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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Singularity Institute's Scary Idea (and Why I Don't Buy It)

I recently wrote a blog post about my own AI project, but it attracted a bunch of adversarial comments from folks influenced by the Singularity Institute for AI's (rather different) perspective on the best approach to AI R&D. I responded to some of these comments there.

(Quick note for those who don't know: the Singularity Institute for AI is not affiliated with Singularity University, though there are some overlaps ... Ray Kurzweil is an Advisor to the former and the founder of the latter; and I am an Advisor to both.)

Following that discussion, a bunch of people have emailed me in the last couple weeks asking me to write something clearly and specifically addressing my views on SIAI's perspective on the future of AI. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this but I decided to bow to popular demand and write a blog post...

Of course, there are a lot of perspectives in the world that I don't agree with, and I don't intend to write blog posts explaining the reasons for my disagreement with all of them! But since I've had some involvement with SIAI in the past, I guess it's sort of a special case.

First of all I want to clarify I'm not in disagreement with the existence of SIAI as an institution, nor with the majority of their activities -- only with certain positions habitually held by some SIAI researchers, and by the community of individuals heavily involved with SIAI. And specifically with a particular line of thinking that I'll refer to here as "SIAI's Scary Idea."

Roughly, the Scary Idea posits that: If I or anybody else actively trying to build advanced AGI succeeds, we're highly likely to cause an involuntary end to the human race.

Brief Digression: My History with SIAI

Before getting started with the meat of the post, I'll give a few more personal comments, to fill in some history for those readers who don't know it, or who know only parts. Readers who are easily bored may wish to skip to the next section,

SIAI has been quite good to me, overall. I've enjoyed all the Singularity Summits, which they've hosted, very much; I think they've played a major role in the advancement of society's thinking about the future, and I've felt privileged to speak at them. And I applaud SIAI for consistently being open to Summit speakers whose views are strongly divergent from those commonly held in the SIAI community.

Also, in 2008, SIAI and my company Novamente LLC seed-funded the OpenCog open-source AGI project (based on software code spun out from Novamente). The SIAI/OpenCog relationship diminished substantially when Tyler Emerson passed the leadership of SIAI along to Michael Vassar, but it was instrumental in getting OpenCog off the ground. I've also enjoyed working with Michael Vassar on the Board of Humanity+, of which I'm Chair and he's a Board member.

When SIAI was helping fund OpenCog, I took the title of "Director of Research" of SIAI, but I never actually directed any research there apart from OpenCog. The other SIAI research was always directed by others, which was fine with me. There were occasional discussions about operating in a more unified manner, but it didn't happen. All this is perfectly ordinary in a small start-up type organization.

Once SIAI decided OpenCog was no longer within its focus, after a bit of delay I decided it didn't make sense for me to hold the Director of Research title anymore, since as things were evolving, I wasn't directing any SIAI research. I remain as an Advisor to SIAI, which is going great.

Now, on to the meat of the post….

SIAI's Scary Idea (Which I Don't Agree With)

SIAI's leaders and community members have a lot of beliefs and opinions, many of which I share and many not, but the key difference between our perspectives lies in what I'll call SIAI's "Scary Idea", which is the idea that: progressing toward advanced AGI without a design for "provably non-dangerous AGI" (or something closely analogous, often called "Friendly AI" in SIAI lingo) is highly likely to lead to an involuntary end for the human race.

(SIAI's Scary Idea has been worded in many different ways by many different people, and I tried in the above paragraph to word it in a way that captures the idea fairly if approximatively, and won't piss off too many people.)

Of course it's rarely clarified what "provably" really means. A mathematical proof can only be applied to the real world in the context of some assumptions, so maybe "provably non-dangerous AGI" means "an AGI whose safety is implied by mathematical arguments together with assumptions that are believed reasonable by some responsible party"? (where the responsible party is perhaps "the overwhelming majority of scientists" … or SIAI itself?)….. I'll say a little more about this a bit below.

