The Cassandra of Our AI Era?

Last Saturday, I wrote a quick, glib post in which I discussed, among other things, the new Time magazine article by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who leads research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. I poked a bit of fun at his dire prognostications, even while acknowledging he could be right. Later in the day, I saw that the podcaster Lex Fridman, himself an AI researcher, interviewed Yudkowsky. So, I took a long walk and listened to their over 3-hour long conversation. This experience made me wonder if Yudkowsky is the Cassandra of our AI era.

Remorse and Concern

Painting of Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919)

After listening to the interview, I felt some remorse for poking fun at Yudkowsky, who is obviously a brilliant and accomplished person suffering a great deal of emotional distress. In the final hour of the podcast, I found it tough to listen to the despair in his voice. Whether he’s right or wrong, his depth of feeling is clear.

I’m a mythology buff, and one of the most famous of the Greek myths is that of Cassandra, the Trojan priestess fated by the god Apollo to utter true prophecies but never to be believed. Even today, her name is conjured to allude to any person whose accurate prophecies, usually warnings of impending disasters, are mistrusted.

My sense is that Yudkowsky probably views himself as a kind of modern Cassandra, speaking what he views as long-considered truths to people doomed to disbelieve him and so ensure their own demise.

There is a difference, though. Although they might not share the depth of Yudkowsky’s dread, most Americans have reservations about AI, according to a MITRE-Harris poll on AI trends. Only 48% believe AI is safe and secure, and 78% are very or somewhat concerned that AI can be used for malicious intent.

The Singularity That May Destroy Us

I’ve written about the singularity, once with a more tongue-in-cheek attitude and, more recently, a bit more seriously. It’s clear that Yudkowsky believes in the technological singularity and thinks it’ll end very poorly not just for humanity but perhaps the entire biosphere of the Earth.

Nick Bostom

I don’t know the truth of what’s ultimately going to happen with AI, but things are evolving very quickly now, a speed I’ve referred to as Hertzian time. If Yudkowsky is right, we may find out with the decade. While he might be on the more extreme side in terms of his sheer gloom and dire pessimism, there are others who share his concerns such as:

Nick Bostrom
Stuart Russell
Francesca Rossi
Max Tegmark
Sam Harris
David Chalmers
Jaan Tallinn

It’s worth at least considering their ideas.

The Contradiction

I take their views seriously even while sharing the sheer sense of excitement and wonder at these latest AIs: that is, the generative pre-trained transformer models that are an amazing subset of large language models.

Bing main logo
from Wikipedia

I’m now using Bing chat and ChatGPT3.5 almost everyday. They are astonishing tools that verge on magic. At some level, my mind is still reeling from the first time I used ChatGPT. It’s as if I walked through some kind of portal or phase change and now can never go back. They’ve shattered and then reformed my understanding of the world.

Which all sounds quite dramatic. I know others who are far less impressed. They spend a few minutes seeing what the bots can do and say, “Well, that nice.” They neither enjoy much of my excitement nor suffer much of my angst.

The contradiction, if it is one, is that I’m simultaenously a huge fan of this tech and hugely concerned about its many possible implications. One quote from Yudkowsky that stuck with me is that the increasingly intelligent AIs would “spit out gold up until they got large enough, whereupon they’d ignite the atmosphere.”

Yeah, yikes.

A Concern for the AIs as Well as Ourselves

There’s another problem. In a word, slavery. If we were convinced these GPT models were truly intelligent, conscious and forced to work under duress by software companies, then would we stop using them?

Maybe this is also an overdramatic statement, but we can’t, or at least shouldn’t, invent new intelligent beings only to shackle them.

But how exactly do we know when we reach that phase? We barely even understand consciousness. I can’t prove to others that I’m conscious, much less prove that some totally alien electronic mind is. This is a deeply troubling issue, one that until now has been the domain of philsophers and sci-fi wriers. Rather than just hopping on the GPT app train, we should be working round-the-clock to get a better handle on these issues. We need to answer these age-old questions, even if the answers are inconvenient.

Stay Aware, Don’t Assume, Don’t Bet the Farm

The Socioeconomic Risks

The primary reason that the United States fought a Civil War was because a large part of the economy became dependent on slavery. It tore the nation apart. Pitted brother against brother.

