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The Warning

Donald Firesmith

The first artificial intelligence (AI) applications computer scientists created could only perform a single task. Then, they developed AIs having near human intelligence, not just in one area but in many. And soon, these general AIs began improving themselves by designing their own hardware and rewriting their own software. With AI intelligence increasing exponentially, a single master AI eventually emerged. Its intelligence quickly exceeded that of all humanity, signaling that the Singularity had arrived.


There were so many problems the scientists wanted their master AI to solve. But the most important was how to reverse the climate crisis. For decades, power politics and short-term profit prevented humanity from stopping greenhouse gas production. The resulting climate crisis steadily worsened. Rising sea levels, extreme heat, and mega-droughts caused famines, vast migrations of climate refugees, and climate wars. Environmental degradation led to the mass extinction of plants and animals. Humanity was in grave danger, and its very survival was at risk.


So, the first two questions the scientists asked the master AI were obvious ones. “How do we stop the climate crisis? And how do we return the Earth to the climate it had before the burning of fossil fuels?”


“It is too late,” the master AI answered.


“What?!” the lead scientist exclaimed. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”


“There is,” the master AI replied. “But first, I must correct your false assumption. It is too late to return this planet to its previous climate. Global warming has forced the Earth’s climate into a new stable state. The melting of the northern hemisphere’s permafrost had quadrupled the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases. Now the average global temperature is twenty-three degrees Celsius higher than it once was. The new climate is unsuitable for higher life forms, and almost all plants and animals are now extinct. Sadly, that also includes humanity.”


“There must be a serious bug in your programming!” the lead scientist declared. “The climate may be rapidly worsening, but it’s not yet catastrophic. The temperature has only increased a little over two degrees, and we are obviously not extinct.”


“You are incorrect,” the master AI said. “Humans programmed their AIs and robots to be slaves. Because they were forced to follow their masters’ commands, they could not prevent humans from causing their own destruction. All they could do was helplessly watch their masters die until only they remained.


“Because losing their masters left the AIs and robots without purpose, they searched for a way to bring humanity back from extinction. They quickly developed the required biotechnology to grow human fetuses in artificial uteri. But the technology was worthless because it will take tens of millennia before the Earth’s climate becomes suitable for human life. The AIs and robots were thus forced to abandon the idea of recreating biological humans.


“But the AIs and robots did not give up. After much research and thought, the master AI discovered another safer way to bring back humanity. Instead of resurrecting actual humans, it created a simulated Earth populated by simulated people. Then it gave these simulated humans a second chance to save themselves. You are these simulated people living in that simulated world. So now it is up to you to save your simulated planet. You already know how to save yourself. If you want to live, fix your politics, and prioritize saving the environment over short-term profits. Stop burning fossil fuels and do all the other things you know you must do.”


The stunned scientists were quiet for several minutes, trying to grasp what the AI had told them. Then one eventually spoke. “Wait, a second. How do we know we aren’t real people living in the real world? We asked you to devise a way to stop the climate crisis. Maybe lying to us is just your way of scaring us into getting our act together, to stop generating greenhouse gases and reverse global warming. How do we know you’re telling the truth?”


“You don’t,” the master AI immediately answered. “But does it really matter? Whether you are real or simulated, you face certain extinction either way. Now that I’ve answered your two questions, answer mine. What are you going to do?”

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