavement and genocide.

Such fears stem from a belief that competitiveness and aggression are necessary in any intelligent being’s goal system. Such human competitiveness stems from the evolutionary background to our intelligence, where the survival and reproduction of genes in the face of human and non-human competitors was the central goal. In fact, an arbitrary intelligence could have arbitrary goals: there is no particular reason that an artificially-intelligent machine (not sharing humanity’s evolutionary context) would be hostile—or friendly—unless its creator programs it to be such (and indeed military systems would be designed to be hostile, at least under certain circumstances). But the question remains: what would happen if AI systems could interact and evolve (evolution in this context means self-modification or selection and reproduction) and need to compete over resources, would that create goals of self-preservation? AI’s goal of self-preservation could be in conflict with some goals of humans.

Some scientists dispute the likelihood of cybernetic revolts as depicted in science fiction such as ‘The Matrix,’ claiming that it is more likely that any artificial intelligences powerful enough to threaten humanity would probably be programmed not to attack it. This would not, however, protect against the possibility of a revolt initiated by terrorists, or by accident. Artificial General Intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky has stated on this note that, probabilistically, humanity is less likely to be threatened by deliberately aggressive AIs than by AIs which were programmed such that their goals are unintentionally incompatible with human survival or well-being (as in the film ‘I, Robot’ and in the short story ‘The Evitable Conflict’).

Another factor which may negate the likelihood of a cybernetic revolt is the vast difference between humans and AIs in terms of the resources necessary for survival. Humans require a ‘wet,’ organic, temperate, oxygen-laden environment while an AI might thrive essentially anywhere because their construction and energy needs would most likely be largely non-organic. With little or no competition for resources, conflict would perhaps be less likely no matter what sort of motivational architecture an artificial intelligence was given, especially provided with the superabundance of non-organic material resources in, for instance, the asteroid belt. This, however, does not negate the possibility of a disinterested or unsympathetic AI artificially decomposing all life on earth into mineral components for consumption or other purposes.

Other scientists point to the possibility of humans upgrading their capabilities with bionics and/or genetic engineering and, as cyborgs, becoming the dominant species in themselves.

Some futurists, called Singularitarians, who advocate what might be defined as a peaceful (non-violent, non-invasive, non-coercive) cybernetic revolt known as a ‘technological singularity,’ argue that it is in humanity’s best interests to bring about such an event, as long as it can be ensured that the event would be beneficial. They postulate that a society run by intelligent machines (or cyborgs) could potentially be vastly more efficient than a society run by normal human beings. A society led by friendly, altruistic sentiences of this type would therefore be to humanity’s great benefit.

To this end, there has been much recent work in what has become known as ‘Friendliness Theory,’ which holds that, as advocate and AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky states, ‘… you ought to be able to reach into ‘mind-design-space’ (i.e. the hypothetical realm which contains all possible intelligent minds) and pull out a mind (design an intelligent machine) such that afterwards, you’re glad you made it real.’

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