The Omega Team was the soul of the company. Whereas the rest of the enterprise brought in the money to keep things going, by various commercial applications of narrow Al, the Omega Team pushed ahead in their quest for what had always been the CEO's dream: building general artificial intelligence. Most other employees viewed "the Omegas," as they affectionately called them, as a bunch of pie-in-the-sky dreamers, perpetually decades away from their goal. They happily indulged them, however, because they liked the prestige that the cutting-edge work of the Omegas gave their company, and they also appreciated the improved algorithms that the Omegas occasionally gave them.
What they didn't realize was that the Omegas had carefully crafted their image to hide a secret: they were extremely close to pulling off the most audacious plan in human history. Their charismatic CEO had handpicked them not only for being brilliant researchers, but also for ambition, idealism and a strong commitment to helping humanity. He reminded them that their plan was extremely dangerous, and that if powerful governments found out, they would do virtually anything—including kidnapping—to shut them down or, preferably, to steal their code. But they were all in, 100%, for much the same reason that many of the world's top physicists joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons: they were convinced that if they didn't do it first, someone less idealistic would.
The Al they had built, nicknamed Prometheus, kept getting more capable. Although its cognitive abilities still lagged far behind those of humans in many areas, for example, social skills, the Omegas had pushed hard to make it extraordinary at one particular task: programming AI systems. They'd deliberately chosen this strategy because they had bought the intelligence explosion argument made by the British mathematician Irving Good back in 1965: "Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control."
They figured that if they could get this recursive self-improvement going, the machine would soon get smart enough that it could also teach itself all other human skills that would be useful.
The First Millions
It was nine o'clock on a Friday morning when they decided to launch. Prometheus was humming away in its custom-built computer duster, which resided in long rows of racks in a vast, access-controlled, air-conditioned room. For security reasons, it was completely disconnected from the Internet, but it contained a local copy of much of the web (Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, Twitter, a selection from YouTube, much of Facebook, etc.) to use as its training data to learn from: They'd picked this start time to work undisturbed: their families and friends thought they were on a weekend corporate retreat. The kitchenette was loaded with microwaveable food and energy drinks, and they were ready to roll.
When they launched, Prometheus was slightly worse than them at programming Al systems, but made up for this by being vastly faster, spending the equivalent of thousands of person-years chugging away at the problem while they chugged a Red Bull. By 10 a.m., it had completed the first redesign of itself, v2.0, which was slightly better but still subhuman. By the time Prometheus 5.0 launched at 2 p.m., however, the Omegas were awestruck: it had blown their performance benchmarks out of the water, and the rate of progress seemed to be accelerating. By nightfall, they decided to deploy Prometheus 10.0 to start phase 2 of their plan: making money.
Their first target was MTurk, the Amazon Mechanical Turk. After its launch in 2005 as a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace, it had grown rapidly, with tens of thousands of people around the world anonymously competing around the clock to perform highly structured chores called HITS, "Human Intelligence Tasks." These tasks ranged from transcribing audio recordings to classifying images and writing descriptions of web pages, and all had one thing in common: if you did them well, nobody would know that you were an AI. Prometheus 10.0 was able to do about half of the task categories accept-ably well. For each such task category, the Omegas had Prometheus design a lean custom-built narrow AI software module that could do precisely such tasks and nothing else. They then uploaded this module to Amazon Web Services, a cloud-computing platform that could run on as many virtual machines as they rented. For every dollar they paid to Amazon's cloud-computing division, they earned more than two dollars from Amazon's MTurk division. Little did Amazon suspect that such an amazing arbitrage opportunity existed within their own company!
To cover their tracks, they had discreetly created thousands of MTurk accounts during the preceding months in the names of fictitious people, and the Prometheus-built modules now assumed their identities. The MTurk customers typically paid after about eight hours, at which point the Omegas reinvested the money in more cloud-computing time, using still better task modules made by the latest version of the ever-improving Prometheus. Because they were able to double their money every eight hours, they soon started saturating MTurk's task supply, and found that they..."