BT Futurist: AI entities will win Nobel prizes by 2020

In this interview, Pearson talks about his profession, explains why he doesn't think we will understand intelligent machines when they finally arise, and warns to the big ethical dilemmas our technological civilization will have to face sooner or later.

I understand you're interested in NBIC (nanoscience, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science) convergence. A lot of people have real concerns about it. For example, Bill Joy, Sun's former CTO, wrote in 2000 a famous manifesto in Wired magazine warning this convergence could represent a threat to Mankind very existence. In BT's Tech timeline I read that by the 2030s a nanotech based virus could be transmitted between machines and people over the net. Would it not be a real nightmare?

It would if you put things on those terms. For instance, we put those things into the Technology Timeline to highlight the possibilities of future technology. But I think in some cases we will probably want to make regulations to prevent people from doing some of those things. The NBIC convergence does allow you to do a lot of very powerful things which will bring very huge benefits for mankind. And it also likewise makes some very formidable weapons and some pretty nasty nightmare scenarios. The point that Bill Joy was getting out in his article is that it was entirely possible. So at some point we will have to figure out how to stop these things from happening, and we have to persuade governments around the world that there are serious problems which need to be regulated in order to be prevented.

Take, for example, genetic modification technology. Governments may do something about, and they may produce some agreements, although there would be some few countries which don't get covered. For example, in most of the world it's illegal to clone people and there is very strong restriction on what you could do in terms of genetic modification. I would expect that sort of thing will probably happen with these extremely NBIC convergences, where scientists couldn't get access to a technology level in order to get close to the capability of doing things like nano assembly with viruses and similar stuff.

I would think that a lot of people at that point will be screaming from the risk of stop the development of very clever new technology. But probably there will be very, very tight restrictions on NBIC. The trouble is that a lot of these technologies will be very difficult to police. So even if they're made illegal across the world through international treaties and stuff like that, how do you police what's somebody doing in his backyard? And there could be very small equipment and a very smart guy... You can't spot what's happening by using surveillance by satellite, because it's very difficult to see what's going on. In that regard we can't do very much about it, we must have to accept the risk. Well, that's not news. You know, once the technology exists or even once the technology is half way to existing, you get obvious that all you need is a few smart guys in a very small space spending some time together and they might came up with something. How can we forbid them to do it?

So, the whole concept of NBIC convergence in the form of viral extreme AI, conscious machines, super-humans, nano-assemblers, genetic modification... linking these together does give you these capabilities, only we might decide how we might release them, though we might have limited capabilities to do so. So I think I would agree with Bill Joy to a degree. I'm not so optimistic if we are going to find a solution for that. At the moment we can't see the solution. I think he draw a very valid point!

Stephen Hawking defended in 2001 the genetic enhancing of our species in order to compete with intelligent machines. Do you believe human genetic enhancing would be feasible, or even practical?

We are developing a good deal of understanding of how a human being is constructed and how it works with only armies of proteins and things that goes with it, to figure out how work the processes that are involved in life as well. This progress is going to accelerate over the next decade. Therefore is very likely indeed that we will have the capabilities to modify people in several ways. But again we have to have reservations to police that to some degree, but at the same time we should have the possibilities to make pretty much any minor modifications in the human being that we want. For example, people will kind of looking at genetic modification with genes that actually do something useful as well as get rid of genes that don't. I don't know how to answer this question, and most scientists don't.

We should be able to take genes from other organisms, and we could modify it by mixing the genes together. But eventually I think we could go a lot further then that, when we really understand the basic principles by which those genes operate and we gather other insights of nature that took eons of years to evolve on their own. But we could go much further than just taking genes from other organisms. We should be able to design genes from the ground up to achieve whatever goals we are trying to achieve. We should be able to decide what characteristics we want to create, and we should be able to do all specific proteins and systems to achieve it.

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