The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

AI and the Fate of the World

Richard Heinberg

Everyone does agree that Artificial Intelligence [AI] represents a qualitative as well as a quantitative shift in technological development. It’s not just an improved computer with more speed and power, but a software architecture that enables computers to teach themselves how to learn, and to continually improve and expand their abilities. AI systems now write computer code, making them, in a sense, self-generating. AI is essentially a “black box” from which thought-like output emerges; people can’t figure out why and how it does what it does after the fact. Further, AI systems learn from each other almost instantly, taking in vastly more information than any human can. A crucial threshold will be reached with the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI), which could accomplish any intellectual task humans perform, and greatly exceed human abilities in at least some respects—and which, crucially, could set its own goals. Already, computers can defeat any human chess grand master.

Some AI risks are fairly obvious. Machines will increasingly replace information workers, destroying white-collar jobs (full disclosure: this article was not written by AI, though this writer did use Google and Bing for research). Inevitably, AI will enrich owners and developers of the technology while others will shoulder the social costs, resulting in more societal wealth inequality. The proliferation of deepfake images, audio, and text will make it increasingly difficult to tell what’s true and what isn’t, further distorting present-day politics. And a dramatic expansion of computer number crunching will likely demand more overall energy usage (though not everyone agrees on this point).

Then, there is the prospect of accidents. Every new technology, from the automobile to the nuclear power plant, has seen them. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bill Drexel and Hannah Kelley argue that an AI accident crippling the global financial system or unleashing a devastating bioweapon might most readily happen in China, because that country is poised to lead the world in AI development but seems utterly unconcerned about risks surrounding the technology.

Even if it works exactly as intended, AI will enable already powerful people to do more things, and do them faster. And some powerful people tend to be selfish and abusive. Cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton, who is sometimes called the “godfather of AI,” recently quit Google. In subsequent interviews with multiple news outlets, including the New York Times and BBC, Hinton explained: “You can imagine, for example, some bad actor decided to give robots the ability to create their own sub-goals.” One of these sub-goals might be, “I need to get more power.”

However, Hinton chose not to endorse another recent open letter, this one calling for a six-month pause in the training of all AI systems (though many of his colleagues in the AI development community did sign on). Hinton explained that, despite its risks, AI promises too many good things to put it on hold. Among those likely benefits: potential advances in pharmaceuticals, including cures for cancer and other diseases; improvements in renewable energy technologies; more accurate weather forecasts; and a greatly increased understanding of climate change.

High school and college students are already resorting to OpenAI’sChatGPT to write their term papers (savvy students give their computer-generated papers a quick re-write in order to defeat AI-detection software that teachers are now using). Unfortunately for students, their computer-generated papers tend to be riddled with fake quotes and sources. A lawyer representing a client who was suing an airline recently used ChatGPT to write his legal briefs; however, it later turned out that the AI had “hallucinated” every one of the legal precedents it cited. Automobile manufacturers are building cars with more AI-based self-driving functions. Microsoft, Google, and other tech companies are rolling out AI “personal assistants.” Militaries are investing heavily in AI to make superior weapons, to plan better battle strategies, and even to shape long-term geopolitical goals. Thousands of independent computer labs run by corporations and governments are developing AI for a constantly widening array of purposes. In sum, AI is already far along its initial learning curve.

AI’s potential perils are not limited to lost jobs, fake news, and hallucinated facts. There is another profound risk that is getting little press coverage—one that, systems thinkers should be discussing more widely. That is the likelihood that AI will be a significant accelerator of everything humans are already doing.

Neoliberal economists hail the Great Acceleration as a success story, but its bills are just starting to come due. Industrial agriculture is destroying Earth’s topsoil at a rate of tens of billions of tons per year. Wild nature is in retreat, with animal species having lost, on average, 70 percent of their numbers in the past half-century. And people are altering the planetary climate in ways that will have catastrophic repercussions for future generations. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole human enterprise has grown too big, and that it is turning nature (“resources”) into waste and pollution far too quickly to sustain itself. The evidence suggests people need to slow down, and, in some cases at least, reverse course by reducing population, consumption, and waste.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has a simple solution: shut down all AI development immediately. Stop all research and deployment through an emergency international agreement.

[Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, including his most recent: “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival” (2021). Originally published by]

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Vol 56, No. 6, Aug 6 - 12, 2023