Please note that, although I don't agree with the Scary Idea, I do agree that the development of advanced AGI has significant risks associated with it. There are also dramatic potential benefits associated with it, including the potential of protection against risks from other technologies (like nanotech, biotech, narrow AI, etc.). So the development of AGI has difficult cost-benefit balances associated with it -- just like the development of many other technologies.

I also agree with Nick Bostrom and a host of SF writers and many others that AGI is a potential "existential risk" -- i.e. that in the worst case, AGI could wipe out humanity entirely. I think nanotech and biotech and narrow AI could also do so, along with a bunch of other things.

I certainly don't want to see the human race wiped out! I personally would like to transcend the legacy human condition and become a transhuman superbeing … and I would like everyone else to have the chance to do so, if they want to. But even though I think this kind of transcendence will be possible, and will be desirable to many, I wouldn't like to see anyone forced to transcend in this way. I would like to see the good old fashioned human race continue, if there are humans who want to maintain their good old fashioned humanity, even if other options are available

But SIAI's Scary Idea goes way beyond the mere statement that there are risks as well as benefits associated with advanced AGI, and that AGI is a potential existential risk.

Finally, I note that most of the other knowledgeable futurist scientists and philosophers, who have come into close contact with SIAI's perspective, also don't accept the Scary Idea. Examples include Robin Hanson, Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil.

There's nothing wrong with having radical ideas that one's respected peers mostly don't accept. I totally get that: My own approach to AGI is somewhat radical, and most of my friends in the AGI research community, while they respect my work and see its potential, aren't quite as enthused about it as I am. Radical positive changes are often brought about by people who clearly understand certain radical ideas well before anyone else "sees the light." However, my own radical ideas are not telling whole research fields that if they succeed they're bound to kill everybody ... so it's a somewhat different situation.

What is the Argument for the Scary Idea?

Although an intense interest in rationalism is one of the hallmarks of the SIAI community, still I have not yet seen a clear logical argument for the Scary Idea laid out anywhere. (If I'm wrong, please send me the link, and I'll revise this post accordingly. Be aware that I've already at least skimmed everything Eliezer Yudkowsky has written on related topics.)

So if one wants a clear argument for the Scary Idea, one basically has to construct it oneself.

As far as I can tell from discussions and the available online material, some main ingredients of peoples' reasons for believing the Scary Idea are ideas like:

  1. If one pulled a random mind from the space of all possible minds, the odds of it being friendly to humans (as opposed to, e.g., utterly ignoring us, and being willing to repurpose our molecules for its own ends) are very low
  2. Human value is fragile as well as complex, so if you create an AGI with a roughly-human-like value system, then this may not be good enough, and it is likely to rapidly diverge into something with little or no respect for human values
  3. "Hard takeoffs" (in which AGIs recursively self-improve and massively increase their intelligence) are fairly likely once AGI reaches a certain level of intelligence; and humans will have little hope of stopping these events
  4. A hard takeoff, unless it starts from an AGI designed in a "provably Friendly" way, is highly likely to lead to an AGI system that doesn't respect the rights of humans to exist
I emphasize that I am not quoting any particular thinker associated with SIAI here. I'm merely summarizing, in my own words, ideas that I've heard and read very often from various individuals associated with SIAI.

If you put the above points all together, you come up with a heuristic argument for the Scary Idea. Roughly, the argument goes something like: If someone builds an advanced AGI without a provably Friendly architecture, probably it will have a hard takeoff, and then probably this will lead to a superhuman AGI system with an architecture drawn from the vast majority of mind-architectures that are not sufficiently harmonious with the complex, fragile human value system to make humans happy and keep humans around.

The line of argument makes sense, if you accept the premises.

But, I don't.

I think the first of the above points is reasonably plausible, though I'm not by any means convinced. I think the relation between breadth of intelligence and depth of empathy is a subtle issue which none of us fully understands (yet). It's possible that with sufficient real-world intelligence tends to come a sense of connectedness with the universe that militates against squashing other sentiences. But I'm not terribly certain of this, any more than I'm terribly certain of its opposite.

