The first myth regards the timeline: how long will it take until machines greatly supersede human-level intelligence? A common misconception is that we know the answer with great certainty.
One popular myth is that we know we’ll get superhuman AI this century. In fact, history is full of technological over-hyping. Where are those fusion power plants and flying cars we were promised we’d have by now? AI has also been repeatedly over-hyped in the past, even by some of the founders of the field. For example, John McCarthy (who coined the term “artificial intelligence”), Marvin Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester and Claude Shannon wrote this overly optimistic forecast about what could be accomplished during two months with stone-age computers: “We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College […] An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.”
On the other hand, a popular counter-myth is that we know we won’t get superhuman AI this century. Researchers have made a wide range of estimates for how far we are from superhuman AI, but we certainly can’t say with great confidence that the probability is zero this century, given the dismal track record of such techno-skeptic predictions. For example, Ernest Rutherford, arguably the greatest nuclear physicist of his time, said in 1933 — less than 24 hours before Szilard’s invention of the nuclear chain reaction — that nuclear energy was “moonshine.” And Astronomer Royal Richard Woolley called interplanetary travel “utter bilge” in 1956. The most extreme form of this myth is that superhuman AI will never arrive because it’s physically impossible. However, physicists know that a brain consists of quarks and electrons arranged to act as a powerful computer, and that there’s no law of physics preventing us from building even more intelligent quark blobs.
There have been a number of surveys asking AI researchers how many years from now they think we’ll have human-level AI with at least 50% probability. All these surveys have the same conclusion: the world’s leading experts disagree, so we simply don’t know. For example, in such a poll of the AI researchers at the 2015 Puerto Rico AI conference, the average (median) answer was by year 2045, but some researchers guessed hundreds of years or more.
There’s also a related myth that people who worry about AI think it’s only a few years away. In fact, most people on record worrying about superhuman AI guess it’s still at least decades away. But they argue that as long as we’re not 100% sure that it won’t happen this century, it’s smart to start safety research now to prepare for the eventuality. Many of the safety problems associated with human-level AI are so hard that they may take decades to solve. So it’s prudent to start researching them now rather than the night before some programmers drinking Red Bull decide to switch one on.