Friday, December 1, 2023

On the Catastrophic Risk of AI

Earlier this week, I signed on to a short group statement, coordinated by the Center for AI Safety:

Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.

The press coverage has been extensive, and surprising to me. The New York Times headline is “A.I. Poses ‘Risk of Extinction,’ Industry Leaders Warn.” BBC: “Artificial intelligence could lead to extinction, experts warn.” Other headlines are similar.

I actually don’t think that AI poses a risk to human extinction. I think it poses a similar risk to pandemics and nuclear war—which is to say, a risk worth taking seriously, but not something to panic over. Which is what I thought the statement said.

In my talk at the RSA Conference last month, I talked about the power level of our species becoming too great for our systems of governance. Talking about those systems, I said:

Now, add into this mix the risks that arise from new and dangerous technologies such as the internet or AI or synthetic biology. Or molecular nanotechnology, or nuclear weapons. Here, misaligned incentives and hacking can have catastrophic consequences for society.

That was what I was thinking about when I agreed to sign on to the statement: “Pandemics, nuclear weapons, AI—yeah, I would put those three in the same bucket. Surely we can spend the same effort on AI risk as we do on future pandemics. That’s a really low bar.” Clearly I should have focused on the word “extinction,” and not the relative comparisons.

Seth Lazar, Jeremy Howard, and Arvind Narayanan wrote:

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—ne that we cannot anticipate, even if we are confident that it will someday occur. If this is so, then at least two things follow.

I agree with that, and with their follow up:

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.

This is what I wrote in Click Here to Kill Everybody (2018):

I am less worried about AI; I regard fear of AI more as a mirror of our own society than as a harbinger of the future. AI and intelligent robotics are the culmination of several precursor technologies, like machine learning algorithms, automation, and autonomy. The security risks from those precursor technologies are already with us, and they’re increasing as the technologies become more powerful and more prevalent. So, while I am worried about intelligent and even driverless cars, most of the risks arealready prevalent in Internet-connected drivered cars. And while I am worried about robot soldiers, most of the risks are already prevalent in autonomous weapons systems.

Also, as roboticist Rodney Brooks pointed out, “Long before we see such machines arising there will be the somewhat less intelligent and belligerent machines. Before that there will be the really grumpy machines. Before that the quite annoying machines. And before them the arrogant unpleasant machines.” I think we’ll see any new security risks coming long before they get here.

I do think we should worry about catastrophic AI and robotics risk. It’s the fact that they affect the world in a direct, physical manner—and that they’re vulnerable to class breaks.

(Other things to read: David Chapman is good on scary AI. And Kieran Healy is good on the statement.)

Okay, enough. I should also learn not to sign on to group statements.

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