In the United States, a country that came of age with the Industrial Revolution, progress and the advance of technology have been so closely associated that many of us have trouble imagining one without the other. Nuclear weapons are perhaps the only American invention most of us really regret, and even those are regarded as historically inevitable and not without benefit as a deterrent to another world war. In any case, we are told (or tell ourselves), you can’t turn back the clock. Or stop it.
Now another, less obviously destructive invention threatens to disrupt our lives no less profoundly than the Bomb did. Artificial Intelligence (AI) appears to be on the brink of remaking our economy, our politics, and perhaps civilization as we know it. Its boosters predict that AI may soon be able to cure diseases such as cancer and mitigate, if not reverse, the effects of climate change. This, they explain, will be the first human invention capable of inventing things we could never invent for ourselves—things that promise to make our lives longer, easier, and more enjoyable. All we have to do is get out of its way.
But other experts say that is the one thing we must not do: if we want AI to serve us, they warn, we will have to make sure that we remain in control of it, which may be more difficult than it sounds. Last year, a survey of AI researchers found that half of them believe there is at least a 10 percent chance that future AI systems will cause the extinction or subjugation of the human race. Most people would probably steer clear of anything that had a 10 percent chance of killing or crippling them, but our tech sector and defense industry seem to be rushing heedlessly toward AI, afraid that, if they don’t, our geopolitical rivals will beat them to it. In retrospect, this may come to look less like the Cold War’s race to the moon than like a blindfolded foot race over a cliff.