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Monday, July 3, 2023

Is Avoiding Extinction from AI Really an Urgent Priority?

S. Lazar, J, Howard, & A. Narayanan
Originally posted 30 May 23

Here is an excerpt:

And why focus on extinction in particular? Bad as it would be, as the preamble to the statement notes AI poses other serious societal-scale risks. And global priorities should be not only important, but urgent. We’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and Russian aggression in Ukraine has made nuclear war an imminent threat. Catastrophic climate change, not mentioned in the statement, has very likely already begun. Is the threat of extinction from AI equally pressing? Do the signatories believe that existing AI systems or their immediate successors might wipe us all out? If they do, then the industry leaders signing this statement should immediately shut down their data centres and hand everything over to national governments. The researchers should stop trying to make existing AI systems safe, and instead call for their elimination.

We think that, in fact, most signatories to the statement believe that runaway AI is a way off yet, and that it will take a significant scientific advance to get there—one that we cannot anticipate, even if we are confident that it will someday occur. If this is so, then at least two things follow.

First, we should give more weight to serious risks from AI that are more urgent. Even if existing AI systems and their plausible extensions won’t wipe us out, they are already causing much more concentrated harm, they are sure to exacerbate inequality and, in the hands of power-hungry governments and unscrupulous corporations, will undermine individual and collective freedom. We can mitigate these risks now—we don’t have to wait for some unpredictable scientific advance to make progress. They should be our priority. After all, why would we have any confidence in our ability to address risks from future AI, if we won’t do the hard work of addressing those that are already with us?

Second, instead of alarming the public with ambiguous projections about the future of AI, we should focus less on what we should worry about, and more on what we should do. The possibly extreme risks from future AI systems should be part of that conversation, but they should not dominate it. We should start by acknowledging that the future of AI—perhaps more so than of pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change—is fundamentally within our collective control. We need to ask, now, what kind of future we want that to be. This doesn’t just mean soliciting input on what rules god-like AI should be governed by. It means asking whether there is, anywhere, a democratic majority for creating such systems at all.