The first and original AI doomer risk is that AI will decide to literally kill humanity.
The fear that technology of our own creation will rise up and destroy us is deeply coded into our culture. The Greeks expressed this fear in the Prometheus Myth – Prometheus brought the destructive power of fire, and more generally technology (“techne”), to man, for which Prometheus was condemned to perpetual torture by the gods. Later, Mary Shelley gave us moderns our own version of this myth in her novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, in which we develop the technology for eternal life, which then rises up and seeks to destroy us. And of course, no AI panic newspaper story is complete without a still image of a gleaming red-eyed killer robot from James Cameron’s Terminator films.
The presumed evolutionary purpose of this mythology is to motivate us to seriously consider potential risks of new technologies – fire, after all, can indeed be used to burn down entire cities. But just as fire was also the foundation of modern civilization as used to keep us warm and safe in a cold and hostile world, this mythology ignores the far greater upside of most – all? – new technologies, and in practice inflames destructive emotion rather than reasoned analysis. Just because premodern man freaked out like this doesn’t mean we have to; we can apply rationality instead.
My view is that the idea that AI will decide to literally kill humanity is a profound category error. AI is not a living being that has been primed by billions of years of evolution to participate in the battle for the survival of the fittest, as animals are, and as we are. It is math – code – computers, built by people, owned by people, used by people, controlled by people. The idea that it will at some point develop a mind of its own and decide that it has motivations that lead it to try to kill us is a superstitious handwave.
In short, AI doesn’t want, it doesn’t have goals, it doesn’t want to kill you, because it’s not alive. And AI is a machine – is not going to come alive any more than your toaster will.
Now, obviously, there are true believers in killer AI – Baptists – who are gaining a suddenly stratospheric amount of media coverage for their terrifying warnings, some of whom claim to have been studying the topic for decades and say they are now scared out of their minds by what they have learned. Some of these true believers are even actual innovators of the technology. These actors are arguing for a variety of bizarre and extreme restrictions on AI ranging from a ban on AI development, all the way up to military airstrikes on datacenters and nuclear war. They argue that because people like me cannot rule out future catastrophic consequences of AI, that we must assume a precautionary stance that may require large amounts of physical violence and death in order to prevent potential existential risk.
My response is that their position is non-scientific – What is the testable hypothesis? What would falsify the hypothesis? How do we know when we are getting into a danger zone? These questions go mainly unanswered apart from “You can’t prove it won’t happen!” In fact, these Baptists’ position is so non-scientific and so extreme – a conspiracy theory about math and code – and is already calling for physical violence, that I will do something I would normally not do and question their motives as well.
Specifically, I think three things are going on:
First, recall that John Von Neumann responded to Robert Oppenheimer’s famous hand-wringing about his role creating nuclear weapons – which helped end World War II and prevent World War III – with, “Some people confess guilt to claim credit for the sin.” What is the most dramatic way one can claim credit for the importance of one’s work without sounding overtly boastful? This explains the mismatch between the words and actions of the Baptists who are actually building and funding AI – watch their actions, not their words. (Truman was harsher after meeting with Oppenheimer: “Don’t let that crybaby in here again.”)
Second, some of the Baptists are actually Bootleggers. There is a whole profession of “AI safety expert”, “AI ethicist”, “AI risk researcher”. They are paid to be doomers, and their statements should be processed appropriately.
Third, California is justifiably famous for our many thousands of cults, from EST to the Peoples Temple, from Heaven’s Gate to the Manson Family. Many, although not all, of these cults are harmless, and maybe even serve a purpose for alienated people who find homes in them. But some are very dangerous indeed, and cults have a notoriously hard time straddling the line that ultimately leads to violence and death.
And the reality, which is obvious to everyone in the Bay Area but probably not outside of it, is that “AI risk” has developed into a cult, which has suddenly emerged into the daylight of global press attention and the public conversation. This cult has pulled in not just fringe characters, but also some actual industry experts and a not small number of wealthy donors – including, until recently, Sam Bankman-Fried. And it’s developed a full panoply of cult behaviors and beliefs.
This cult is why there are a set of AI risk doomers who sound so extreme – it’s not that they actually have secret knowledge that make their extremism logical, it’s that they’ve whipped themselves into a frenzy and really are…extremely extreme.
It turns out that this type of cult isn’t new – there is a longstanding Western tradition of millenarianism, which generates apocalypse cults. The AI risk cult has all the hallmarks of a millenarian apocalypse cult. From Wikipedia, with additions by me:
“Millenarianism is the belief by a group or movement [AI risk doomers] in a coming fundamental transformation of society [the arrival of AI], after which all things will be changed [AI utopia, dystopia, and/or end of the world]. Only dramatic events [AI bans, airstrikes on datacenters, nuclear strikes on unregulated AI] are seen as able to change the world [prevent AI] and the change is anticipated to be brought about, or survived, by a group of the devout and dedicated. In most millenarian scenarios, the disaster or battle to come [AI apocalypse, or its prevention] will be followed by a new, purified world [AI bans] in which the believers will be rewarded [or at least acknowledged to have been correct all along].”
This apocalypse cult pattern is so obvious that I am surprised more people don’t see it.
Don’t get me wrong, cults are fun to hear about, their written material is often creative and fascinating, and their members are engaging at dinner parties and on TV. But their extreme beliefs should not determine the future of laws and society – obviously not