Doomsayers, Reformers and Warriors: The Bitter Battle for the Future of A.I.

There is no shortage of researchers and industry titans willing to warn us about the potential destructive power of artificial intelligence. Reading the headlines, one would hope that the rapid gains in A.I. technology have also brought forth a unifying realization of the risks — and the steps we need to take to mitigate them.

The reality, unfortunately, is quite different. Beneath almost all of the testimony, the manifestoes, the blog posts and the public declarations issued about A.I. are battles among deeply divided factions. Some are concerned about far-future risks that sound like science fiction. Some are genuinely alarmed by the practical problems that chatbots and deepfake video generators are creating right now. Some are motivated by potential business revenue, others by national security concerns.

The result is a cacophony of coded language, contradictory views and provocative policy demands that are undermining our ability to grapple with a technology destined to drive the future of politics, our economy and even our daily lives.

These factions are in dialogue not only with the public but also with one another. Sometimes, they trade letters, opinion essays or social threads outlining their positions and attacking others’ in public view. More often, they tout their viewpoints without acknowledging alternatives, leaving the impression that their enlightened perspective is the inevitable lens through which to view A.I. But if lawmakers and the public fail to recognize the subtext of their arguments, they risk missing the real consequences of our possible regulatory and cultural paths forward.

To understand the fight and the impact it may have on our shared future, look past the immediate claims and actions of the players to the greater implications of their points of view. When you do, you’ll realize this isn’t really a debate only about A.I. It’s also a contest about control and power, about how resources should be distributed and who should be held accountable.

Beneath this roiling discord is a true fight over the future of society. Should we focus on avoiding the dystopia of mass unemployment, a world where China is the dominant superpower or a society where the worst prejudices of humanity are embodied in opaque algorithms that control our lives? Should we listen to wealthy futurists who discount the importance of climate change because they’re already thinking ahead to colonies on Mars? It is critical that we begin to recognize the ideologies driving what we are being told. Resolving the fracas requires us to see through the specter of A.I. to stay true to the humanity of our values.

One way to decode the motives behind the various declarations is through their language. Because language itself is part of their battleground, the different A.I. camps tend not to use the same words to describe their positions. One faction describes the dangers posed by A.I. through the framework of safety, another through ethics or integrity, yet another through security and others through economics. By decoding who is speaking and how A.I. is being described, we can explore where these groups differ and what drives their views.

The Doomsayers

The loudest perspective is a frightening, dystopian vision in which A.I. poses an existential risk to humankind, capable of wiping out all life on Earth. A.I., in this vision, emerges as a godlike, superintelligent, ungovernable entity capable of controlling everything. A.I. could destroy humanity or pose a risk on par with nukes. If we’re not careful, it could kill everyone or enslave humanity. It’s likened to monsters like the Lovecraftian shoggoths, artificial servants that rebelled against their creators, or paper clip maximizers that consume all of Earth’s resources in a single-minded pursuit of their programmed goal. It sounds like science fiction, but these people are serious, and they mean the words they use.

These are the A.I. safety people, and their ranks include the “Godfathers of A.I.,” Geoff Hinton and Yoshua Bengio. For many years, these leading lights battled critics who doubted that a computer could ever mimic capabilities of the human mind. Having steamrollered the public conversation by creating large language models like ChatGPT and other A.I. tools capable of increasingly impressive feats, they appear deeply invested in the idea that there is no limit to what their creations will be able to accomplish.

This doomsaying is boosted by a class of tech elite that has enormous power to shape the conversation. And some in this group are animated by the radical effective altruism movement and the associated cause of long-term-ism, which tend to focus on the most extreme catastrophic risks and emphasize the far-future consequences of our actions. These philosophies are hot among the cryptocurrency crowd, like the disgraced former billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, who at one time possessed sudden wealth in search of a cause.

Reasonable sounding on their face, these ideas can become dangerous if stretched to their logical extremes. A dogmatic long-termer would willingly sacrifice the well-being of people today to stave off a prophesied extinction event like A.I. enslavement.

Many doomsayers say they are acting rationally, but their hype about hypothetical existential risks amounts to making a misguided bet with our future. In the name of long-term-ism, Elon Musk

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