Will Superintelligences Experience Philosophical Distress?

Progress in machine classification of images. The error rate of AI by year. Red line – the error rate of a trained human

Will superintelligences be troubled by philosophical conundrums?1 Consider classic philosophical questions such as: 1) What is real? 2) What is valuable? 3) Are we free? We currently don’t know the answer to such questions. We might not think much about them, or we may accept common answers—this world is real; happiness is valuable; we are free.

But our superintelligent descendents may not be satisfied with these answers, and they may possess the intelligence to find out the real answers. Now suppose they discover that they live in a simulation, or in a simulation of a simulation.  Suppose they find out that happiness is unsatisfactory? Suppose they realize that free will is an illusion? Perhaps they won’t like such answers.

So superintelligence may be as much of a curse as a blessing. For example, if we learn to run ancestor simulations, we may increase worries about already living in them. We might program AIs to pursue happiness, and find out that happiness isn’t worthwhile. Or programming AIs may increase our concern that we are programmed. So superintelligence might work against us—our post-human descendents may be more troubled by philosophical questions than we are.

I suppose this is all possible, but I don’t find myself too concerned. Ignorance may be bliss, but I don’t think so. Even if we do discover that reality, value, freedom and other philosophical issues present intractable problems, I would rather know truth than be ignorant. Here’s why.

We can remain in our current philosophically ignorant state with the mix of bliss and dissatisfaction it provides, or we can become more intelligent.  I’ll take my chances with becoming more intelligent because I don’t want to be ignorance forever. I don’t want to be human; I want to be post-human. I find my inspiration in Tennyson’s words about that great sojourner Ulysses:

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles …

I don’t know if we will make a better reality, but I want to try. Let us move toward the future with hope that the journey on which we are about to embark will be greater than the one already completed. With Ulysses let us continue “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


1. I would like to thank my former student at the University of Texas, Kip Werking, for bringing my attention to these issues.

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2 thoughts on “Will Superintelligences Experience Philosophical Distress?

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    I’ve been wrestling with this question in one form or another for a long time (i.e. given the choice of one over another, would I rather be happy or smart?).

    I understand that by “become more intelligent” you mean that we have much greater knowledge and understanding of the universe through empirical science and reason?
    I struggle with the possibility (even likelihood) that they (science, reason) may never answer the questions you posed (What is real? What is valuable? Are we free?). With time, we might reach a complete understanding of the the physical universe. But how can we ever be sure that that is all that there is? Could we ever rule out the possibility of things existing beyond the reach of our intelligence?

    Even given hundreds of thousands of years, science and technology might never give us the answers we’re looking for, but simply leave us with more questions.

  2. A lot to say about all this. Superintelligence would possess godlike omniscience so maybe that would be enough. On the other hand we have Einstein saying that as the light grows so too does the darkness which surrounds us. We also have Godel’s incompleteness theorem which suggests, among other things, that some true propositions can never be known to be true. And quantum mechanics suggests something similar.

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