By Jim Towey
Elon Musk says artificial intelligence has the potential to destroy civilization, echoing a warning nine years ago from famous British physicist (and fellow genius) Stephen Hawking who said that AI technology “could spell the end of the human race.”
That sounds like a nuclear threat to me. Larry Page, co-founder of Google and one of the Big Tech rulers of our age, told a friend he wanted his AI technology to become a digital god, the Judeo-Christian tradition be damned. But who needs antiquity when you have Google? Its current CEO, Sundar Pichai, admits that the creation of AI is profoundly more significant than the discovery of fire and electricity.
Cat and mouse
That’s why Google and Microsoft are investing tens of billions of dollars in the AI race. Perhaps you saw the CBS 60 Minutes episode that aired Sunday. Pichai was all charm, smiling, reassuring, nothing to worry about here but yes, we have to be careful, you know, robots will be robots, and so forth. He conceded that bad actors could wreak havoc on humanity but downplayed this risk by likening the ongoing experimentation with AI by Big Tech to a “cat and mouse game.”
But wait, when a cat and mouse play, they aren’t potentially able to dehumanize society, rewrite history, distort the truth, pervert learning, take away jobs from humans, systematically spread disinformation, hijack democracy, and otherwise “destroy civilization.”
Federal laws forbid experimentation on human subjects, and for good reason. But the AI gods don’t follow the rules, which means that sometimes a mouse might, ah, get its fur mussed. Ask the Belgian wife who claimed that her husband killed himself at the urging of an AI chatbot he had “befriended” over the internet.
The 60 Minutes segment was nauseatingly choreographed to provide false assurances to the public that so long as everyone is careful, the AI technology will remain under human control, and all the advantages of it will be ours to enjoy. Robots in the Google laboratory were paraded out to play soccer and ping pong. See, they are harmless! Forget about how quickly weapons manufacturers will adopt this technology. In prime time, Google’s generative AI product – Bard – performed on command and instantly produced literary content that dazzled. Such superintelligence! But when Bard was asked about inflation, it cited five books for its authority. Problem was, not one of the books exists. Bad Bard! You’re grounded!
Sam Altman, universe-ruler?
Unfortunately, Bard has many friends. Microsoft has teamed up with generative AI’s whiz kid, Sam Altman, the co-founder of OpenAI, to become the industry leader with the most sophisticated artificial general intelligence. Their ChatGPT technology can produce essays, support deep fake videos and conduct compelling (but false) info searches, outperforming Bard. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Altman declared he wants to forge a new world order in which machines “free people” for higher, creative pursuits. These newly freed (that is, newly unemployed) humans might still need some money to survive so Altman, a self-professed democratic socialist, proposes a universal basic income to help pay the real-world bills of the newly-idle.
Is this 31-year-old, unmarried, childless man living in his San Francisco cocoon the person we want to shape our future? Who elected Sam Altman ruler of the universe?
Altman’s new world order promises safe AI, ethical AI, subservient AI. Sorry, but he is both naïve and unable to deliver. America may be the pioneer of AI now, but other countries will find ways to jack our technology and unleash it against us, just as they do with social media. Russia, China and others could care less about Altman’s altruism. Altman might want to read Mary Shelley to find out what will happen next with his Frankenstein.
I wrote recently of the appeal by some of the smartest people on the planet for a moratorium on further R&D until ethics and safety guardrails are constructed. I also wrote about the need for governments to step up quickly while there is still time. Italy recently imposed a temporary ban on generative AI. President Biden and Congress are napping and can’t be bothered.
Meanwhile, the cats and mice run wild. Pichai is right. Generative AI has greater implications for mankind than the discovery of fire and electricity. Unless those with authority in government and industry act soon, AI will burn us long before global warming does. Climate change, and the trillions being spent to combat it, are no match for the wildfire of AI.