Philosophically, intellectually—in every way—human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence
By HENRY KISSINGER
Three years ago, at a conference on transatlantic issues, the subject of artificial intelligence appeared on the agenda. I was on the verge of skipping that session—it lay outside my usual concerns—but the beginning of the presentation held me in my seat.
The speaker described the workings of a computer program that would soon challenge international champions in the game Go. I was amazed that a computer could master Go, which is more complex than chess. In it, each player deploys 180 or 181 pieces (depending on which color he or she chooses), placed alternately on an initially empty board; victory goes to the side that, by making better strategic decisions, immobilizes his or her opponent by more effectively controlling territory.
The speaker insisted that this ability could not be preprogrammed. His machine, he said, learned to master Go by training itself through practice. Given Go’s basic rules, the computer played innumerable games against itself, learning from its mistakes and refining its algorithms accordingly. In the process, it exceeded the skills of its human mentors. And indeed, in the months following the speech, an AI program named AlphaGo would decisively defeat the world’s greatest Go players.
As I listened to the speaker celebrate this technical progress, my experience as a historian and occasional practicing statesman gave me pause. What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines—machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? Were we at the edge of a new phase of human history?
Aware of my lack of technical competence in this field, I organized a number of informal dialogues on the subject, with the advice and cooperation of acquaintances in technology and the humanities. These discussions have caused my concerns to grow.
Heretofore, the technological advance that most altered the course of modern history was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed the search for empirical knowledge to supplant liturgical doctrine, and the Age of Reason to gradually supersede the Age of Religion. Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order.
But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.