Biological brains will be a sideshow: Prediction from the Royal Astonomer

Richard Rees, the UK’s Royal Astronomer finished a recent article in the Telegraph with the following paragraph:

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity – spanning tens of millennia at most – will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the inorganic post-human era. So, in the far future, it won’t be the minds of humans, but those of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos – and it will be the actions of autonomous machines that will most drastically change our world, and perhaps what lies beyond.

To summarise: Biological brains … will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects … of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos.

That’s a big statement and consistent with the thinking of other prominent futurologists like Ray Kurzweil. What’s interesting is to see it so close to the heart of the establishment here in the UK.

Rees puts this vision of the world in the “far future”, but that far future isn’t too far away. He cites expert estimates for the arrival of general human level are 25 years at the optimistic end and 50 years on average (AI expert Nick Bostrom’s recent poll of experts found a 60 year average prediction). Then, immediately after human level AI we will get an intelligence explosion as the AIs work at light-speed to improve themselves.

Try to imagine a world with other intelligences infinitely smarter than us.

I’m 42, so if these experts are right and I’m lucky with my health (or science takes care of me) then I have at least a 50-50 chance of seeing super-intelligence in my lifetime. It’s coming.

As a society I think we have a long way to go in wrapping our heads around what that means. It’s hard to over-estimate how much change will come.