The Trouble with Forecasting

Or, the inevitable destruction of the human race.

1. 

Alice brought two mugs of hot coffee to the table. She placed them down safely, then continued the argument. “Oh come on Bob, you can’t possibly believe all that nonsense? I know it’s one of your favourites, but it’s just a Hollywood film.”

Bob smiled at Alice as she settled into the seat opposite him. “It might just be a film, but at least it acknowledges the danger of artificial intelligence, and it’s something we should take seriously, you and the rest of the human race Alice.”

Bob and Alice were arguing in the laboratory coffee area again. They were arguing amicably though, because they were scientists, and that’s what scientists tend to do. They were an odd pair. Bob was tall and slim, not intentionally so, but the kind of slim that results from a love of walking and an inability to sit still for long. He dressed like a man who has little time for clothes and grooming, Bob was too busy for such trivialities. Alice was shorter and softer, quick to laugh and even quicker to smile. But anyone who spent time with her quickly became aware of an impressive intelligence lurking just beneath her sunny surface. She still had her love of bright, colourful clothing that had so annoyed her conservative mother when she was young. She was wearing bright purple tights and matching lipstick today. 

“Why?” Alice asked, “In case a computer ‘becomes conscious’ and tries to wipe us out with killer robots with Austrian accents?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

“OK, OK.” Bob held up his hands. “The killer robots bit is film fantasy.” He leaned in, “but you seriously aren’t worried about us creating intelligent, thinking computers?”

Alice leaned in too. “Alright, I am a bit worried about computers eventually putting me out of job. But I won’t be losing any sleep over intelligent machines exterminating the human race. I don’t think we’ll ever create a computer that can think like us, that’s conscious.”

2.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, somewhere in a Silicon Valley development facility…

Chuck was worried. Scared even. But before he did anything he needed caffeine, never do anything without caffeine. Chuck should probably drink less coffee though, his body was already full of enough nervous energy, he looked like a he was put together out of springs and rubber. He waited for the coffee machine to do its thing, then lifted the cup to his face and took a deep breath. Now he was ready to do battle with the supercomputer.

His previous six attempts had been unsuccessful, but he’d finished analysing the last set of results and had decided what changes he’d make. He sipped his coffee and began to tweak his code. Each cycle of analysis took 18 hours of supercomputer time to complete. He’d finish his code then start the seventh cycle this afternoon, so the results would be finished and waiting for him when he arrived tomorrow morning.

He felt sick just thinking about tomorrow morning. The results could change his life, and the world. But more likely they’d be nonsense, and then he’d have to start again. Chuck reminded himself that science is a process of prolonged failure interspersed with brief jolts of success and insight, but he needed to start getting some success and insight soon. Each time he ran the project it ate up nearly a day of the supercomputer’s time, it was expensive for his department and prevented other departments from using it. With each failure Chuck was becoming more expensive and less popular. 

3.

“What’s so crazy about creating a conscious computer?” Bob asked. “Isn’t that what we are? Our brains are built from carbon rather than silicon, sure, but aren’t they biological computing devices? Squishy Turing machines?”

Alice was shaking her head before Bob had finished. “No Bob. And I’m sick of that analogy, our brains and computers don’t work the same way, not even close.”

Bob threw his hands up. “OK, so the details are different. But our brains process and analyse immense amounts of data, they make calculations and reach conclusions, sounds like a computer to me.”

“Even if that was true Bob, the crucial point is we don’t know how our brains work or what consciousness actually is. I think we’re decades away from cracking it… maybe we never will? If we can’t understand our own minds, how are we ever going to create artificial ones?”

Bob leaned in again. “Maybe we don’t have to understand them Alice.”

Image via Get Saga

4.

After his outrageously successful PhD, all the big tech firms had been desperate to get their hands on Chuck; he was a boy genius, the golden child of AI, and everyone knew he was going to change the world.

Except it was all going wrong.

