FAST(HARD) or Slow(soft)AGI takeoff – AGI Part 6

I was listening to a podcast a couple of weeks back and the person being interviewed made a comment that he didn’t believe that AGI would have a fast (hard) take off rather it would be slow (soft). Here’s the podcast John Carmack interviewed by Lex Fridman).

Hard vs. soft takeoff

A hard (fast) takeoff implies a relatively quick transition (seconds, hours, days, or months) between AGI levels of intelligence and super AGI levels of intelligence. A soft (slow) takeoff implies it would take a long time (years, decades, centuries) to go from AGI to super AGI.

We’ve been talking about AGI for a while now and if you want to see more about our thoughts on the topic, check out our AGI posts (in most recent order: AGI part 5, part 4, part 3 (ish), part (2), part (1), and part (0)).

The real problem is that many believe that any AGI that reaches super-intelligence will have drastic consequences for the earth and especially, for humanity. However, this is whole other debate.

The view is that a slow AGI takeoff might (?) allow sufficient time to imbue any and all (super) AGI with enough safeguards to eliminate or minimize any existential threat to humanity and life on earth (see part (1) linked above).

A fast take off won’t give humanity enough time to head off this problem and will likely result in an humanity ending and possibly, earth destroying event.

Hard vs Soft takeoff – the debate

I had always considered AGI would have a hard take off but Carmack seemed to think otherwise. His main reason is that current large transformer models (closest thing to AGI we have at the moment) are massive and take lots of special purpose (GPU/TPU/IPU) compute, lots of other compute and gobs and gobs of data to train on. Unclear what the requirements are to perform inferencing but suffice it to say it should be less.

And once AGI levels of intelligence were achieved, it would take a long time to acquire any additional regular or special purpose hardware, in secret, required to reach super AGI.

So, to just be MECE (mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive) on the topic, the reasons researchers and other have posited to show that AGI will have a soft takeoff, include:

  • AI hardware for training and inferencing AGI is specialized, costly, and acquisition of more will be hard to keep secret and as such, will take a long time to accomplish;
  • AI software algorithmic complexity needed to build better AGI systems is significantly hard (it’s taken 70yrs for humanity to reach todays much less than AGI intelligent systems) and will become exponentially harder to go beyond AGI level systems. This additional complexity will delay any take off;
  • Data availability to train AGI is humongous, hard to gather, find, & annotate properly. Finding good annotated data to go beyond AGI will be hard and will take a long time to obtain;
  • Human government and bureaucracy will slow it down and/or restrict any significant progress made in super AGI;
  • Human evolution took Ms of years to go from chimp levels of intelligence to human levels of intelligence, why would electronic evolution be 6-9 orders of magnitude faster.
  • AGI technology is taking off but the level of intelligence are relatively minor and specialized today. One could say that modern AI has been really going since the 1990s so we are 30yrs in and today have almost good AI chatbots today and AI agents that can summarize passages/articles, generate text from prompts or create art works from text. If it takes another 30 yrs to get to AGI, it should provide sufficient time to build in capabilities to limit super-AGI hard take off.

I suppose it’s best to take these one at a time.

