There’s a 5% chance of AI causing humans to go extinct, say scientists

AI researchers predict a slim chance of apocalyptic outcomes

Stephen Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo

Many artificial intelligence researchers see the possible future development of superhuman AI as having a non-trivial chance of causing human extinction – but there is also widespread disagreement and uncertainty about such risks.

Those findings come from a survey of 2700 AI researchers who have recently published work at six of the top AI conferences – the largest such survey to date. The survey asked participants to share their thoughts on possible timelines for future AI technological milestones, as well as the good or bad societal consequences of those achievements. Almost 58 per cent of researchers said they considered that there is a 5 per cent chance of human extinction or other extremely bad AI-related outcomes.

“It’s an important signal that most AI researchers don’t find it strongly implausible that advanced AI destroys humanity,” says Katja Grace at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in California, an author of the paper. “I think this general belief in a non-minuscule risk is much more telling than the exact percentage risk.”

But there is no need to panic just yet, says Émile Torres at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Many AI experts “don’t have a good track record” of forecasting future AI developments, they say. Grace and her colleagues acknowledged that AI researchers are not experts in forecasting the future trajectory of AI but showed that a 2016 version of their survey did a “fairly good job of forecasting” AI milestones.

Compared with answers from a 2022 version of the same survey, many AI researchers predicted that AI will hit certain milestones earlier than previously predicted. This coincides with the November 2022 debut of ChatGPT and Silicon Valley’s rush to widely deploy similar AI chatbot services based on large language models.

The surveyed researchers predicted that within the next decade, AI systems have a 50 per cent or higher chance of successfully tackling most of 39 sample tasks, including writing new songs indistinguishable from a Taylor Swift banger or coding an entire payment processing site from scratch. Other tasks such as physically installing electrical wiring in a new home or solving longstanding mathematics mysteries are expected to take longer.

The possible development of AI that can outperform humans on every task was given 50 per cent odds of happening by 2047, whereas the possibility of all human jobs becoming fully automatable was given 50 per cent odds to occur by 2116. These estimates are 13 years and 48 years earlier than those given in last year’s survey.

But the heightened expectations regarding AI development may also fall flat, says Torres. “A lot of these breakthroughs are pretty unpredictable. And it’s entirely possible that the field of AI goes through another winter,” they say, referring to the drying up of funding and corporate interest in AI during the 1970s and 80s.

There are also more immediate worries without any superhuman AI risks. Large majorities of AI researchers – 70 per cent or more – described AI-powered scenarios involving deepfakes, manipulation of public opinion, engineered weapons, authoritarian control of populations and worsening economic inequality to be of either substantial or extreme concern. Torres also highlighted the dangers of AI contributing to disinformation around existential issues such as climate change or worsening democratic governance.

“We already have the technology, here and now, that could seriously undermine [the US] democracy,” says Torres. “We’ll see what happens in the 2024 election.”

Article amended on 4 January 2024

We clarified statements about past research on the accuracy of predictions by AI researchers


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