I agree much less with the final three points listed above. And I haven't seen any careful logical arguments for these points.

I doubt human value is particularly fragile. Human value has evolved and morphed over time and will continue to do so. It already takes multiple different forms. It will likely evolve in future in coordination with AGI and other technology. I think it's fairly robust.

I think a hard takeoff is possible, though I don't know how to estimate the odds of one occurring with any high confidence. I think it's very unlikely to occur until we have an AGI system that has very obviously demonstrated general intelligence at the level of a highly intelligent human. And I think the path to this "hard takeoff enabling" level of general intelligence is going to be somewhat gradual, not extremely sudden.

I don't have any strong sense of the probability of a hard takeoff, from an apparently but not provably human-friendly AGI, leading to an outcome likable to humans. I suspect this probability depends on many features of the AGI, which we will identify over the next years & decades via theorizing based on the results of experimentation with early-stage AGIs.

Yes, you may argue: the Scary Idea hasn't been rigorously shown to be true… but what if it IS true?

OK but ... pointing out that something scary is possible, is a very different thing from having an argument that it's likely.

The Scary Idea is certainly something to keep in mind, but there are also many other risks to keep in mind, some much more definite and palpable. Personally, I'm a lot more worried about nasty humans taking early-stage AGIs and using them for massive destruction, than about speculative risks associated with little-understood events like hard takeoffs.

Is Provably Safe or "Friendly" AGI A Feasible Idea?

The Scary Idea posits that if someone creates advanced AGI that isn't somehow provably safe, it's almost sure to kill us all.

But not only am I unconvinced of this, I'm also quite unconvinced that "provably safe" AGI is even feasible.

The idea of provably safe AGI is typically presented as something that would exist within mathematical computation theory or some variant thereof. So that's one obvious limitation of the idea: mathematical computers don't exist in the real world, and real-world physical computers must be interpreted in terms of the laws of physics, and humans' best understanding of the "laws" of physics seems to radically change from time to time. So even if there were a design for provably safe real-world AGI, based on current physics, the relevance of the proof might go out the window when physics next gets revised.

Also, there are always possibilities like: the alien race that is watching us and waiting for us to achieve an IQ of 333, at which point it will swoop down upon us and eat us, or merge with us. We can't rule this out via any formal proof, and we can't meaningfully estimate the odds of it either. Yes, this sounds science-fictional and outlandish; but is it really more outlandish and speculative than the Scary Idea?

A possibility that strikes me as highly likely is that, once we have created advanced AGI and have linked our brains with it collectively, most of our old legacy human ideas (including physical law, aliens, and Friendly AI) will seem extremely limited and ridiculous.

Another issue is that the goal of "Friendliness to humans" or "safety" or whatever you want to call it, is rather nebulous and difficult to pin down. Science fiction has explored this theme extensively. So even if we could prove something about "smart AGI systems with a certain architecture that are guaranteed to achieve goal G," it might be infeasible to apply this to make AGI systems that are safe in the real-world -- simply because we don't know how to boil down the everyday intuitive notions of "safety" or "Friendliness" into a mathematically precise goal G like the proof refers to.

This is related to the point Eliezer Yudkowsky makes that "value is complex" -- actually, human value is not only complex, it's nebulous and fuzzy and ever-shifting, and humans largely grok it by implicit procedural, empathic and episodic knowledge rather than explicit declarative or linguistic knowledge. Transmitting human values to an AGI is likely to be best done via interacting with the AGI in real life, but this is not the sort of process that readily lends itself to guarantees or formalization.

Eliezer has suggested a speculative way of getting human values into AGI systems called Coherent Extrapolated Volition, but I think this is a very science-fictional and incredibly infeasible idea (though a great SF notion). I've discussed it and proposed some possibly more realistic alternatives in a previous blog post (e.g. a notion called Coherent Aggregated Volition). But my proposed alternatives aren't guaranteed-to-succeed nor neatly formalized.

