On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris met with the chief executives of Alphabet, parent of Google; Microsoft; Anthropic, an AI safety firm; and OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT. The purpose was to review the risks associated with artificial intelligence (AI) development.
Given the stark opinions of experts on the destructive potential of AI, we cannot afford a failure of imagination.
Having the vice president conduct such meeting was a bad signal, and it projects a blasé and casual mentality about an emerging phenomenon that is potentially devastating but not well understood. The meeting should have been chaired by Arati Prabhakar, Ph.D., director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, also known as the science adviser to the president. While not in possession of the name recognition of Harris, the science adviser to the president has distinguished credentials in applied physics, and she was earlier the director of DARPA, a Pentagon agency charged with developing new technologies for the U.S. military.
The seriousness of the situation and how it is viewed demands leadership and coordination by a subject matter expert, which Harris is not. Several years ago, professor Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge, one of the most brilliant physicists in history, said that AI could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization.”
Last November, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke of the peril of AI, warning that, if left unchecked, it would become “simply a mad race for some catastrophe.” Kissinger, who will be 100 years old on May 27, has spent much of his career concerned with threat definition.
In mid-March, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, expressed concern that AI could be used for disinformation and cyberattacks. He also noted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disturbing comment some years ago that the leader in AI would “rule the world.”
Later in March, over 1,000 technology experts and researchers — including Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and Twitter who has called for regulation of AI, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple — signed a letter warning that AI represented “profound risks to society and humanity,” asking for a six-month pause on further development.
Several days ago, Geoffrey Hinton, formerly of Google and known as a “Godfather of AI,” characterized AI as an existential threat; Hinton reportedly left Google so that he could speak freely about the perils of AI. Also earlier this week, Sir Patrick Vallance, formerly the British chief science adviser, warned that the impact of AI could be as profound as the Industrial Revolution, and that national mobilization was necessary.
Grim speculation has it that AI could potentially start a nuclear war, create pandemics, and even define humanity as a threat and then turn on it. Others have even gone so far as to speculate that as AI takes over, the human brain will atrophy due to nonuse. This conjures up the image of the brain-dead Eloi in The Time Machine, a film released in 1960 based on the 1895 science fiction work of H.G. Wells.
It is no secret that the vice president has not evidenced traction in her job, and some members of her own party are concerned with her apparent lack of political skills. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren has implied misgivings. It is well known that Harris was given the Mexico border security portfolio yet gave it little attention, calling the border “secure” last September. However, the Council on Foreign Relations reports over 1.6 million illegal crossings in the fiscal year ended that month. Furthermore, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has advised that of the millions of illegal border crossings, 1.2 million illegals “got away” during the Biden administration. Indeed, the situation is so bad that the Biden administration is planning on sending 1,500 active-duty troops to the border next week, as Title 42 lapses.
With this record on border security, one wonders why Harris, known for flippancy and simplistic speech, has been assigned to meet with leading AI experts on a subject requiring science credentials, vision, and imagination. The British tabloid Daily Mail is already lampooning Harris as the “AI czar,” with a budget of only $140 million.
As I have written in The American Spectator, a failure of imagination has indeed characterized American public policy. Examples include supporting China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the preface to 9/11, removal of a Sunni regime in Baghdad and the subsequent ISIS backlash, and underestimating the resolve and capability of the Afghan Taliban.
Given the stark opinions of experts on the destructive potential of AI, we cannot afford a failure of imagination, nor can we allow a fragmentation of effort within the U.S. government and private sector. Leadership and science credentials are needed to mobilize and coordinate a U.S. and global initiative to wisely manage AI — so that humanity manages it, not vice versa.
The word salads of Harris are yet another phenomenon, and it may require AI to unscramble them.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces.
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