  • Hardware acquisition difficulty – I suppose the easiest way for an intelligent agent to acquire additional hardware would be to crack cloud security and just take it. Other ways may be to obtain stolen credit card information and use these to (il)legally purchase more compute. Another approach is to optimize the current AGI algorithms to run better within the same AGI HW envelope, creating super AGI that doesn’t need any more hardware at all.
  • Software complexity growing – There’s no doubt that AGI software will be complex (although the podcast linked to above, is sub-titled that “AGI software will be simple”). But any sub-AGI agent that can change it’s code to become better or closer to AGI, should be able to figure out how not to stop at AGI levels of intelligence and just continue optimizating until it reaches some wall. i
  • Data acquisition/annotation will be hard – I tend to think the internet is the answer to any data limitations that might be present to an AGI agent. Plus, I’ve always questioned if Wikipedia and some select other databases wouldn’t be all an AGI would need to train on to attain super AGI. Current transformer models are trained on Wikipedia dumps and other data scraped from the internet. So there’s really two answers to this question, once internet access is available it’s unclear that there would be need for anymore data. And, with the data available to current transformers, it’s unclear that this isn’t already more than enough to reach super AGI
  • Human bureaucracy will prohibit it: Sadly this is the easiest to defeat. 1) there are roque governments and actors around the world with more than sufficient resources to do this on their own. And no agency, UN or otherwise, will be able to stop them. 2) unlike nuclear, the technology to do AI (AGI) is widely available to business and governments, all AI research is widely published (mostly open access nowadays) and if anything colleges/universities around the world are teaching the next round of AI scientists to take this on. 3) the benefits for being first are significant and is driving a weapons (AGI) race between organizations, companies, and countries to be first to get there.
  • Human evolution took Millions of years, why would electronic be 6-9 orders of magnitude faster – electronic computation takes microseconds to nanoseconds to perform operations and humans probably 0.1 sec, or so. Electronics is already 5 to 8 orders of magnitude faster than humans today. Yes the human brain is more than one CPU core (each neuron would be considered a computational element). But there are 64 core CPUs/4096 CORE GPUs out there today and probably one could consider similar in nature if taken in the aggregate (across a hyperscaler lets say). So, just using the speed ups above it should take anywhere from 1/1000 of a year to 1 year to cover the same computational evolution as human evolution covered between the chimp and human and accordingly between AGI and AGIx2 (ish).
  • AGI technology is taking a long time to reach, which should provide sufficient time to build in safeguards – Similar to the discussion on human bureaucracy above, with so many actors taking this on and the advantages of even a single AGI (across clusters of agents) would be significant, my guess is that the desire to be first will obviate any thoughts on putting in safeguards.

Other considerations for super AGI takeoff

Once you have one AGI trained why wouldn’t some organization, company or country deploy multiple agents. Moreover, inferencing takes orders of magnitude less computational power than training. So with 1/100-1/1000th the infrastructure, one could have a single AGI. But the real question is wouldn’t a 100- or 1000-AGis represent super intelligence?

Yes and no, 100 humans doesn’t represent super intelligence and a 1000 even less so. But humans have other desires, it’s unclear that 100 humans super focused on one task wouldn’t represent super intelligence (on that task).

Interior view of a data center with equipment

What can be done to slow AGI takeoff today

Baring something on the order of Nuclear Proliferation treaties/protocols, putting all GPUs/TPUs/IPUs on weapons export limitations AND restricting as secret, any and all AI research, nothing easily comes to mind. Of course Nuclear Proliferation isn’t looking that good at the moment, but whatever it’s current state, it has delayed proliferation over time.

One could spend time and effort slowing technology progress down. Such as by reducing next generation CPU/GPU/IPU compute cores , limiting compute speedups, reduce funding for AI research, putting a compute tax, etc. All of which, if done across the technological landscape and the whole world, could give humanity more time to build in AGI safeguards. But doing so would adversely impact all technological advancement, in healthcare, business, government, etc. And given the proliferation of current technology and the state actors working on increasing capabilities to create more, it would be hard to envision slowing technological advancement down much, if at all.

It’s almost like putting a tax on slide rules or making their granularity larger.

It could be that super AGI would independently perceive itself benignly, and only provide benefit to humanity and the earth. But, my guess is that given the number of bad actors intent on controlling the world, even if this were true, they would try to (re-)direct it to harm segments of humanity/society. And once unleashed, it would be hard to stop.

The only real solution to AGI in bad actor hands, is to educate all of humanity to value all humans and to cherish the environment we all live in as sacred. This would eliminate bad actors,

It sounds so naive, but in reality, it’s the only thing, I believe, the only way we can truly hope to get us through this AGI technological existential crisis.

Just like nuclear, we as a society will keep running into technological existential crisis’s like this. Heading all these off, with a better more all inclusive, more all embracing, and less combative humanity could help all of them.


Picture Credits:

Existential threats

Not sure why but lately I have been hearing a lot about existential events. These are events that threaten the existence of humanity itself.