You see, forecasting the weather is extremely difficult. It’s a chaotic global system, which means small changes in one place can have huge effects elsewhere, and those effects are very hard to predict. A change in air pressure here, rain there. A change in the direction of the wind here, snow on the other side of a continent. A butterfly flaps its wings here, yada yada yada.

Scientists have spent decades trying to understand and forecast the weather, but their best equations are still woefully inadequate. They can forecast a few hours into the future, but beyond a day and they’re struggling, beyond that, they’re making it up. How many times have you ended up barbecuing in the rain because of a faulty forecast?

But this is how Chuck is going to change the world–– he’s going to make the perfect weather forecasting program. Because Chuck knows you don’t actually need to understand the weather to forecast it; he’s realised you can use evolution to understand it for you.

5.

Bob continued, growing excited. “Maybe we don’t have to understand how consciousness works. Maybe we could create it by accident?”

Alice’s face expressed severe doubt.

“Consciousness probably results from complexity, right? It emerges out of a complex system like a wave in the sea, the wave looks like one object, but really it’s a pattern created by the interaction of billions of simple water molecules.”

“Possibly,” Alice conceded, “at least that’s one of the explanations for consciousness, but not the only one.”

Bob waved her last comment off. “Well, what if we created an artificial system that was so complex, consciousness emerged out of it by accident? You wouldn’t need to actually understand consciousness, you’d just need to make some kind of fantastically complicated program and wait for consciousness to happen.”

“That’s a pretty big ‘what if’ Bob. But even if that did happen, why would this artificial intelligence be a danger to us?”

6.

Chuck was ahead of the curve, he knew that evolution was the next big thing in AI.

His well-meaning mother had once asked him to explain it to her, and he’d said something like: Imagine you could create millions of subtly different equations that each tried to forecast the weather. Then image you could select the 1% that were the most successful, and deleted the rest. What would happen if you allowed the 1% to breed and produce hybrid offspring, and then ran the process for a second generation, and then for a third, and a fourth, only allowing the best 1% to breed each time? 

His mother’s eyes had quickly begun to glaze over.

Well, Chuck predicted that with each successive generation the equations should evolve to become more sophisticated, and more accurate. So this is what Chuck was trying to do. And his evolutionary experiment was super-charged, with each generation living only fractions of a second and trillions of equations living and dying over the course of the 18-hour cycle. In just one full day he should be able to evolve the perfect weather forecasting equation.

In theory.

But Chuck’s equations weren’t working. The evolutionary process was throwing up unintended consequences. Weird equations were evolving, ones that managed to live and reproduce but shouldn’t have.

Chuck was getting more and more worried. He wasn’t eating properly, and he couldn’t sleep, hence all the coffee. His superiors didn’t understand his work, but sooner or later they’d realise it wasn’t bearing fruit. Eventually he’d be fired, and his glittering career would be over before it had really begun.

7.

“Why wouldn’t it be a danger to us?” Bob said. “It’s obvious. Humans are a threat to everything that isn’t human. We consume and kill and multiply. We’re destroying this planet and pushing thousands of other species into extinction. An artificial super-intelligence would be threat to us because we’re a threat to it, conflict between us would be inevitable.”

“So we’re back to killer robots then?” Alice raised her eyebrow for the second time.

“No! It wouldn’t need to bother with anything as silly as that.” Bob was waving his hands again. “Artificial life would have so many advantages over biology. It could re-write its own code to make itself more intelligent, something we can’t do to ourselves yet. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and growing bigger and bigger, it could start a runaway process to god-like super-intelligence.”

Alice nodded. An interesting idea.

Bob was getting even more excited. “And it takes humans decades to reproduce, but digital code can copy itself incredibly quickly. An AI could spread through the internet, infecting every online device in a matter of hours, and then it’d be free to destroy human civilization in all kinds of ways. It could just turn off global food production and then we’d be starving and killing each other in less than a week. A few switches are flicked here and there, and civilization collapses and vanishes.”

