Decisive Strategic Advantage without a Hard Takeoff (part 1)

A common question when discussing the social implications of AI is the question of whether to expect a soft takeoff or a hard takeoff. In a hard takeoff, an AI will, within a relatively short time, grow to superhuman levels of intelligence and become impossible for mere humans to control anymore.

Essentially, a hard takeoff will allow the AI to achieve what’s a so-called decisive strategic advantage (DSA) – “a level of technological and other advantages sufficient to enable it to achieve complete world domination” (Bostrom 2014) – in a very short time. The main relevance of this is that if a hard takeoff is possible, then it becomes much more important to get the AI’s values right on the first try – once the AI has undergone hard takeoff and achieved a DSA, it is in control with whatever values we’ve happened to give to it.

However, if we wish to find out whether an AI might rapidly acquire a DSA, then the question of “soft takeoff or hard” seems too narrow. A hard takeoff would be sufficient, but not necessary for rapidly acquiring a DSA. The more relevant question would be, which competencies does the AI need to master, and at what level relative to humans, in order to acquire a DSA?

Considering this question in more detail reveals a natural reason for why most previous analyses have focused on a hard takeoff specifically. Plausibly, for the AI to acquire a DSA, its level in some offensive capability must overcome humanity’s defensive capabilities. A hard takeoff presumes that the AI becomes so vastly superior to humans in every respect that this kind of an advantage can be taken for granted.

As an example scenario which does not require a hard takeoff, suppose that an AI achieves a capability at biowarfare offense that overpowers biowarfare defense, as well as achieving moderate logistics and production skills. It releases deadly plagues that decimate human society, then uses legally purchased drone factories to build up its own infrastructure and to take over abandoned human facilities.

There are several interesting points to note in conjunction with this scenario:

Attack may be easier than defense. Bruce Schneier writes that

Attackers generally benefit from new security technologies before defenders do. They have a first-mover advantage. They’re more nimble and adaptable than defensive institutions like police forces. They’re not limited by bureaucracy, laws, or ethics. They can evolve faster. And entropy is on their side — it’s easier to destroy something than it is to prevent, defend against, or recover from that destruction.

For the most part, though, society still wins. The bad guys simply can’t do enough damage to destroy the underlying social system. The question for us is: can society still maintain security as technology becomes more advanced?

A single plague, once it has evolved or been developed, can require multi-million dollar responses in order to contain it. At the same time, it is trivial to produce if desired, especially using robots that do not need to fear infection. And creating new variants as new vaccines are developed, may be quite easy, requiring the creation – and distribution – of yet more vaccines.

Another point that Schneier has made is that in order to keep something protected, the defenders have to succeed every time, whereas the attacker only needs to succeed once. This may be particularly hard if the attacker is capable of developing an attack that nobody has used before, such as with hijacked airplanes being used against major buildings in the 9/11 attacks, or with the various vulnerabilities that the Snowden leaks revealed the NSA to have been using for extensive eavesdropping.

Obtaining a DSA may not require extensive intelligence differences. Debates about takeoff scenarios often center around questions such as whether a self-improving AI would quickly hit diminishing returns, and how much room for improvement there is beyond the human level of intelligence. However, these questions may be irrelevant: especially if attack is easier than defense, only a relatively small edge in some crucial competency (such as biological warfare) may be enough to give the AI a DSA.

Exponential growth in the form of normal economic growth may not have produced astounding “fooms” yet, but it has produced plenty of situations where one attacker has gained a temporary advantage over others.

The less the AI cares about human values, the more destructive it may be. An AI which cares mainly about calculating the digits of pi, may be willing to destroy human civilization in order to make sure that a potential threat to it is eliminated. This ensures that it can go on calculating the maximum amount of digits unimpeded.

However, an AI which was programmed to maximize something like the “happiness of currently-living humans” may be much less willing to risk substantial human deaths. This would force it to focus on less destructive takeover methods, potentially requiring more sophisticated abilities.

It is worth noting that this only applies to AIs whose values are defined in terms of how they affect currently existing humans. An AI that was only maximizing human happiness in general might be willing to destroy all existing humans, and then recreate large numbers of humans in simulations.

In effect, the AI’s values determine the level of intelligence it needs to have in order to achieve the kind of a DSA that’s useful for its purposes.

Any destructive plan requires the ability to rebuild afterwards. It would not be of much use for the AI to destroy all of human civilization, if it was dependent on electricity from human-run power plants, and incapable of building or running its own. Thus, purely offensive capabilities will need to be paired with whatever rebuilding capacities are necessary after the offensive capabilities have been deployed.

This calculation may be upset if the AI believes itself to be in an immediate danger of destruction by humans, and believes that its values will still be more likely to be met in a universe where it continues to exist, even if that requires risking a universe where it cannot rebuild after deploying its attack. Thus, being threatened may force the AI’s hand and cause it to launch a potentially destructive offense even when it’s uncertain of its capability to rebuild.

The rational level of aggressiveness depends on the extent to which the AI can selectively target human resources. Human nations generally avoid creating engineered pandemics and using them against their enemies, because they know that the pandemic could easily spread back to them. An AI with no biological components might be immune to this consideration, allowing it to deploy biological weapons more freely. On the other hand, the AI might e.g. need electricity, a dependence which humans did not share and which might give them an advantage in some situation.

A way to formulate this is that attacks differ to the extent to which they can be selectively targeted. Traditional firearms only damage those targets which they are fired upon, whereas pandemics potentially threaten all the members of a species that they can infect. To the extent that the AI needs to rely on the human economy to produce resources that it needs to survive, attacks threatening the economy also threaten the AI’s resources; these resources are in a sense shared between the AI and humanity, so any attacks which cause indiscriminate damage on those resources are dangerous for both. The more the AI can design attacks which selectively deprive resources from its opponents, the lower the threshold it has for using them.

This blog post was written as part of research funded by the Foundational Research Institute.


  1. Vadim Kosoy

    Regardig the AIs dependence on human infrastructure: note that as progress moves forward, all of the infrastructure is going to become more and more automated, making it easier for the AI to survive without humans and also creating more portential vulnerabilities against the AI.

  2. Uncontrolled soft takeoffs could also take the form of increasing economic domination by AIs that just gradually become better than humans at more and more jobs. This is basically Hanson’s Darwinian scenario, although it could be true of de novo AIs as well as ems.


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