By Jim Towey
Well, summer means movies, and I saw a great one this week. It wasn’t Barbie. As a bald man I always resented Ken’s full head of hair. No, I saw Oppenheimer, a hair-raising tale about what happens when a genie gets out of the bottle and won’t go back in.
The atomic age that J. Robert Oppenheimer conceived and President Harry S. Truman launched has changed the world irrevocably. As writer E.B. White wrote ten days after the Nagasaki attack, “people all over the world were soon to be adjusting themselves to their new environment. For the first time in our lives, we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment.”
White was right. The world changed forever. Today nine countries possess nuclear weapons and Iran seeks to make it an even 10. There are about 10,000 nuclear warheads in existence, with Russia and the U.S. possessing the great majority of them. Even though global stockpiles have diminished from their peak in the mid-1980’s, the lethality of the remaining weapons has grown astronomically. American nuclear bombs today pack a punch that is 30 times more punishing than the bomb used at Hiroshima. Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile can deliver 800 kilotons of damage, more than 50 times the “Little Boy” bomb that killed about 110,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers on August 6, 1945.
Controlling the genie
Because Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated that the end of civilization might come with the press of a button, governments have sought through treaties and arms agreements to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and prohibit their use. But the weapons remain and the age of anxiety continues. Hitler surely would have used them had he had them, and Vladimir Putin threatens to use them now in Ukraine.
Oppenheimer rationalized that the bomb would ultimately save lives because of the likely carnage that a full-scale invasion of Japan would have entailed. But after the war, he told President Harry Truman that he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman reportedly called Oppenheimer a “crybaby.” The arms race was already in full stride. As Oppenheimer knew, our scientific breakthrough would soon be within Russia’s capabilities, and our efforts to “improve” weapons of mass destruction would only fuel theirs.
The parallels of the birth of the atomic age and the world-changing development and deployment of artificial intelligence are inescapable. The movie depicts elite scientists working in total secrecy in Los Alamos, New Mexico, unveiling their finished product without public discussion or input. This secrecy was justified because the atom bomb was intended to end a world war, and it did.
What are they hiding?
But why the secrecy and hastiness with AI? Why no public discussion? AI is being sold to the public as helpful, friendly, and inevitable, its abuse notwithstanding (and wait until the military application of AI rears its ugly head somewhere). Promises that jobs won’t be lost are repeated as if the public is ignorant. Of course AI will be a net loser for workers! Read the Wall Street Journal article on the current piloting of chatbots at hundreds of fast-food restaurant drive-throughs. Those who believe such applications of AI in the marketplace won’t lead to massive idleness of workers are as naïve as those in 1945 who thought the A-bomb was a cause of celebration, not concern.
And just as scientists in Oppenheimer’s time belatedly tried to petition the White House not to develop further atomic weaponry, tech pioneers like Elon Musk and Sam Altman have petitioned AI developers to halt further use of generative AI until ethical guardrails and enforcement mechanisms can be put in place. Both petitions were ignored. The Biden White House is leaving AI pioneers to voluntarily self-regulate, instituting no enforcement mechanisms. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Google and other Big Tech money-makers are ramping up their AI efforts, full speed ahead.
Man playing God
As White prophetically wrote, “Today is not so much the fact of the end of a war which engages us. It is the limitless power of the victor.” He then summarized, “The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up. And who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God’s stuff.”
The AI labs power on unnoticed, in the shadows, because, as was pointed out in the movie, “all power stays in the shadows.” The AI genie is not going back in the bottle. The “disturbing vibrations of complete human adjustment” are subtly, slowly, inexorably being felt. Try getting a human on a customer service line!
The mushroom cloud of Oppenheimer’s time and the iClouds of ours remind us of what can happen when you steal God’s stuff.
Unlike Barbie, it isn’t pretty.