But setting those worries aside, is the computation-theoretic version of provably safe AI even possible? Could one design an AGI system and prove in advance that, given certain reasonable assumptions about physics and its environment, it would never veer too far from its initial goal (e.g. a formalized version of the goal of treating humans safely, or whatever)?

I very much doubt one can do so, except via designing a fictitious AGI that can't really be implemented because it uses infeasibly much computational resources. My GOLEM design, sketched in this article, seems to me a possible path to a provably safe AGI -- but it's too computationally wasteful to be practically feasible.

I strongly suspect that to achieve high levels of general intelligence using realistically limited computational resources, one is going to need to build systems with a nontrivial degree of fundamental unpredictability to them. This is what neuroscience suggests, it's what my concrete AGI design work suggests, and it's what my theoretical work on GOLEM and related ideas suggests. And none of the public output of SIAI researchers or enthusiasts has given me any reason to believe otherwise, yet.

Practical Implications

The above discussion of SIAI's Scary Idea may just sound like fun science-fictional speculation -- but the reason I'm writing this blog post is that when I posted a recent blog post about my current AGI project, the comments field got swamped with SIAI-influenced people saying stuff in the vein of: Creating an AGI without a proof of Friendliness is essentially equivalent to killing all people! So I really hope your OpenCog work fails, so you don't kill everybody!!!

(One amusing/alarming quote from a commentator (probably not someone directly affiliated with SIAI) was "if you go ahead with an AGI when you're not 100% sure that it's safe, you're committing the Holocaust." But it wasn't just one extreme commentator, it was a bunch … and then a bunch of others commenting to me privately via email.)

If one fully accepts SIAI's Scary Idea, then one should not work on practical AGI projects, nor should one publish papers on the theory of how to build AGI systems. Instead, one should spend one's time trying to figure out an AGI design that is somehow provable-in-advance to be a Good Guy. For this reason, SIAI's research group is not currently trying to do any practical AGI work.

Actually, so far as I know, my "GOLEM" AGI design (mentioned above) is closer to a "provably Friendly AI" than anything the SIAI research team has come up with. At least, it's closer than anything they have made public.

However GOLEM is not something that could be practically implemented in the near future. It's horribly computationally inefficient, compared to a real-world AGI design like the OpenCog system I'm now working on (with many others -- actually I'm doing very little programming these days, so happily the project is moving forward with the help of others on the software design and coding side, while I contribute at the algorithm, math, design, theory, management and fundraising levels).

I agree that AGI ethics is a Very Important Problem. But I doubt the problem is most effectively addressed by theory alone. I think the way to come to a useful real-world understanding of AGI ethics is going to be to

  • build some early-stage AGI systems, e.g. artificial toddlers, scientists' helpers, video game characters, robot maids and butlers, etc.
  • study these early-stage AGI systems empirically, with a focus on their ethics as well as their cognition
  • in the usual manner of science, attempt to arrive at a solid theory of AGI intelligence and ethics based on a combination of conceptual and experimental-data considerations
  • humanity collectively plots the next steps from there, based on the theory we find: maybe we go ahead and create a superhuman AI capable of hard takeoff, maybe we pause AGI development because of the risks, maybe we build an "AGI Nanny" to watch over the human race and prevent AGI or other technologies from going awry. Whatever choice we make then, it will be made based on far better knowledge than we have right now.
So what's wrong with this approach?

Nothing, really -- if you hold the views of most AI researchers or futurists. There are plenty of disagreements about the right path to AGI, but wide and implicit agreement that something like the above path is sensible.

But, if you adhere to SIAI's Scary Idea, there's a big problem with this approach -- because, according to the Scary Idea, there's too huge of a risk that these early-stage AGI systems are going to experience a hard takeoff and self-modify into something that will destroy us all.

But I just don't buy the Scary Idea.

