Brace for the defamation of AI by those who missed out

Since the launch of ChatGPT, there have been many questions about the use of artificial intelligence and what it could mean for the future of humanity. (REUTERS)
Since the launch of ChatGPT, there have been many questions about the use of artificial intelligence and what it could mean for the future of humanity. (REUTERS)


A movement against AI seems keen to couch in ethics the disgruntlement and self-interest of a vocal few

A few days ago, sentient luminaries signed yet another letter to protect us from artificial intelligence (AI). Their list is meant to make a journalist like me say, “it includes Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and some highly respected AI scientists." They want a “pause" on the progress of AI for six months for humankind to evaluate its risks.

There is a general perception that people who have excelled in one area make sense in all areas, or that when they say something in the public interest, they do so with no ulterior motive. As expected, the luminaries have inspired thousands to add their signatures to the letter. It is a part of a larger movement to stall the progress of AI by triggering anxiety and invoking a form of logic called ethics. It is a phase every new technology goes through. The science is at first underrated, then some influential people celebrate it with evangelical fervour, ordinary people across the world believe it, a happy hysteria grows, and then a camp of disenchanted influential figures claim to worry that the new tech will harm people if it is not regulated. Inevitably, an ethics professor from an Ivy League college will condemn the tech and some guys will make a documentary. Expect all of this to unfold.

Last November, Openai revealed an AI chatbot called ChatGPT and demonstrated to an awestruck world that an advanced programme can imitate human communication and perform tasks of elaborate human expression in microseconds. In my line of work, ChatGPT reminds me of charlatans who wing it through life. As a research assistant, it has been untrustworthy. In that way, it does seem human. Its incompetence is probably temporary. In many other ways, ChatGPT is extraordinary. It is already an alternative to Google, something unthinkable even a year ago. In response, Google is improving its own AI, in what must be the new arms-race for survival. All this is making some luminaries and ordinary people anxious, though probably for different reasons.

The letter, an initiative of Future of Life, a non-profit that seeks to restrain technology from destroying us, asks, “Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization? Such decisions must not be delegated to unelected tech leaders." The letter is annotated by a visual icon of serious research— numbers in brackets that denote “notes and reference". For instance, the very first line: “AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity, as shown by extensive research [1]…" But among what is cited as ‘research’ are tired opinions, like an essay that laments the disproportionate size of Western material in machine-learning, and the views of an AI alarmist who thinks machines could misunderstand our instructions and kill us all.

The letter is foolish, so why bother? A top-tier sanctimonious movement in the US is usually both sophisticated and opaque. Movements that successfully portrayed social media as a cause for all liberal traumas, for example. This letter, in its clumsiness, reveals how a moral argument is fabricated, pressure is manufactured and public anxiety is triggered. The driving forces behind the movement to undermine AI could be a complex mix of the these factors:

One, billionaires who missed out on AI and want time to catch up, or want to force those who have an AI monopoly to be more transparent, or want to contain it by creating public opinion against the tech, making it easy for governments to intervene and regulate it.

Two, the jealousy of peers, which is an underrated evil.

Three, anxiety. One type emerges from people who are prone to it; they find newer and newer things to be anxious about. The other type of anxiety is unique to Western billionaires. This problem arises from the fact that they can’t be oppressed by humans. But then every human has a quota of oppression that they must endure to feel human. The only things that can oppress US billionaires are disease, insurrection, aliens and paranormal machines, the reason they tend to develop exaggeration notions of their dangers.

Their movement against AI, as with the movement against Facebook, will couch the disgruntlement and self-interest of a few in ethics. That is why the most amusing part of the letter is this: “Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks, and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth?" Such a question often emerges from those who are right in the middle of propaganda themselves and probably do not realise it. It is time to accept that human communication is almost entirely propaganda. If we spoke only facts, we’d mostly be silent.

“Society has hit pause on other technologies with potentially catastrophic effects on society," the letter says, citing human cloning, germ-line modification, gain-of-function research and eugenics. This is just not true. Humans have not made progress with controversial technologies not because of an ethical pause, but because the science was flawed or progress very hard. Human cloning has stalled chiefly because breakthroughs have been rare and its failure rates too high. Even nations like China, which are not restrained by Western ethical movements, have not made much progress. AI is past the stage when it can be controlled by activism. Not everything about this might be good, but the future is mostly going to be exciting.

The author asserts that this column has not been written by AI. Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, Decoupled.

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