Whither Discontinuity?

I’m writing a series of posts clarifying my position on the intelligence explosion hypothesis and today I want to discuss discontinuity.

This partially addresses the ‘explosion’ part of ‘intelligence explosion’. Given the fact that most developments in the history of the universe have not been discontinuous, what reason do we have to suspect that an AI takeoff might be?

Eliezer identifies the following five sources of discontinuity:

Cascades – Cascades occur when ‘one thing leads to another’. A (possibly untrue) example is the evolution of human intelligence.

It is conceivable that other-modeling abilities in higher primates became self-modeling abilities, which allowed the development of complex language, which allowed for the development of politics, which put selection pressure on the human ability to outwit opponents in competition for food and mates, which caused humans to ‘fall up the stairs’ and quickly become much smarter than the next smartest animal.

Cycles – Cycles are like cascades but the output hose is connected to the input hose. It’s possible for businesses or even individual people to capture enormous parts of a market by investing large fractions of their profits into infrastructure and research. Of course this isn’t the sort of extreme discontinuity we’re interested in, but it’s the same basic idea.

Insight – An insight is something like the theory of evolution by natural selection which, once you have it, dissolves lots of other mysteries which before might’ve looked only loosely connected. The resultant gain in knowledge can look like a discontinuity to someone on the outside who doesn’t have access to the insight.

Recursion – Is the turning of a process back on itself. An AI that manages to produce strong, sustained recursive self-improvements could rapidly become discontinuous with humans.

Magic – Magic is a term of art for any blank spaces in our maps. If something smarter than me turns its intelligence to the project of becoming smarter, then there should be results not accounted for in my analysis. I should expect to be surprised.

Any one of these things can produce apparent discontinuities, especially if they occur together. A self-improving AI could produce novel insights, make use of cascades and cycles, and might be more strongly recursive than any other known process.

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