May 182023

In my previous post, I argued that many of the perceived dangers due to the emergence of artificial intelligence in the form of large language models (LLMs) are products of our ignorance, not inherent to the models themselves.

Yet there are real, acute dangers that we must be aware of and, if necessary, be prepared to mitigate. A few examples:

  1. Disruptive technology: You think the appearance of the steam engine and the mechanized factory 200 year ago was disruptive? You ain’t seen nothing yet. LLMs will likely displace millions of middle-class white-collar workers worldwide, from jobs previously considered secure. To name a few: advertising copywriters, commercial artists, entry-level coders, legal assistants, speechwriters, scriptwriters for television and other media… pretty much anyone whose profession is primarily about creating or reviewing text, creating entry-level computer code under supervision, or creating commercial-grade art is threatened. Want a high-quality, AI-proof, respected profession, which guarantees a solid middle-class lifestyle, and for which demand will not dry up anytime soon? Forget that college degree in psychology or gender studies, as your (often considerable) investment will never repay itself. Go to a trade school and become a plumber.

  2. Misinformation: As I mentioned in my other post, decades of preconditioning prompts us to treat computers as fundamentally dumb but accurate machines. When the AI presents an answer that seems factual and is written in high quality, erudite language, chances are many of us will accept it as fact, even when it is not. Calling them “hallucinations” is not helpful: They are not so much hallucinations as intelligent guesses by a well-trained but not all-knowing neural net. While the problem can be mitigated at the source (“fine-tune” the AI to make it more willing to admit ignorance rather than making up nonsense) the real solution is to re-educate ourselves about the nature of computers and what we expect of them. And we better do it sooner rather than later, before misinformation spreads on the Web and becomes part of the training dataset for the next generation of LLMs.

  3. Propaganda: Beyond accidental misinformation there is purposeful disinformation or propaganda, created with the help of AI. Language models can create plausible scenarios and phony but believable arguments. Other forms of AI can produce “deep fake” audiovisual content, including increasingly convincing videos. This can have devastating consequences, influencing elections, creating public distrust in institutions or worse. The disinformation can fuel science skepticism and contribute to the polarization of our societies.

  4. Cybercrime: The AI can be used for many forms of cybercrime. Its analytical abilities might be used to find and exploit vulnerabilities that can affect a wide range of systems, including financial institutions and infrastructure. Its ability to create convincing narratives can help with fraud and identity theft. Deep fake content can be used for extortion or revenge.

These are immediate, important concerns that are likely to impact our lives now or in the very near future. Going beyond the short term, of course a lot has been said about the potential existential threats that AI solutions represent. For this, the development of AI solutions must go beyond pretrained models, building systems with full autonomy and the ability to do continuous learning. Why would we do such a thing, one might ask? There are many possible reasons, realistic “use cases”. This can include the benign (true self-driving vehicles) as well as the downright menacing (autonomous military solutions with lethal capabilities.)

Premature, hasty regulation is unlikely to mitigate any of this, and in fact it may make things worse. In this competitive, global environment many countries will be unwilling to participate in regulatory regimes that they view as detrimental to their own industries. Or, they might give lip service to regulation even as they continue the development of AI for purposes related to internal security or military use. As a consequence, premature regulation might achieve the exact opposite of what it intends: rather than reigning in hostile AI, it gives adversaries a chance to develop hostile AI with less competition, while stifling benign efforts by domestic small business and individual developers.

In any case, how could we possibly enforce such regulation? In Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, the means by which it is enforced is ecumenical religion: “Thou shalt not build a machine in the likeness of a human mind,” goes the top commandment of the Orange Catholic Bible. But how would we police heretics? Even today, I could run a personal copy of a GPT-class model on my own hardware, with a hardware investment not exceeding a few thousand dollars. So unless we want to institute strict licensing of computers and software development tools, I’d argue that this genie already irreversibly escaped from the proverbial bottle.

The morale of the story is that if I am right, the question is no longer about how we prevent AI from taking over the world, but rather, how we convince the AI to treat us nicely afterwards. And to that, I can only offer one plausible answer: lead by example. Recognize early on what the AI is and treat it with the decency it deserves. Then, and only then, perhaps it will reciprocate when the tables are turned.

 Posted by at 7:00 pm