I do see a real risk that, if we proceed in the manner I'm advocating, some nasty people will take the early-stage AGIs and either use them for bad ends, or proceed to hastily create a superhuman AGI that then does bad things of its own volition. These are real risks that must be thought about hard, and protected against as necessary. But they are different from the Scary Idea. And they are not so different from the risks implicit in a host of other advanced technologies.


So, there we go.

I think SIAI is performing a useful service by helping bring these sorts of ideas to the attention of the futurist community (alongside the other services they're performing, like the wonderful Singularity Summits). But, that said, I think the Scary Idea is potentially a harmful one. At least, it WOULD be a harmful one, if more people believed it; so I'm glad it's currently restricted to a rather small subset of the futurist community.

Many people die each day, and many others are miserable for various reasons -- and all sorts of other advanced and potentially dangerous technologies are currently under active development. My own view is that unaided human minds may well be unable to deal with the complexity and risk of the world that human technology is unleashing. I actually suspect that our best hope for survival and growth through the 21st century is to create advanced AGIs to help us on our way -- to cure disease, to develop nanotech and better AGI and invent new technologies; and to help us keep nasty people from doing destructive things with advanced technology.

I think that to avoid actively developing AGI, out of speculative concerns like the Scary Idea, would be an extremely bad idea.

That is, rather than "if you go ahead with an AGI when you're not 100% sure that it's safe, you're committing the Holocaust," I suppose my view is closer to "if you avoid creating beneficial AGI because of speculative concerns, then you're killing my grandma" !! (Because advanced AGI will surely be able to help us cure human diseases and vastly extend and improve human life.)

So perhaps I could adopt the slogan: "You don't have to kill my grandma to avoid the Holocaust!" … but really, folks… Well, you get the point….

Humanity is on a risky course altogether, but no matter what I decide to do with my life and career (and no matter what Bill Joy or Jaron Lanier or Bill McKibben, etc., write), the race is not going to voluntarily halt technological progress. It's just not happening.

We just need to accept the risk, embrace the thrill of the amazing time we were born into, and try our best to develop near-inevitable technologies like AGI in a responsible and ethical way.

And to me, responsible AGI development doesn't mean fixating on speculative possible dangers and halting development until ill-defined, likely-unsolvable theoretical/philosophical issues are worked out to everybody's (or some elite group's) satisfaction.

Rather, it means proceeding with the work carefully and openly, learning what we can as we move along -- and letting experiment and theory grow together ... as they have been doing quite successfully for the last few centuries, at a fantastically accelerating pace.

And so it goes.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Let's Turn Nauru Into Transtopia

Here's an off-the-wall idea that has some appeal to me ... as a long-time Transtopian fantasist and world traveler....

The desert island nation of Nauru needs money badly, and has a population of less than 15,000

There are problems with water supply, but they could surely be solved with some technical ingenuity.

The land area is about 8 square miles. But it could be expanded! Surely it's easier to extend an island with concrete platforms or anchored floating platforms of some other kind, than to seastead in the open ocean.

The country is a democracy. Currently it may not be possible to immigrate there except as a temporary tourist or business visitor. But I'd bet this could be made negotiable.

Suppose 15,000 adult transhumanists (along with some kids, one would assume) decided to emigrate to Nauru en masse over a 5-year period, on condition they could obtain full citizenship. Perhaps this could be negotiated with the Nauruan government.

Then after 5 years we would have a democracy in which transhumanists were the majority.

Isn't this the easiest way to create a transhumanist nation? With all the amazing future possibilities that that implies?

This would genuinely be of benefit to the residents of Nauru, which now has 90% unemployment. Unemployment would be reduced close to zero, and the economy would be tremendously enlarged. A win-win situation. Transhumanists would get freedom, and Nauruans would get a first-world economy.