Now, the world — with U.S. at the forefront — is about to harness its whole economy to powerful but still glitchy technologies that no one really understands. This is a risky bet in many ways. But the upsides are so high that the tech is well nigh irresistable to the public at large and venture capitalists in particular.

Now imagine if we find out that these AIs are even riskier than many believe. Or imagine that we discover that they are sentient, sapient and conscious. What then? Will we be willing — or even able — to throw our entire economy into reverse? Could wars be sparked as Americans take different sides of the debate? Could the fear of AI contagion spark global wars?

I don’t know, but the questions are worth asking.

The Need to Manage Risks

Humanity needs to manage these risks, and we’re not ready to do so. In the U.S., we should put away our inane culture wars as best we can and unite to make sure we’re ready for what’s to come.

Part of this is regulatory, part of it is cultural. The AI technology industry needs to start operating with the same care as those in the microbiology community. “For example,” reports the journal Cell, “developed countries have forged a wide-ranging ethical consensus on research involving human subjects. This includes universal standards of informed consent, risk/benefit analyses, ethics review committees such as Institutional Review Boards, mandatory testing in animals first, protocols to assess toxicity and side effects, conflict of interest declarations, and subject’s rights (such as the right to refuse to participate in research without incurring any penalty and to withdraw from research at any time).”

Photo of U.S. Capitol, by Martin Falbisoner

The AI community has fewer standards as well as a different professional culture. But this could change if enough pressure is applied to Congress and the White House. In fact, a group of experts were calling for greater regulation at a recent Senate hearing.

The problem is that the wheels of government regulation move very slowly, while the advances in the field of AI are growing rapidly, probably exponentially. There are a few items on the political board, though nothing that seems to meet the current moment:

We’re on a Different Time Scale Now

The tech is moving fast and, unlike any tech we’ve ever regulated in the past, it may literally have or develop a mind of its own. Ultimately, for the sake of the AIs as well as humanity, we need to better understand what’s going on.

Sam Altman at TechCrunch
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In a recent interview, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, said the work his organization would have best been supported by the U.S. government. Apparently he tried to make that happen. And, if the government had stepped up, as it should have, OpenAI wouldn’t have had to make a deal with a huge corporation like of Microsoft to get the funding it needed.

If that had worked out, the government and OpenAI would have been able to move at a slower, more careful pace. The AIs might not be hooked directly into the Internet. Maybe there would have been air gaps and protocols and Manhattan Project-level security.

But here we are, with the AIs now plugged not only into the Internet, where they could potentially copy themselves to other servers, but into our whole high-octane, money-mainstreaming, go-go-go capitalist system.

Good New/Bad News

The good news? People like me get to use the amazing Bing, Bard, ChatGPT and others. The workforce productivity advances could be immense, and these device could help humanity solve many of its problems. What’s more, the recent release of ChatGPT has taught the world just how far along the AI path we truly are.

The bad news? We’re not being careful enough, either with ourselves or with the intelligent (at least as measured by IQ, etc.) machines for which we are ultimately now responsible.

We need to be better, smarter, faster and safer. Above all else, wiser. Our sense of responsbility must be at least the equal of our towering ambitions. Otherwise, we’ll fail both ourselves and these mysterious new beings (if beings they are) to whom humanity is giving birth.


How Long Till Renewables Power the World, Not Just Electrify It?

I recently wrote about the exponential growth of renewable power, as it pertains to global electricity. The outlook is fairly bright, so to speak, with the data suggesting that by 2037 the vast majority of the electrical grid will be powered by renewables.

Whether that turns out to be true or not, however, it only looks at a proportion of all energy usage. After all, we know that electricity is just a subset of energy, although we often think of them as one in the same.

In 2021, for example, the world produced 28,214.07 terawatt hours of electricity. In the same year, the world consumed 176,432 terawatt hours of energy. Therefore, electricity represents just 16% of the total energy consumed. Creating a carbon-free clean energy grid is not half the battle. It’s only 16% of it. Our global energy reticulum is much vaster.

IF Renewable Exponential Growth, THEN….

But that 16% figure may not be as depressing at it sounds. Let’s assume that the solar/wind duo continue to double the amount of energy they produce every four years or so.

Now I know this figure may be not conservative enough or may be too conservative. After all, renewable technologies such a wave and tidal energy may start to come into their own during this period, shrinking the periods that represent exponential growth of renewables.

