In their quest to understand minds by trying to build them, artificial intelligence researchers have learned a tremendous amount about what intelligence is not. Unfortunately, one of their major findings is that humans resort to fallible heuristics to address many problems because even the most powerful physically attainable computers could not solve them in a reasonable amount of time. As the authors of a 1993 textbook about problem-solving programs noted, “intelligence is possible because Nature is kind,” but “the ubiquity of exponential problems makes it seem that Nature is not overly generous.” As a consequence, both the peril and the promise of artificial intelligence have been greatly exaggerated.
But if artificial intelligence might not be tantamount to “summoning the demon” (as Elon Musk colorfully described it), AI-enhanced technologies might still be extremely dangerous due to their potential for amplifying human stupidity. The AIs of the foreseeable future need not think or create to sow mass unemployment, or enable new weapons technologies that undermine precarious strategic balances. Nor does artificial intelligence need to be smarter than humans to threaten our survival—all it needs to do is make the technologies behind familiar 20th-century existential threats faster, cheaper, and more deadly.