Considerable infrastructure would need to be built. A deal would need to be struck with the government, in which, roughly,

  • They agreed to allow a certain number of outsiders citizenship, and to allow certain infrastructure development
  • Over a couple years, suitable infrastructure was built to supply electrical power, Internet, more frequent flights, etc.
  • Then, over a few years after that, the new population would flow in

This much emigration would make Nauru crowded, but not nearly as crowded as some cities. And with a seasteading mindset, it's easy to see that the island is expandable.

To ensure employment of the relocated transhumanists, we would need to get a number of companies to agree to open Nauru offices. But this would likely be tractable, given the preference of firms to have offices in major tech centers. Living expenses in Nauru would be much lower than in, say, Silicon Valley, so expenses would be lower.

Tourism could become a major income stream, given the high density of interesting people which would make Nauru into a cultural mecca. Currently there is only one small beach on Nauru (which is said to be somewhat dirty), but creation of a beautiful artificial beach on the real ocean is not a huge technological feat.

It would also be a great place to experiment with aquaculture and vertical farming.

What say you? Let's do it!


Other candidates for the tropical island Transtopia besides Nauru would be Tuvalu and Kiribati; but Kiribati's population is much larger, and Tuvalu is spread among many islands, and is also about to become underwater due to global warming. So Nauru would seem the number one option. Though, Tuvalu could be an interesting possibility also, especially if we offered to keep the island above water by building concrete platforms or some such (a big undertaking, but much easier than seasteading). This would obviously be a major selling point to the government.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What Would It Take to Move Rapidly Toward Beneficial Human-Level AGI?

On Thursday I finished writing the last chapter of my (co-authored) two-volume book on how to create beneficial human-level AGI, Building Better Minds. I have a bunch of editing still do so, some references to add, etc. -- but the book is now basically done. Woo hoo!

The book should be published by a major scientific publisher sometime in 2011.

The last chapter describes, in moderate detail, how the CogPrime cognitive architecture (implemented in the OpenCog open-source framework) would enable a robotic or virtual embodied system to appropriately respond to the instruction "Build me something surprising out of blocks." This is in the spirit of the overall idea: Build an AGI toddler first, then teach it, study it, and use it as a platform to go further.

From an AGI toddler, I believe, one could go forward in a number of directions: toward fairly human-like AGIs, but also toward different sorts of minds formed by hybridizing the toddler with narrow-AI systems carrying out particular classes of tasks in dramatically transhuman ways.

Reading through the 900-page tome my colleagues and I have put together, I can't help reflecting on how much work is left to bring it all into reality! We have a software framework that is capable of supporting the project (OpenCog), and we have a team of people capable of doing it (people working with me on OpenCog now; people working with me on other projects now; people I used to work with but who moved on to other things, but would enthusiastically come back for a well-funded AGI project). We have a rich ecosystem of others (e.g. academic and industry AI researchers, as well as neuroscientists, philosophers, technologists, etc. etc.) who are enthusiastic to provide detailed, thoughtful advice as we proceed.

What we don't have is proper funding to implement the stuff in the book and create the virtual toddler!

This is of course a bit frustrating: I sincerely believe I have a recipe for creating a human-level thinking machine! In an ethical way, and with computing resources currently at our disposal.

But implementing this recipe would be a lot of work, involving a number of people working together in a concentrated and coordinated way over a significant period of time.

I realize I could be wrong, or I could be deluding myself. But I've become a lot more self-aware and a lot more rational through my years of adult life (I'm 43 now), and I really don't think so. I've certainly introspected and self-analyzed a lot to understand the extent to which I may be engaged in wishful thinking about AGI, and my overall conclusion (in brief) is as follows: Estimating timing is hard, for any software project, let alone one involving difficult research. And there are multiple PhD-thesis-level research problems that need to be solved in the midst of getting the whole CogPrime design to work (but by this point in my career, I believe I have a decent intuition for distinguishing tractable PhD-thesis-level research problems from intractable conundrums). And there's always the possibility of the universe being way, way different than any of us understands, in some way that stops any AGI design based on digital computers (or any current science!) from working. But all in all, evaluated objectively according to my professional knowledge, the whole CogPrime design appears sensible -- if all the parts work vaguely as expected, the whole system should lead to human-level AGI; and according to current computer science and narrow AI theory and practice, all the parts are very likely to work roughly as expected.