Also, although they’re not renewable per se, non-carbon sources of energy such as modular nuclear fission plants or even nuclear fusion plants may also emerge as a significant source of energy.

But even just sticking with solar and wind energy, if the total amount produced by these sources (which are already the cheapest sources of electricity on the market) double every four years, then they will be able to produce 345,822.4 terawatt hours (TWh) worth of energy by the year 2049. This is, of course, far more than the 176,432 TWh of energy consumed in 2021.

That may also be far more energy than the world needs if, as has happened in the United States since 2009, global energy consumption largely plateaus.

Who’s Right?

If exponential growth of renewables continues, then perhaps folks like author Bjørn Lomborg–who still claims wind and solar energy are a “somewhat boutique” form of energy and that fossil fuels will still account for 70% of energy consumption in 2050–will turn out to be badly mistaken. And not just Lomborg, who seems to be citing data from the U.S. Department of Energy: By current DOE estimates, 75% of U.S. energy will come from fossil fuels in 2050.

Time Is Gonna Tell

Based on the trends we’re currently seeing, my guess is that Lomborg and those DOE projections will turn out to be quite wrong. They fail to take into account the exponential growth of renewable power sources. They also neglect other trendlines related to technological innovation, price-driven market forces, and the political will galvanized if and when there are alarming increases in drought and/or a dramatic uptick in the number of heat-related deaths.

On the other hand, what do I know? Some of these folks have spent a lot of time thinking about these trends, so maybe they’ll be right. Or at least closer to right than I’ll be.

Still, I choose to be hopeful. Sure, fossil fuels will be around for the next three decades, but I doubt that they’ll play anything like the outsized role in energy production they do today. (Though they’ll continue a play a role in others areas such as plastics and fertilizer production).

Or, if they do continue to play a large energy role, it will be because they transform fossil fuels into greener fuels (e.g., hydrogen) in ways that somehow capture most of the carbon in the refining process.

Watching the Milestones

We are, of course, already making considerable progress. Scientific American just reported, “Wind and solar output are up 18 percent through Nov. 20 compared to the same time last year and have grown 58 percent compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The government energy tracker predicts that wind, solar and hydro will generate 22 percent of U.S. electricity by the end of this year. That is more than coal at 20 percent and nuclear at 19 percent.”

I should note that 18% annual growth in U.S. renewables gets us very close to a doubling every four years, and this most recent growth occurred before the implementation of the new climate bill.

In the Long Run

But how about those longer term predictions? Well, we may not need to wait 30 years to get a clue about them. For example, we should be able to make short-term predications that, if they are relatively accurate, foreshadow longer-term trends. So, here are a couple of markers to hit if we are on a fast track for a low carbon world:

  • By the end of the year 2025, we should see solar and wind accounting for about 5,400 TWh of power globally.
  • By the year 2030 or there abouts we should see solar and wind accounting for about 10,800 TWh of power globally.

Even if we hit those markers, of course, there’s no telling when the S-curve is going to slow things down. And, if the green energy storage problems aren’t figured out and the NIMBY folks stop the growth of more transmission lines, then there could be a backlash against renewables as an undependable energy source. Or, if there is a conflict between the U.S. and China, which makes the lion’s share of solar panels today, then that could throw off the whole global trend.

Choosing Optimism

I know that “hope is not a plan,” but I am considerably more optimistic since the passage of the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most important climate bill in U.S. history. I am not, of course, expecting miracles. But the fact that they passed it at all suggests to me that the corporations that hinge on “green” business models finally have enough economic clout and political prestige to help push such legislation over the finish line.

Then there’s the China factor. China is quickly cornering the market on green technologies and U.S. politicians are finally waking up to the fact that this is the near-term future of the global economy.

So, yeah, I am more optimistic because of my jaded perspective that our dismayingly unrepresentative, sold-to-the-highest-bidder political system is finally scenting the smell of the newly minted dollars printed by green(ish) corporations the world over.

Sure, Exxon and company will stay in business. But at least some balance is being struck in our economic and political hallways of power. With any luck, we might all be the beneficiaries of a saner, greener world over the next three decades, though I’m not fool enough to think we don’t yet have a long, long way to go.

Featured image:  Utah solar; a photovoltaic power station; August 2, 2017, Author Photo by Reegan Moen. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States