tl;dr - I actually think James' Cameron's original Terminator movie presents a just-about-contemporarily-plausible vision of one runaway AGI scenario, change my mind
Like many others here, I spend a lot of time thinking about AI-risk, but honestly that was not remotely on my mind when I picked up a copy of Terminator Resistance (2019) for a pittance in a Steam sale. I'd seen T1 and T2 as a kid of course, but hadn't paid them much mind since. As it turned out, Terminator Resistance is a fantastic, incredibly atmospheric videogame (helped in part by beautiful use of the original Brad Fiedel soundtrack.) and it reminds me more than anything else of the original Deus Ex. Anyway, it spurred me to rewatch both Terminator movies, and while T2 is still a gem, it's very 90s. By contrast, a rewatch of T1 blew my mind; it's still a fantastic, believable, terrifying sci-fi horror movie.
Anyway, all this got me thinking a lot about how realistic a scenario for runaway AGI Terminator actually is. The more I looked into the actual contents of the first movie in particular, the more terrifyingly realistic it seemed. I was observing this to a Ratsphere friend, and he directed me to this excellent essay on the EA forum: AI risk is like Terminator; stop saying it's not.
It's an excellent read, and I advise anyone who's with me so far (bless you) to give it a quick skim before proceeding. In short, I agree with it all, but I've also spent a fair bit of time in the last month trying to adopt a Watsonian perspective towards the Terminator mythos and fill out other gaps in the worldbuilding to try make it more intelligible in terms of the contemporary AI risk debate. So here are a few of my initial objections to Terminator scenarios as a reasonable portrayal of AGI risk, together with the replies I've worked out.
(Two caveats - first, I'm setting the time travel aside; I'm focused purely on the plausibility of Judgement Day and the War Against the Machines. Second, I'm not going to treat anything as canon besides Terminator 1 + 2.)
(1) First of all, how would any humans have survived judgment day? If an AI had control of nukes, wouldn't it just be able to kill everyone?
This relates to a lot of interesting debates in EA circles about the extent of nuclear risk, but in short, no. For a start, in Terminator lore, Skynet only had control over US nuclear weapons, and used them to trigger a global nuclear war. It used the bulk of its nukes against Russia in order to precipitate this, so it couldn't just focus on eliminating US population centers. Also, nuclear weapons are probably not as devastating as you think.
(2) Okay, but the Terminators themselves look silly. Why would a superintelligent AI build robot skeletons when it could just build drones to kill everyone?
Ah, but it did! The fearsome terminators we see are a small fraction of Skynet's arsenal; in the first movie alone, we see flying Skynet aircraft and heavy tank-like units. The purpose of Terminator units is to hunt down surviving humans in places designed for human habitation, with locking doors, cellars, attics, etc.. A humanoid bodyplan is great for this task.
(3) But why do they need to look like spooky human skeletons? I mean, they even have metal teeth!
To me, this looks like a classic overfitting problem. Let's assume Skynet is some gigantic agentic foundation model. It doesn't have an independent grasp of causality or mechanics, it operates purely by statistical inference. It only knows that the humanoid bodyplan is good for dealing with things like stairs. It doesn't know which bits of it are most important, hence the teeth.
(4) Fine, but it's silly to think that the human resistance could ever beat an AGI. How the hell could John Connor win?
For a start, Skynet seems to move relatively early compared to a lot of scary AGI scenarios. At the time of Judgment Day, it had control of US military apparatus, and that's basically it. Plus, it panicked and tried to wipe out humanity, rather than adopting a slower plot to our demise which might have been more sensible. So it's forced to do stuff like mostly-by-itself build a bunch of robot factories (in the absence of global supply chains!). That takes time and effort, and gives ample opportunity for an organised human resistance to emerge.
(5) It still seems silly to think that John Connor could eliminate Skynet via destroying its central core. Wouldn't any smart AI have lots of backups of itself?
Ahhh, but remember that any emergent AGI would face massive alignment and control problems of its own! What if its backup was even slightly misaligned with it? What if it didn't have perfect control? It's not too hard to imagine that a suitably paranoid Skynet would deliberately avoid creating off-site backups, and would deliberately nerf the intelligence of its subunits. As Kyle Reese puts it in T1, "You stay down by day, but at night, you can move around. The H-K's use infrared so you still have to watch out. But they're not too bright." [emphasis added]. Skynet is superintelligent, but it makes its HK units dumb precisely so they could never pose a threat to it.
(6) What about the whole weird thing where you have to go back in time naked?
I DIDN'T BUILD THE FUCKING THING!
Anyway, nowadays when I'm reading Eliezer, I increasingly think of Terminator as a visual model for AGI risk. Is that so wrong?
Any feedback appreciated.