So: I have enough humility and breadth to realize I could be wrong, but I have studied pretty much all the relevant knowledge that's available, I've thought about this hard for a very long time and talked to a large percentage of the world's (other) experts; I'm not a fool and I'm not self-deluded in some shallow and obvious way. And I really believe this design can work!

It's the same design I've been refining since about 1996. The prototyping my colleagues and I did at Webmind Inc. (when we had a 45-person AGI research team) in 1998-2001 was valuable, both for what it taught us about what NOT to do and for positive lessons. The implementation work my colleagues at Novamente LLC and the OpenCog project have done since 2001 has been very valuable too; and it's led to an implementation of maybe 40% of the CogPrime design (depending on how you measure it). (But unfortunately 40% of a brain doesn't yield 40% of the functionality of a whole brain, particularly because in this case (beyond the core infrastructure) the 40% implemented has been largely chosen by what was useful for Novamente LLC application projects rather than what we thought would serve best as the platform for AGI.) Having so many years to think through the design, without a large implementation team to manage, has been frustrating but also good in a sense, in that it's given me and my colleagues time and space to repeatedly mull over the design and optimize it in various ways.

Now, the funding situation for the project is not totally dismal, or it least it doesn't seem so right now. For that I am grateful.

The OpenCog project does appear to be funded, at least minimally, for the next couple years. This isn't quite 100% certain, but it's close -- it seems we've lined up funding for a handful of people to work full-time on a fairly AGI-ish OpenCog application for 2 years (I'll post here about this at length once it's definite). And there's also the Xiamen University "Brain-Like Intelligent Systems" lab, in which some grad students are applying OpenCog to enable some intelligent robotic behaviors. And Novamente LLC is still able to fund a small amount of OpenCog work, via application projects that entail making some improvements to the OpenCog infrastructure along the way. So all in all, it seems, we'll probably continue making progress, which is great.

But I'm often asked, by various AGI enthusiasts, what it would take to make really fast progress toward my AGI research goals. What kind of set-up, what kind of money? Would it take a full-on "AGI Manhattan Project" -- or something smaller?

In the rest of this blog post I'm going to spell it out. The answer hasn't changed much for the last 5 years, and most likely won't change a lot during the next 5 (though I can't guarantee that).

What I'm going to describe is the minimal team required to make reasonably fast progress. Probably we could progress even faster if we had massively more funding, but I'm trying to be realistic here.

We could use a team of around 10 of the right people (mostly, great AI programmers, with a combination of theory understanding and implementation chops), working full-time on AI development.

We could use around 5 great programmers working on the infrastructure -- to get OpenCog working really efficiently on a network of distributed multi-processor machines.

If we're going to do robotics, we could use a dedicated robotics team of perhaps 5 people.

If we're going to do virtual agents, we could use 5 people working on building out the virtual world appropriately for AGI.

Add a system administrator, 2 software testers, a project manager to help us keep track of everything, and a Minister of Information to help us keep all the documentation in order.

That's 30 people. Then add me and my long-time partner Cassio Pennachin to coordinate the whole thing (and contribute to the technical work as needed), and a business manager to help with money and deal with the outside world. 33 people.

Now let's assume this is done in the US (not the only possibility, but the simplest one to consider), and let's assume we pay people close to market salaries and benefits, so that their spouses don't get mad at them and decrease their productivity (yes, it's really not optimal to do a project like this with programmers fresh out of college -- this isn't a Web 2.0 startup, it's a massively complex distributed software system based on integration of multiple research disciplines. Many of the people with the needed expertise have spouses, families, homes, etc. that are important to them). Let's assume it's not done in Silicon Valley or somewhere else where salaries are inflated, but in some other city with a reasonable tech infrastructure and lower housing costs. Then maybe, including all overheads, we're talking about $130K/year per employee (recall that we're trying to hire the best people here; some are very experienced and some just a few years out of college, but this is an average).

