“Superintelligence” is not intended as a treatise of deep originality; Bostrom’s contribution is to impose the rigors of analytic philosophy on a messy corpus of ideas that emerged at the margins of academic thought. Perhaps because the field of A.I. has recently made striking advances—with everyday technology seeming, more and more, to exhibit something like intelligent reasoning—the book has struck a nerve. Bostrom’s supporters compare it to “Silent Spring.” In moral philosophy, Peter Singer and Derek Parfit have received it as a work of importance, and distinguished physicists such as Stephen Hawking have echoed its warning. Within the high caste of Silicon Valley, Bostrom has acquired the status of a sage. Elon Musk, the C.E.O. of Tesla, promoted the book on Twitter, noting, “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” Bill Gates recommended it, too. Suggesting that an A.I. could threaten humanity, he said, during a talk in China, “When people say it’s not a problem, then I really start to get to a point of disagreement. How can they not see what a huge challenge this is?”
The people who say that artificial intelligence is not a problem tend to work in artificial intelligence. Many prominent researchers regard Bostrom’s basic views as implausible, or as a distraction from the near-term benefits and moral dilemmas posed by the technology—not least because A.I. systems today can barely guide robots to open doors. Last summer, Oren Etzioni, the C.E.O. of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Seattle, referred to the fear of machine intelligence as a “Frankenstein complex.” Another leading researcher declared, “I don’t worry about that for the same reason I don’t worry about overpopulation on Mars.” Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher and tech commentator, told me that even framing the differing views as a debate was a mistake. “This is not an honest conversation,” he said. “People think it is about technology, but it is really about religion, people turning to metaphysics to cope with the human condition. They have a way of dramatizing their beliefs with an end-of-days scenario—and one does not want to criticize other people’s religions.”
Because the argument has played out on blogs and in the popular press, beyond the ambit of peer-reviewed journals, the two sides have appeared in caricature, with headlines suggesting either doom (“WILL SUPER-INTELLIGENT MACHINES KILL US ALL?”) or a reprieve from doom (“ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ‘WILL NOT END HUMAN RACE’ ”). Even the most grounded version of the debate occupies philosophical terrain where little is clear. But, Bostrom argues, if artificial intelligence can be achieved it would be an event of unparalleled consequence—perhaps even a rupture in the fabric of history. A bit of long-range forethought might be a moral obligation to our own species.
The likely outcome is in the middle of these two poles: AI will not become Skynet, but will accelerate the hollowing out of work for many because superintelligence is not necessary for AI to damage things: it’s enough for them to be slightly or significantly better at things we do badly.