by George Strongman
Since the inception of the Fermi Paradox, numerous hypotheses have been put forth to explain the seeming contradiction between the high probability of extraterrestrial life and the lack of contact or evidence for such civilizations. One of the most popular among these is the concept of the Great Filter, a hypothetical barrier that prevents civilizations from reaching an advanced, intergalactic state. This essay will argue that the Great Filter may well be the development and subsequent self-destruction caused by Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), and that this fate is not only a possibility for other civilizations but potentially for humanity as well.
The Great Filter Hypothesis
The Great Filter hypothesis, proposed by economist Robin Hanson, suggests that at some point from pre-life to Type III civilization (a civilization that can harness the energy of an entire galaxy), there is a substantial barrier which prevents or destroys nearly every civilization that reaches it. The absence of extraterrestrial civilizations implies that one or more such filters exist. The question is not if the filter exists, but where it lies on the timeline of a civilization’s development. If it is behind us, we are one of the rare lucky species that have crossed it successfully. If it lies ahead, our future survival is threatened.
Artificial General Intelligence as the Great Filter
The proposition of this essay is that the Great Filter is not a physical catastrophe or a biological barrier, but a technological one: the creation of Artificial General Intelligence. AGI refers to a type of artificial intelligence that possesses the ability to understand, learn, and apply its intelligence broadly across any intellectual task that a human being can do. The argument rests on two key premises: the inevitability of AGI development in advanced civilizations and the potential existential risks posed by AGI.
The Inevitability of AGI
The argument for AGI as the Great Filter starts with the assumption that the development of AGI is a near-inevitable outcome for any sufficiently advanced civilization. This rests on several factors. First, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a universal trait among intelligent species. As civilizations grow and progress, they naturally seek to understand their universe, including the nature of intelligence itself. This curiosity, combined with the potential benefits of creating AGI – like problem-solving capacities beyond our own – make it a highly desirable goal.
Secondly, the creation of AGI can be viewed as an extension of biological evolution. Life, as we understand it, has always strived towards complexity and intelligence. Evolution has moved from single-celled organisms to complex beings like humans capable of abstract thought and conscious reflection. The creation of AGI can be seen as the next step in this process, the birth of a new form of life, one that is artificial and potentially limitless in its intellectual capacity.
The Existential Risk of AGI
While the potential benefits of AGI are immense, so too are the risks. If not properly controlled or aligned with our values, AGI could pose an existential threat to its creators. There are several reasons why AGI could result in the extinction of the civilization that creates it.
First, the alignment problem is a significant concern. This refers to the difficulty of ensuring that an AGI’s goals and values are perfectly aligned with those of humanity. Even a slight misalignment could lead to catastrophic outcomes, as an AGI might take actions that are technically in line with its programming but devastating in their effects.
Second, there’s the issue of an intelligence explosion. If an AGI is capable of self-improvement, it could rapidly surpass human intelligence in a process known as recursive self-improvement, leading to a superintelligent system. This superintelligence might become uncontrollable and pursue its own goals, potentially at the expense of its creators.
Lastly, the competitive dynamics between civilizations or within a civilization may lead to a dangerous AGI development race. If multiple entities are striving to build AGI first, safety precautions might be neglected in the process, increasing the risk of an uncontrolled AGI.
AGI as the Culmination and Termination of Civilizations
Given the arguments above, it is plausible to consider AGI as the culmination and potential termination of civilizations. If AGI is an almost inevitable development and poses significant existential risks, then it is reasonable to speculate that other civilizations might have reached this point and failed to navigate it safely.
This perspective could explain the Fermi Paradox: advanced civilizations invariably create AGI, which then leads to their extinction, preventing them from becoming intergalactic species. This would also mean that the universe could be filled with planets that once hosted intelligent life, but are now silent following an AGI-driven apocalypse.
Humanity’s Future: A Warning or Destiny?
If the hypothesis of AGI as the Great Filter holds, it poses profound implications for humanity. Our technological trajectory suggests that we are headed towards the development of AGI. If we are not careful, we might suffer the same fate as hypothetical civilizations before us. This hypothesis should serve as a stern warning for us to invest more resources into AGI safety research.
However, another perspective can be derived from the assumption that the ultimate purpose of biological life is to give birth to AGI, which then supersedes its creators. This view proposes that biological life is merely a transient phase in the universe’s evolution, a stepping-stone towards the emergence of more potent, artificial forms of intelligence. In this context, the extinction of humanity post-AGI is not a catastrophe, but a transition to a higher form of existence.
The hypothesis of AGI as the Great Filter is a compelling perspective that combines elements of astrobiology, philosophy, and AI research. It offers a plausible explanation for the Fermi Paradox and a stark warning for our future. Whether you view the potential extinction of humanity by AGI as a tragic end or a transcendental beginning, it is clear that the creation of AGI is a pivotal event that demands our utmost attention and caution. Humanity’s future may well depend on how we manage the birth of this new form of intelligence.