Time to AI, anyone’s guess?

When somebody asks me how long until AI is developed, I say between two and four decades. The question as posed refers to artificial intelligence that is competent at a variety of tasks that humans can carry out. Competent means not obviously distinguishable from a human’s performance.  So even though the question is not technically precise, it  is reasonably well defined, because human standards of performance are implicit in the question.

Now, getting back to the question, my usual answer as I said is two to four decades. But this brings me to this post I read recently, which tries to shed light on the matter by surveying and analyzing a large number of AI predictions, both from experts and non-experts.  The first conclusion, which I quote from the summary is

Over a third of predictors claim AI will happen 16-25 years in the future.

But I find the following two results of special significance

There is little difference between experts and non-experts (some possible reasons for this can be found here).
There is little difference between current predictions, and those known to have been wrong previously.

This paints a pretty bleak picture as to our ability to predict the development of AI. If experts can’t be distiguished from non-experts, it means that for the purposes of predicting AI, there really exist no experts at all, and uninformed guesses are as good as anything.

Along the same lines goes the second point I quoted. If current predictions are similar to previous ones that we know were flawed (because they were completely wrong), this suggests current ones could also be wrong. More specifically, if predictions made at different times, with significantly different contexts (ie scientific and technological progress) yielded the same predictions, it suggests that the predictions are independent of concrete scientific and technological considerations; they are based on non-specific reasoning, or even worse, unrelated factors (eg psychological) that are common to both periods.

Lastly, there is another point to be made about expert predictions. These experts are by definition active in the field of AI research, and have a stake (eg funding) in what is believed will happen. Plus, if they’re working towards AI, presumably they want their predictions to be true, it is their goal as researchers.

Where does this leave “two to four decades”? It’s not an expert prediction, although my intuition for this number is certainly based on expert opinions I’ve come accross over the years. In theory, reconsidering with the extra information should change my mind. Rationality dictates that one should widen the prediction interval in order to reflect the extra uncertainty that this new information introduces. The widening could be asymmetrical, because ignorance about how to achieve something points to that something being difficult rather than easy, so one could say something like “15 to 50 years”.

Perhaps this meta level correction is not incompatible with my original, object level intuitions: Advances in machine learning, neuroscience and computing power together with growth trends in funding suggest to me that arrival of AI in 30 years is quite likely, and that in 40 years it is beginning to approach certainty. But one has to admit, these are just intuitions and handwaving, we simply do not seem to have the tools to make predictions in a technical way.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
– Niels Bohr

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