AIs take over the world

by Benjamin Kuipers

People sometimes worry about intelligent robots taking over the world and trying to exterminate the human race, as in the Terminator movies. Or perhaps, by creating human-level artificial intelligence operating at electronic speeds, we will bring about the Singularity, ending the world as we know it. While these may be possible, I consider them unlikely fantasies.

However, few people recognize that much of our world has already been taken over by artificial intelligent creatures.

Non-humans own and control our world

In our society, especially the economic sphere of our society, there are not one, but two, species of intelligent agents participating, and not on a level playing field. We individual human beings are members of one species, and we often hold the touching illusion that we are the only species involved.

The members of the other species are corporations. My argument is aimed primarily at profit-making corporations, but the species also includes non-profits, unions, governments large and small, churches old and new, and other types of corporate entities.

A large corporation has goals and knowledge of its own. As a legal person, it can own property and sign contracts. It can make plans to achieve its goals, and take actions to carry them out. It is responsible for obeying the law, and can be punished for violating it, mostly by being fined, but possibly by being dissolved. On the other hand, it seems vastly unlikely that corporations are conscious in any meaningful sense. Without being able to feel things like pain, or fear, or shame, or guilt, it also seems very unlikely that "taking responsibility" means for a corporation anything like what it means for an individual human being.

Unlike individual human beings, a corporation does not have a bounded lifespan. This is extremely valuable in the economic sphere, where the power of compound interest really kicks in after several decades of economic life. (Corporations are not invulnerable, of course, since they can be devoured by others, die of starvation, or be killed in some other way.) The effect of laws passed mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth century have given corporations commanding advantages over individual human beings in the economic sphere.

Corporations and people

A corporation is made up of people, much as individual humans are made up of organs and cells. Few large corporations are under the control of any particular individual. Even the founder of a large corporation keeps his position only as long as his actions are seen as consistent with the goals of the corporation. (Think of Apple founder Steve Jobs or gunsmith Dan Cooper.)

The fundamental goal of a for-profit corporation is typically defined as increasing shareholder value, and progress toward this goal is interpreted and overseen by the Board of Directors. The checks and balances among the "organs" of a corporation do a pretty good job of preventing even powerful individuals from dramatically changing the priorities of corporations they are part of.

Creating a new, small corporation is a little like having a baby. In the beginning, it is entirely dependent on its human creators, and maybe it will be for the rest of its tiny life. The large majority of newly-created corporations never grow beyond total dependence on a few people, and so never become formidable agents in their own right.

But if a corporation does grow up and become large and successful, it becomes independent of its human creators. Consider Bill Gates and Microsoft. Is it any wonder that Bill and Melinda have left Microsoft, and have focused their attention and their resources almost totally on a different corporation -- the non-profit Gates Foundation? The Gates Foundation will outlive Bill and Melinda, but it is still far more under their individual human control than Microsoft is. Furthermore, the Gates Foundation has been created with a far richer and more complex set of fundamental goals than the profit-seeking Microsoft Corporation.

Corporations, money, and political power

Not surprisingly, the economic sphere flows over into the political sphere, and political decisions control access to money. For a corporation, money is life's blood, so Darwin ensures that surviving corporations are focused on accumulating and protecting money.

The U. S. Constitution gives the vote to individual humans, and not to corporations. However, corporations have accumulated large amounts of economic and political power, and (like any creature) they are driven to survive. How do you suppose they will respond to threats? Naturally, by taking actions to influence individual humans to vote in ways that protect their interests.

The U. S. Supreme Court has recently decided that corporations, as legal persons, are entitled to free speech, just as the Constitution guarantees to individual human beings. The explicit purpose of this is to allow them to spend their enormous resources to influence human voters, and to prevent humans from imposing legal restrictions on this.

Large profit-making corporations like Exxon or Halliburton negotiate as peers with sovereign states, less powerful than a few, but more powerful than most. In principle, they are governed by the laws of the country in which they are incorporated. But in practice, they keep their headquarters in countries where governments and laws are congenial, and act globally.

Defending humans in our society

Look at our society through this lens. See that we live in an ecology including two somewhat-interdependent species, each driven to survive, but each having different types of capabilities. Lots of things in the news start to make new kinds of sense. And it doesn't look that promising for humans. Humans do not face extinction, any more than the dairy cow does, but subjugation.

I am advocating that we should view the economic and political spheres of our world as areas of ongoing conflict between two different species that inhabit the Earth. Not conflict among races of human beings (who are equal under law and morality), but between the species of human beings and the species of corporate entities (who are treated quite differently under law, and often not to the advantage of humans).

Corporations are human-created entities, defined by human-made laws. In principle, those laws could be changed. Is there a way to change them, so that humans and corporations can co-exist in society, better than we do now? (Or are we already in "the best of all possible worlds"?) And, do we humans still have the power to make that change?


I recently (April 2012) published a paper expanding on these ideas: An existing, ecologically-successful genus of collectively intelligent artificial creatures, in the conference Collective Intelligence 2012.

Written 7 March 2010. Updated 28 May 2012.