We wouldn’t be able to control superintelligent machines

Endowing AI with noble goals may not preventunintended
consequences. © Iyad Rahwan

According to theoretical calculations of computer scientists,
algorithms cannot contain a harmful artificial intelligence

We are fascinated by machines that can control cars, compose
symphonies, or defeat people at chess, Go, or Jeopardy! While more
progress is being made all the time in Artificial Intelligence
(AI), some scientists and philosophers warn of the dangers of an
uncontrollable superintelligent AI. Using theoretical calculations,
an international team of researchers, including scientists from the
Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for
Human Development, shows that it would not be possible to control a
superintelligent AI.

Suppose someone were to program an AI system with intelligence
superior to that of humans, so it could learn independently.
Connected to the Internet, the AI may have access to all the data
of humanity. It could replace all existing programs and take
control all machines online worldwide. Would this produce a utopia
or a dystopia? Would the AI cure cancer, bring about world peace,
and prevent a climate disaster? Or would it destroy humanity and
take over the Earth?

Computer scientists and philosophers have asked themselves
whether we would even be able to control a superintelligent AI at
all, to ensure it would not pose a threat to humanity. An
international team of computer scientists used theoretical
calculations to show that it would be fundamentally impossible to
control a super-intelligent AI

“A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds
like science fiction. But there are already machines that perform
certain important tasks independently without programmers fully
understanding how they learned it. The question therefore arises
whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and
dangerous for humanity”, says study co-author Manuel Cebrian,
Leader of the Digital Mobilization Group at the Center for Humans
and Machines, Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Scientists have explored two different ideas for how a
superintelligent AI could be controlled. On one hand, the
capabilities of superintelligent AI could be specifically limited,
for example, by walling it off from the Internet and all other
technical devices so it could have no contact with the outside
world – yet this would render the superintelligent AI
significantly less powerful, less able to answer humanities quests.
Lacking that option, the AI could be motivated from the outset to
pursue only goals that are in the best interests of humanity, for
example by programming ethical principles into it. However, the
researchers also show that these and other contemporary and
historical ideas for controlling super-intelligent AI have their

In their study, the team conceived a theoretical containment
algorithm that ensures a superintelligent AI cannot harm people
under any circumstances, by simulating the behavior of the AI first
and halting it if considered harmful. But careful analysis shows
that in our current paradigm of computing, such algorithm cannot be

“If you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical
computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command
an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own
operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the
containment algorithm is still analyzing the threat, or whether it
has stopped to contain the harmful AI. In effect, this makes the
containment algorithm unusable”, says Iyad Rahwan, Director of
the Center for Humans and Machines.

Based on these calculations the containment problem is
incomputable, i.e. no single algorithm can find a solution for
determining whether an AI would produce harm to the world.
Furthermore, the researchers demonstrate that we may not even know
when superintelligent machines have arrived, because deciding
whether a machine exhibits intelligence superior to humans is in
the same realm as the containment problem.

Originally published by
Kerstin Skork, Press & Public Relations, skork@mpib-berlin.mpg.de |
January 11, 2021
Max Planck Institute for Human
, Berlin

The study “Superintelligence cannot be contained: Lessons from
Computability Theory“ was published in the Journal of Artificial
Intelligence Research. Other researchers on the study include
Andres Abeliuk from the University of Southern California, Manuel
Alfonseca from the Autonomous University of Madrid, Antonio
Fernandez Anta from the IMDEA Networks Institute and Lorenzo