Massive Solar Storm

A couple of days ago I read about the Carrington Event which was a massive geomagnetic solar storm in 1859. Apparently it wreaked havoc with the communications infrastructure of the time (telegraphs). Researchers have apparently been able to discover other similar events in earth’s history by analyzing ice cores from Greenland which indicate that events of this magnitude occur once every 500 years and smaller events typically occur multiple times/century.

Unclear to me what a solar storm of the magnitude of the Carrington Event would do to the world as we know it today, but we are much more dependent on electronic communications, radio, electronic power, etc. If such an event were to take out, 50% of our electro-magnetic infrastructure, such as frying power transformers, radio transceivers, magnetic storage/motors/turbines, etc. civilization as we know it would be brought back to the mid 1800’s but with a 21st century population.

This would last until we could rebuild all the lost infrastructure, at tremendous cost. During this time we would be dependent on animal-human-water power, paper-optical based communications/storage, and animal-wind transport.

It appears that any optical based communication/computer systems would remain intact but powering them would be problematic without working transformers and generators.

One article (couldn’t locate this) stated that the odds of another Carrington Event happening is 12%  by 2022. But the ice core research seems to indicate that it should be higher than this. By my reckoning, it’s been 155 years since the last event, which means we are ~1/3rd of the way through the next 500 years, so I would expect the probability of a similar event happening to be ~1/3 at this point and rising slightly every year until it happens again.


I picked up a book called Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strengths by Nick Bostrom last week and started reading it last night. It’s about the dangers of AI gaining the ability to improve itself and after that becoming not just equivalent to Human Level Intelligence (HMLI) but greatly exceeding HMLI at a super-HMLI level (Superintelligent). This means some Superintelligent entity that would have more intelligence than our current population of humans today, by many orders of magnitude.

Bostrom discusses the take off processes that would lead to Superintelligence and some of the ways we could hope to control it. But his belief is that trying to install any of these controls after it has reached HMLI would be fruitless.

I haven’t finished the book but what I have read so far, has certainly scared me.

Bostrom presents three scenarios for a Superintelligence take off: slow take off, fast take off and medium take off. He believes that in a slow take off scenario there may be many opportunities to control the emerging Superintelligence. In a moderate or medium take off, we would know that something is wrong but would have only some limited opportunity to control it. In the fast take off (literally 18months from HMLI to Superintelligence in one scenario Bostrom presents), the likelihood of controlling it after it starts are non-existent.

The later half of Bostrom’s book discusses potential control mechanisms and other ways to moderate the impacts of superintelligence.  So far I don’t see much hope for mankind in the controls he has proposed. But l am only half way through the book and hope to see more substantial mechanisms in the 2nd half.

In the end, any Superintelligence could substantially alter the resources of the world and the impact this would have on humanity is essentially unpredictable. But by looking at recent history, one can see how other species have faired as humanity has altered the resources of the earth. Humanity’s rise has led to massive species die offs, for any species that happened to lie in the way of human progress.

The first part of Bostrom’s book discusses some estimates as to when the world will reach AI with HMLI. Most experts believe that we will see HMLI like this with a 90% probability by the year 2075 and a 50% probability by the year 2050. As for the duration of take off to superintelligence ,the expert opinions are mixed and he believes that they highly underestimate the speed of take off.

Humanity’s risks

The search for extra-terristial intelligence has so far found nothing. One of the parameters for the odds of a successful search was the number of inhabitable planets in the universe. But the another parameter is the ability of a technological civilization to survive long enough to be noticed – the likelihood of a civilization to survive any existential risk that comes up.

Superintelligence and massive solar storms represent just two such risks but there are a multitude of others that can be identified today, and tomorrow’s technological advances will no doubt give rise to more.

Existential risks like these are ever-present and appear to be growing as our technolgical prowess grows. My only problem is that today the study of existential risks seem at best, ad hoc today and at worst, outright disregard.

I believe the best policy is to recognize known existential risks, have some intelligent debate on how probably they are and how we could potentially check them. There really needs to be some systematic study of existential risks around the world bringing academics and technologists together to understand and to mitigate them. The threats to humanity are real, we can continue to ignore them, study a few that gain human interest, or actively seek out and mitigate all of them we can.


Photo Credit(s): C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010 [Detail] by NASA Goddard’s space flight center photo stream