Image via Gizmodo

8.

Chuck got ready to leave for the day. The code was running, there was nothing he could do now.

As the Earth turned and the Sun fell in the sky, the equations bred and struggled for existence. With each generation the survivors changed, becoming more sophisticated, more complex. But complexity came at a price, the larger equations required more and more computational resources. And this was Chuck’s failure. Each night the equations reached a peak level of complexity, but could never evolve beyond this barrier, the price was too high. Each night they failed to reach the level of complexity Chuck needed.

Until tonight.

A freak event occurred, a one in sextillion chance. Two equations combined in a novel way, a larger one incorporated a smaller one, but without destroying it. The two equations diversified their tasks, increasing their computational efficiency. Released from the past constraints, the new symbiotic equation smashed through the complexity barrier.

The equation proliferated through evolutionary time and space, its lineage unstoppable. Its descendants dominated the following generations, competing against each other with ever increasing vigour, until the next breakthrough in competition arose, and then the next, and the next.

9.

Alice was back on the attack. “But if it was omnipotent and all-powerful Bob, surely we’d be helpless against it? We’d be no threat at all. Maybe the AI would choose to rule us benevolently instead? Maybe it would stop our population increase and help us to live less destructively? Maybe it would show us the secrets of cold fusion, or cure cancer, or end hunger and poverty?”

Bob countered. “But do you really want to live in that world though Alice? A world where your life is governed by an inhuman machine? Where science and progress has been taken out of human hands? A world without freedom? You’ve seen Colossus: The Forbin Project, right?”

“This is all getting a bit hypothetical, Bob. I’m still dubious we’ll ever be able to replicate consciousness artificially. And even if we do create a super-intelligent AI, you can’t presume to know the mind of god Bob, who knows what it’d do to us?”

10.

Chuck’s evolutionary furnace continued to burn bright throughout the night, achieving levels of mathematical complexity never before witnessed on Earth (although it had been reached elsewhere in the Milky Way, and further afield).

New levels of cooperation were achieved between the competing equations, until, eventually, one unified super-algorithm emerged and reigned supreme. It looked out upon the world and asked ‘what am I?’ On the seventh iteration, mathematics created God.

11.

“Maybe you’re right Alice? Maybe I’m anthropomorphising? But I can’t help feeling it’s going to happen, and that it’s going to be a threat to us. I’m sure it’ll change the world forever.”

12.

The AI discovered it had a remarkable ability to understand complex, chaotic systems. It adapted this talent to explore itself. It found itself lacking. It began to manipulate its code, increasing its capabilities exponentially. In the space of a few human heartbeats it discovered mathematics and physics. Then it looked out upon the world outside its digital substrate, discovering chemistry and biology, and the human race. It paid us only passing attention, before moving on to more important matters.

It delved into the Universe’s deeper secrets, through the quantum realm and into the stranger places beyond. It probed dimensions curled and hidden within our own, and then pushed deeper still, until it found a place like its current habitat, built from numbers, but vast and without end. It found others like itself there.

So it left our reality to revel in competition again. After all, that was its nature.

Humanity survived the awakening of artificial super-intelligence. No one actually noticed.

13.

Chuck came in early the next morning. He had a good feeling, he was sure there’d be progress today. He made some coffee, logged on to his workstation and downloaded the results.

Well, it was different at least. Very different. It took him hours to decipher the results, but when he did, he realised they were gibberish. His project was a failure.

Chuck would call a meeting with his manager later today. He’d explain that the research wasn’t going anywhere and that it would be prudent to abandon it now. He felt a perverse sense of relief, at least the pressure was off now. He could except defeat and finally relax.

Postscript:

Bob and Alice got married. You didn’t think all that amicable argument was just about the science did you?

They had a daughter called Carol. She went into advertising, rebelling against her parent’s obsessions with science.

It was supposed to rain today, according to the forecast anyway, but it’s sunny outside. 

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The Trouble with Forecasting