In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In it, he outlined and explained the emergence of an incredible new technology that he felt had the power to change the world, in good ways and bad. The technology was nuclear power, which was then just emerging from academic laboratories in Europe. Einstein wanted the President to know just how existential an issue atom-splitting was. Roosevelt, recognizing that an unbidden letter from the most famous scientist in the world was not an everyday occurrence, considered Einstein’s comments fully, and duly set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium.
Fast-forward to 1945, and the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan.
Twelve years later, Britain’s most famous professor of the time, Bertrand Russell, was among the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization established to rid the world of not just nuclear weapons but also nuclear technology, period. CND, whose logo (an artistic rendering of the semaphore signals for the letters N and D) became an iconic worldwide symbol of peace, was at the forefront of generations of protest that continue to this day.
Last year, the British government passed legislation that committed trillions of pounds sterling to the next generation of nuclear submarines.
Second Verse, Same as the First
Now let’s look at a similar storyline emerging in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). In 2009, a research project at the University of Illinois – ImageNet – began attracting attention in the press. The project team demonstrated that machine learning technology had become proficient at identifying objects in pictures without human intervention. AI, long thought of as literally an academic exercise and the source of literary and cinematic fever dreams, was suddenly real.
Five years later, Britain’s most famous current professor, Stephen Hawking, stated that AI “could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.”
At the time of this writing, the biggest, most successful, most powerful companies in the world are all “AI first” and have – at incredible speed – injected AI into their core business operations, with dramatic (positive) financial consequences.
It was with that as a backdrop that I listened to leaders from “the Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google), the major Chinese Internet companies and top universities share their views on the new AI-dominated age at last week’s New York Times “Leading in the Age of AI” conference in Half Moon Bay, CA. All of them – bar one – spoke of wondrous achievement and amazing possibilities ahead through AI – of curing cancer, spreading high-quality healthcare into the developing world, modernizing manufacturing capabilities, creating education systems fit for the 21st century.
And yet, it was the single executive who did not speak in excited tones about the wonders of AI who captured the attention of conference attendees.
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, said that the social media companies (well-represented in “the Four”) were akin to cigarette manufacturers. Facebook Messenger for Kids, he noted, to widespread recognition in the room, was like the cigarette-shaped candy that the tobacco giants of the 1950s and 1960s developed to build the habits – and profit streams – of a lifetime.
Benioff’s comments galvanized the mood of the attendees. And from a gathering of the brightest stars in the tech universe, the event suddenly turned into a gloomy and extended gaze into the navel of the digital revolution.
And Yet Another Call for Disarmament
By now, I trust, my historical analogy is becoming clear. Prominent tech leader after prominent tech leader is coming out and saying, just as Einstein did about nuclear technology, that AI-fueled digital technology has a very real downside.
My expectation is that just as the CND emerged after the development of nuclear technology, we will imminently see the establishment of a Campaign for Digital Disarmament (CDD) as the techlash – building for some and now on full display – hardens and organizes. Bodies such as Open AI and the Partnership on AI – both present at the New York Times event – are sort of that, but are more in my mind like the academic conclaves that discussed nuclear technology out of the public eye in the 1940s and 1950s before the issue fully exploded (probably not the right word) into the public discourse with Russell’s initiative.
I imagine CDD will set out an aggressive agenda of defanging Facebook and Twitter through extensive regulation around user profile transparency, data ownership and portability, high-profile prosecutions of abusive and nefarious actors on the platforms, heavy fines to the service providers themselves if they can’t police activities on their platforms, and a raft of other measures. I imagine CDD will be led by a high-profile tech player who proclaims that Dodge needs cleaning up and “I’m the sheriff to do it.” It’s not hard to imagine likely candidates musing on running for that office, before they run for the highest one. Rewind four paragraphs for a clue.
The CDD of my imaginings will tap a zeitgeist of fear and anxiety that increasingly builds from the notion that there’s nothing as expensive as a free lunch, especially when you’re the product. CDD will, I foresee, become the lightning rod around which the techlash organizes itself.
There’s No Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle
And yet, though CDD will have an impact (in the way that CND undoubtedly played a role in pushing the U.S. to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969 and to reductions in the overall size of the nuclear stockpile), the cause of digital disarmament will ultimately go nowhere.
The bomb from the Enola Gay was dropped. Trident is being renewed. AI will be 100% central to ending cancer. AI will be 100% central to the next waves of major growth, opportunity and renewal around the world. AI research, development and deployment will not be stopped. AI will destroy jobs. AI will create jobs.
AI is here to stay.
A body such as CDD could have a very important role to play in helping set the rules of the road for the next phase of the development of the information superhighway. That will be a good thing, is necessary and is to be welcomed.
But the idea of fully disarming – unilaterally or multilaterally – seems unimaginable, and also misguided.
The techlash has a ways to run. In fact, it may be the prevailing mood for some time. To extrapolate, though, that tech is over – that AI can be put back in the bottle (that the atom can be unsplit) – is misreading the moment of history we’re in.
Einstein died in 1955, disillusioned by his inability to bend the will of the military-industrial complex in the same way that, in his imagination and on the blackboard, he could bend light. Likewise, Russell went to his grave in 1970, terrified that his children and grandchildren would soon join him in the afterlife following a nuclear catastrophe.
Of course, maybe ultimately they’ll be proven right, given rising global tensions and the hair-trigger predilections of some global leaders.
But I doubt it. Just as I doubt that AI will fulfill its doomsday prophecy.
AI as Problem. AI as Fix.
More likely, and in an irony that seemed lost at the conference, AI will be key to making digital what we all want it to be – a force for growth, for inclusion, for security and for opportunity. AI may have been involved in the poisoning of the digital well, but AI will also be core to cleaning it up.
As the OG of AI Andrew Ng put it, “AI is the new electricity” (another irony, as lots of electricity comes from nuclear power plants). Just as no business could run without electricity, Ng suggested, soon, no business will be able to run without AI.
So, my takeaway from two days of more wondering about What To Do When Machines Do Everything was: Look out for the CDD. They’re coming to a town near you. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk will draw quite a crowd. I’ll look for you on the march. I’ll wave. Good for you. But I won’t be joining you. Nuclear technology – despite its downsides – is still with us. And AI will be with us long after we (you and I) are finished hanging with Bertie and Al.
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