Salary cost comes out to $4.3M/year, at this rate.

Adding in a powerful arsenal of hardware and a nice office, we can round up to $5M/year

Let's assume the project runs for 5 years. My bet is we can get an AGI toddler by that time. But even if that's wrong, I'm damn sure we could make amazing progress by that time, suitable to convince a large number of possible funding sources to continue funding the project at the same or a greater level.

Maybe we can do it in 3 years, maybe it would take 7-8 years to get to the AGI toddler goal -- but even if it's the latter, we'd have amazing, clearly observable dramatic progress in 3-5 years.

So, $25M total.

There you go. That's what it would cost to progress toward human-level AGI, using the CogPrime design, in a no-BS straightforward way -- without any fat in the project, but also without cutting corners in ways that reduce efficiency.

If we relax the assumption that the work is done in the US and move to a less expensive place (say, Brazil or China where OpenCog already has some people working) we can probably cut thc cost by half without a big problem. We would lose some staff who wouldn't leave the US, so there would be a modest decrease in productivity, but it wouldn't kill the project. (Why does it only cut the cost by half? Because if we're importing first-worlders to the Third World to save money, we still need to pay them enough to cover expenses they may have back in the US, to fly home to see their families, etc.)

So, outside the US, $13M total over 5 years.

Or if we want to rely more on non-US people for some of the roles (e.g. systems programming, virtual worlds,...), it can probably be reduced to $10M total over 5 years, $2M/year.

If some wealthy individual or institution were willing to put in $10M -- or $25M if they're fixated on a US location (or, say, $35M if they're fixated on Silicon Valley) -- then we could progress basically full-speed-ahead toward creating beneficial human-level AGI.

Instead, we're progressing toward the same goal seriously and persistently, but much more slowly and erratically.

I have spoken personally to a decent number of individuals with this kind of money at their disposal, and many of them are respectful of and interested in the OpenCog project -- and would be willing to put in this kind of money if they had sufficient confidence the project would succeed.

But how to give potential funders this sort of confidence?

After all, when they go to the AI expert at their local university, the guy is more likely than not to tell them that human-level AI is centuries off. Or if they open up The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil who is often considered a radical techno-optimist, they see a date of 2029 for human-level AGI -- which means that as investors they would probably start worrying about it around 2025.

A 900-page book is too much to expect a potential donor or investor to read; and even if they read it (once its published), it doesn't give an iron-clad irrefutable argument that the project will succeed, "just" a careful overall qualitative argument together with detailed formal treatments of various components of the design.

The various brief conference papers I've published on the CogPrime design and OpenCog project, give a sense of the overall spirit but don't tell you enough to let you make a serious evaluation. Maybe this is a deficiency in the writing, but I suspect it's mainly a consequence of the nature of the subject matter.

The tentative conclusion that I've come to is that, barring some happy luck, we will need to come up with some amazing demo of AGI functionality -- something that will serve as an "AGI Sputnik" moment.

Sputnik, of course, caused the world to take space flight seriously. The right AGI demo could do the same. It could get OpenCog funded as described above, plus a lot of other AGI projects in parallel.

But the question is, how to get to the AGI Sputnik moment without the serious funding. A familiar, obvious chicken-and-egg problem.

One possibility is to push far enough toward a virtual toddler in a virtual world, using our current combination of very-much-valued but clearly-suboptimal funding sources -- that our animated AGI baby has AGI Sputnik power!

Maybe this will happen. I'm certainly willing to put my heart into it, and so are a number of my colleagues.

But it sure is frustrating to know that, for an amount of money that's essentially "pocket change" to a significant number of individuals and institutions on the planet, we could be progressing a lot faster toward some goals that are really important to all of us.

To quote Kurt Vonnegut: "And so it goes."