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What is a Superintelligence?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A superintelligence is a theoretical entity that is smarter than a human being. Despite the implausibility of the idea, many scientists have not ruled out the possibility of a superintelligence being created before the early 22nd century. Some researchers have even stated it as their career goal. Speculations regarding superintelligence often involve scenarios in which the superintelligence continues to further enhance its own intelligence and capability. Such an event has been termed a "singularity" by theorists.

Movies such as The Matrix have popularized the notion of a superintelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the possible paths to superintelligence and perhaps the most frequently discussed. With robotics as its "hands" and computers as its "brains," a sophisticated artificial intelligence could think more thoughts and achieve more actions than a human would be capable of doing. This would prove especially true if the AI could redesign its own cognitive architecture, engineer and fabricate new robotics tools and absorb more computing power. Many philosophers have expressed concern that such an entity might lack moral common sense and could be a threat to humanity.

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Other possible paths to superintelligence could be through human genetic engineering or brain-computer interfacing. Brain-computer interfacing has improved to the point where mouse cursors and prosthetic arms can be controlled by thoughts alone. Military organizations have poured a large amount of money into developing the technology. Eventually, scientists might create human beings capable of interfacing very closely with the Internet, to the point where it would be difficult to distinguish between the two. This possibility has been explored in the movie and series Ghost in the Shell.

Human genetic engineering is probably the least likely path to lead to superintelligence, because such research on humans is heavily restricted in most developed countries. This path would take the longest to produce results. Although a modification to an AI program or brain-computer interface might take only a few hours or days to test, a genetic modification would take many years to test — the time that it takes for the genetically engineered embryo to grow into an adult. For this reason, it is most likely that superintelligence eventually will emerge from artificial intelligence or brain-computer interfacing research, possibly by the middle of the 21st century.

One additional possible route to superintelligence is the use of pharmacological or genetic therapies to boost human brain functioning. These approaches are considered less radical than brain-computer interfacing and therefore might have less power to truly augment intelligence. Their lesser degree of invasiveness might make the approach more socially acceptable for research and experimentation, however.

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