The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) does serious research on preventing the end of the world. For its latest project, the Centre wanted to highlight the risk that unrestrained artificial intelligence poses to civilization. To do that, it’s released a free mod that turns the video game Civilization V into a race to stop Skynet.
If you’re unfamiliar with Sid Meier’s Civilization series, players lead a historical nation from the ancient era to modern times while trying to outdo other nations in the fields of culture, science, military, and religion. Civilization V isn’t the latest edition of the game, but for many, it’s the finest effort in the franchise’s history. It regularly has more concurrent players online than Civilization VI, and one reason it’s continued to thrive is that it has an extremely active mod community. So, when CSER decided to work on a project that would help educate the public on the apocalyptic danger that advanced AI poses to society, a mod for Civ 5 made a whole lot of sense.
On its website, CSER describes how the mod works and the inspiration behind it:
“In the modified game, artificial intelligence initially provides benefits, and eventually can turn into superintelligence that brings mastery of science to its discoverer. However, if there is too little investment in AI safety research, rogue superintelligence can destroy humanity and bring an instant loss of the game.”
“Games are an excellent way to deliver a complex message to a wide audience. The Civilization games series has an amazing track record of presenting very complex and interlocking systems in a fun and educating way, including major risk issues such as nuclear war and global warming.”
Famously, Civ 5 has a bug that causes Gandhi to turn into a nuke-lobbing psycho late in the game. But other than that, end games in Civ can turn into a chore. Outside of giving people a chance to meditate on Elon Musk’s worst nightmares, CSER’s mod might actually improve the game.
If you install the free Superintelligence mod the goal of a science victory changes from launching a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri to building a safe and secure advanced AI. Once you enter the modern era, you’ll want to dedicate a lot of resources to building AI safety labs and combating the influence of Rogue AI elements. If you do a good job of keeping the AI in check while continuing technological progress, you’ll be rewarded with a win and you’ll leave the world on a path to utopia. If you let the rogue AI get out of control, well, the machines win.
In an interview with The Verge, CSER research Shahar Avin said that playing the mod did inspire him to think more deeply about the dangers of AI. “Something that struck me as surprising was if the geopolitical situation is very messy,” he said. “Let’s say you’re stuck between two aggressive civilizations. It becomes very difficult to manage AI risk because your resources are devoted to fighting wars.”
That may sound a bit obvious, but unless you’ve played through the hours of meditative building and warfare that goes into a single game of Civ, it’s hard to convey just how it creeps into your consciousness and drills in various insights through experience. Civ 5 has even been integrated into high school programs as a learning tool. It might not be the best way to learn about the timelines of history, but it has plenty of lessons to offer about basic economics, development, and diplomacy between nations. Yes, it’s in-game AI that handles diplomacy sucks. But as far as simulating the consequences of complete misunderstandings between nations, it’s pretty darn accurate.