While we were destroying our brain cells in noble political battles involving questions like whether the faithful should break their eggs at the big end or the little end, The Future of Life Institute, which among other things, monitors four major challenges to humanity (AI, biotechnology, nuclear threat and climate change), came up with an alarming open letter. Until the writing of these lines, the letter had garnered 1784 signatures including by the tech world giants like Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk. Following is an excerpt from the letter.
“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? Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilisation? Such decisions must not be delegated to unelected tech leaders. Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable. This confidence must be well justified and increase with the magnitude of a system’s potential effects.”
After these dire warnings and insightful questions, the letter by the institute headed by Max Tegmark, the author of Life 3.0, names what needs to be done — a six-month pause in the training and development of AI systems more powerful than GPT4. Six months. This piece is not mainly about AI development. It is about those six months and how we now think about months, not years, decades, or, heavens forbid, centuries. GPT4, the most advanced model so far, was launched by OpenAI, get this, this March. Yes, the month that just ended. As pointed out by Kal Pen recently, within weeks, it has gone from barely passing the bar exam to acing it. ChatGPT, the people’s chat-sized window into the GPT and AI world, is also less than a year old. What does it all mean? The dreaded age of acceleration is upon us.
But I get ahead of myself. What else did you notice in the above-quoted passage? The following question took me to another unhappy place. “Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us?” Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The Unite the Right Rally. One particular slogan by white supremacists: “You will not replace us; Jews will not replace us.” Despite their accidental rhyming, the two uses of “replace us” have totally different contexts. The Charlottesville bit is a product of misinformed garbage generated by the prejudiced minds of folks like Renaud Camus. The bit about AI is an informed outcome of severe queries about the human future. But you cannot deny that both result from uncertainty and fear. Also, the difference between the two contexts is the whole point here. The stark contrast between the digital and the analogue worlds. While the digital world braces for a shock directly resulting from its choices, the analogue world is an unwitting affectee of both these choices and shocks. So as one of them gets to choose, the other tries to figure out what hit it. Smartphones and automation have already rendered a sizeable part of the population unemployed. We do not know the actual scale of tech displacement because no instrument exists to take stock of such losses honestly on a global level. And because no capacity to appreciate these nuances is left in the analogue world, its movers and shakers mostly use the straw man fallacy to rationalise what is wrong with them. I bring up this difference between the two worlds because we are trapped in the analogue one, and judging by the debates engulfing this nation, I doubt if we can even spare time to look at the iceberg staring us in our faces.
Back to the question of acceleration. When in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler spoke about this acceleration, there was only marginal evidence. In the 1970s, the world might have appeared to be progressing fast, but none could relate to the rate Toffler was speaking about. His work was initially very well received. But as time passed and time did not accelerate as much as was predicted, people began to doubt, and today it is treated as a footnote in history. But what we are witnessing these days bears testimony to the fact that that acceleration was only delayed, not cancelled. And the sad part is that despite Toffler’s warnings, we have done precious little to prepare or defend ourselves for the future. This acceleration is unlikely to stop. And in due time, it will reach unsustainable levels for which the human body is not even designed. Of course, such acceleration will be different from what political accelerationists or religious nutjobs keep trying to bring, and consequently, it could be more horrid. Remember, death is a single-time event. But being near death and still surviving is even more onerous.
What we fear today was described by Toffler in another book, The Third Wave. He called it the shattering of the clockwork universe. I call it the collapse of the normal. Remember this remarkable tendency to normalise the strange. That is our default setting. Like a smartphone which automatically finds and logs onto a network. But what happens when the smartphone cannot find a network and keeps buffering? Same thing in our case. We try to normalise the new world, but it remains on the edge of our understanding, and we are exhausted by the attempts to adapt. The letter mentioned above is just an example of Colonel Nicholson shouting at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, “what have I done?” But that’s precisely the point of that scene. A simple fact that is lost on the movers and shakers of the tech and business world. Want to guess? No? Ok, here goes nothing: IT IS TOO LATE!
I do not think a civilisational collapse is a certainty. But let us look at the sources that could offer hope. Politicians, institutions, states and tech billionaires like Musk. Especially billionaires like Musk. You know you are doomed, mate. All you need to do is to look around and look at Twitter.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2023.