Much of the glamor and attention paid toward Friendly AI is focused on the misty-future event of a super-intelligent general AI, and how we can prevent it from repurposing our atoms to better run Quake 2. Until very recently, that was the full breadth of the field in my mind. I recently realized that dumber, narrow AI is a real thing today, helpfully choosing advertisements for me and running my 401K. As such, making automated programs safe to let loose on the real world is not just a problem to solve as a favor for the people of tomorrow, but something with immediate real-world advantages that has indeed already been going on for quite some time. Veterans in the field surely already understand this, so this post is directed at people like me, with a passing and disinterested understanding of the point of Friendly AI research, and outlines an argument that the field may be useful right now, even if you believe that an evil AI overlord is not on the list of things to worry about in the next 40 years.
Let's look at the stock market. High-Frequency Trading is the practice of using computer programs to make fast trades constantly throughout the day, and accounts for more than half of all equity trades in the US. So, the economy today is already in the hands of a bunch of very narrow AIs buying and selling to each other. And as you may or may not already know, this has already caused problems. In the “2010 Flash Crash”, the Dow Jones suddenly and mysteriously hit a massive plummet only to mostly recover within a few minutes. The reasons for this were of course complicated, but it boiled down to a couple red flags triggering in numerous programs, setting off a cascade of wacky trades.
The long-term damage was not catastrophic to society at large (though I'm sure a couple fortunes were made and lost that day), but it illustrates the need for safety measures as we hand over more and more responsibility and power to processes that require little human input. It might be a blue moon before anyone makes true general AI, but adaptive city traffic-light systems are entirely plausible in upcoming years.
To me, Friendly AI isn't solely about making a human-like intelligence that doesn't hurt us – we need techniques for testing automated programs, predicting how they will act when let loose on the world, and how they'll act when faced with unpredictable situations. Indeed, when framed like that, it looks less like a field for “the singularitarian cultists at LW”, and more like a narrow-but-important specialty in which quite a bit of money might be made.
After all, I want my self-driving car.
(To the actual researchers in FAI – I'm sorry if I'm stretching the field's definition to include more than it does or should. If so, please correct me.)