I recently watched this video
from the Center for Humane Technology
. At one point during the presentation, the presenters stop and ask everyone in the audience to join them in taking a deep breath. There is no irony. Nobody laughs. I don’t mind admitting that at that point I wanted to cry.
Back in the year 2000, I can remember exactly where I was when I read Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. I was in my first year of work after I graduated from university, commuting to the office on a Northern Line tube train, totally absorbed in the text. The impact of the article was massive — the issue of Wired that came out two months later contained multiple pages dedicated to emails, letters and faxes that they had received in response:
James G. Callaway, CEO, Capital Unity Network: Just read Joy’s warning in Wired – went up and kissed my kids while they were sleeping.
The essay even has its own Wikipedia page. The article has been with me ever since, and I keep coming back to it. The AI Dilemma video made me go back and read it once again.
OpenAI released ChatGPT at the end of last year. I have never known a technology to move so quickly to being the focus of everyone’s attention. It pops up in meetings, on podcasts, in town hall addresses, in webinars, in email newsletters, in the corridor. It’s everywhere. ‘ChatGPT’ has already become an anepronym for large language models (LLMs) as a whole — artificial intelligence models designed to understand and generate natural language text. As shown in the video, it is the fastest growing consumer application in history. A few months later, Microsoft announced CoPilot, an integration of the OpenAI technology into the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. At work, we watched the preview video with our eyes turning into saucers and our jaws on the floor.
Every day I seem to read about new AI-powered tools. You can use plain language to develop Excel spreadsheet formulas. You can accelerate your writing and editing. The race is on to work out how we can use the technology. The feeling is that we have do to it — and have to try to do it before everybody else does — so that we can gain some competitive advantage. It is so compelling. I’m already out of breath. But something doesn’t feel right.
My dad left school at 15. But his lack of further education was made up for by his fascination with in the world. His interests were infectious. As a child I used to love it when we sat down in front of the TV together, hearing what he had to say as we watched. Alongside David Attenborough documentaries on the natural world and our shared love of music through Top of The Pops, one of our favourite shows was Tomorrow’s World. It was fascinating. I have vivid memories of sitting there, finding out about compact discs and learning about how information could be sent down fibre optic cables. I was lucky to be born in the mid-1970s, at just the right time to benefit from the BBC Computer Literacy Project which sparked my interest in computers. When I left school in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t believe my luck that the Internet and World Wide Web had turned up as I was about to start my adult life. Getting online and connecting with other people blew my mind. In 1995 I turned 18 and felt I needed to take some time off before going to university. I landed on my feet with a temporary job at a telecommunications company, being paid to learn HTML and to develop one of the first intranet sites. Every day brought something new. I was in my element. Technology has always been exciting to me.
Watching The AI Dilemma gave me the complete opposite feeling to those evenings I spent watching Tomorrow’s World with my dad. As I took the deep breaths along with the presenters, I couldn’t help but think about my two teenage boys and what the world is going to look like for them. I wonder if I am becoming a luddite in my old age. I don’t know; maybe. But for the first time I do feel like an old man, with the world changing around me in ways I don’t understand, and an overwhelming desire to ask it to slow down a bit.
Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists; we have long been driven by the overarching desire to know that is the nature of science’s quest, not stopping to notice that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies can take on a life of its own. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]
I’ve had conversations about the dangers of these new tools with colleagues and friends who work in technology. My initial assessment of the threat posed to an organisation was that this has the same risks as any other method of confidential data accidentally leaking out onto the Internet. Company staff shouldn’t be copying and pasting swathes of internal text or source code into a random web tool, e.g. asking the system for improvements to what they have written, as they would effectively be giving the information away to the tool’s service provider, and potentially anyone else who uses that tool in the future. This alone is a difficult problem to solve. For example, most people do not understand that email isn’t a guaranteed safe and secure mechanism for sending sensitive data. Even they do think about this, their need to get a thing done can outweigh any security concerns. Those of us with a ‘geek mindset’ who believe we are good at critiquing new technologies, treading carefully and pointing out the flaws are going to be completely outnumbered by those who rush in and start embracing the new tools without a care in the world.
The AI Dilemma has made me realise that I’ve not been thinking hard enough. The downside risks are much, much greater. Even if we do not think that there will soon be a super intelligent, self-learning, self-replicating machine coming after us, we are already in an era where we can no longer trust anything we see or hear. Any security that relies on voice matching should now be considered to be broken. Photographs and videos can’t be trusted. People have tools that can give them any answer, good or bad, for what they want to achieve, with no simple or easy way for a responsible company to filter the responses. We are giving children the ability to get advice from these anthropomorphised systems, without checking how the systems are guiding them. The implications for society are profound.
Joy’s article was concerned with three emerging threats — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech. Re-reading the article in 2023, I think that ‘robotics’ is shorthand for ‘robotics and AI’.
The 21st-century technologies—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)—are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]
The video gives us guidance of “3 Rules of Technology”:
- When you invent a new technology, you uncover a new class of responsibilities [— think about the need to have laws on ‘the right to be forgotten’ now that all of our histories can be surfaced via search engines; the need for this law was much less pronounced before we were all online]
- If the tech confers power, it starts a race [— look at how Microsoft, Google et al have been getting their AI chatbot products out into the world following the release of ChatGPT, without worrying too much about whether they are ready or not]
- If you do not coordinate, the race ends in tragedy.
It feels like the desire to be the first to harness the power and wealth from utilising these new tools is completely dominating any calls for caution.
Nearly 20 years ago, in the documentary The Day After Trinity, Freeman Dyson summarized the scientific attitudes that brought us to the nuclear precipice:
“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles—this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]
Over the years, what has stuck in my mind the most from Joy’s article is how the desire to experiment and find out can override all caution (emphasis mine):
We know that in preparing this first atomic test the physicists proceeded despite a large number of possible dangers. They were initially worried, based on a calculation by Edward Teller, that an atomic explosion might set fire to the atmosphere. A revised calculation reduced the danger of destroying the world to a three-in-a-million chance. (Teller says he was later able to dismiss the prospect of atmospheric ignition entirely.) Oppenheimer, though, was sufficiently concerned about the result of Trinity that he arranged for a possible evacuation of the southwest part of the state of New Mexico. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]
There is some hope. We managed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to a handful of countries. But developing a nuclear weapon is a logistically difficult process. Taking powerful software and putting it out in the world — not so much.
The new Pandora’s boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can’t be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don’t need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]
The future seems increasingly obscured to me, with so much uncertainty. As the progress of these technologies accelerates, I feel less and less sure of what is just around the corner.