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AI: Experts, Experts Everywhere, But Who Knows What To Think?
Every savant I follow is writing about Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). They all agree that AI will be a huge game-changer. Some think for the better, some for the worse. And those who say “worse” mean the end of humanity.
I wrote a post about AI a year ago. My two core beliefs have not changed:
1) The very effort to ponder AI makes me feel less intelligent. When I’ve read something written by an alarmist, I’m alarmed. But after I’ve read something by a skeptic of the alarmist view, I’m reassured. All I can do is seek self-congratulatory shelter in the famous lines below from Yeats:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
2) That said, I want humans involved in making decisions when the matter at hand is vital, let alone existential. There are cases of human intervention that prevented an accidental nuclear war. Below is one particularly close call during the Cuban Missile Crisis as cited and footnoted by Wikipedia:
28 October 1962
Before dawn a mistaken order was issued by Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to nuclear missile sites in Okinawa to launch all their nuclear missiles. None were launched. A team responsible for four missiles at Bolo Airfield in Yomitan reported that the order's codes were in order, but the local officer in charge did not trust the order, partly because only one of their four missiles was targeted on Russia, and he saw no logic why missiles would be launched against China too, and because readiness was at DEFCON 2, not DEFCON 1.
This incident shows that an AI need not be malevolent to cause an apocalypse. Rather, it is trusting in some artificial system at the expense of human common sense.
In my post on AI a year ago, I focused on a catastrophic event that did happen and was caused in part by the surrender of human agency to a system. The event was the start of World War One and the system was“War By Time Table,” as the historian A.J.P. Taylor felicitously called it.
Below is that part of my April, 2022 post italicized. (If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then self-imitation may be the most sincere form of laziness!)
World War One
From 1871, the end of the Franco-Prussian war, until 1914, there were no major wars in Europe. A long stretch of time for the war planners of the four major Continental powers (France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia) to think about how to prepare for a future war.
The conclusion by all the war planners was that the outcome of the next war would depend on gathering vast armies of men to fling at the enemy as quickly as possible.
The logistical task of gathering many millions of men, horses, and materiel from all over a country’s interior and transporting them to the frontier facing the likely enemy could only be done by railway, over many days, and with incredibly detailed timetables for what got moved where and when, hour by hour. This precision was necessary to achieve mobilization as quickly as possible. Ideally at least as quick if not quicker than your enemy.
“Dry runs” were not an option, given the vast scale of mobilization (not to mention alarming one’s opponents). This put even more of a premium on refinement of the logistical plans.
No allowance could be made for a pause. Once mobilization was a go, there would be no opportunity for diplomacy. War was certain.
Alliances were also important in the calculations of the great powers’ plans. Most relevantly, Germany and Austria- Hungary were allied and France and Russia were allied. Britain was nominally neutral, although tending to be against Germany in the British tradition of maintaining a balance of power on the Continent by opposing whichever Continental power was strongest.
While Germany was the strongest power, their plans had to account for a two front war–– France to their west and Russia to their east. So over decades, the German generals developed and refined the only war plan that made sense in a two front war. They would attack and overwhelm France first with a knock-out blow, sending most of the German army in a great “wheeling motion” through neutral Belgium. After France was beaten, they’d then turn to Russia, which would be the slowest to mobilize given a number of factors, including the vast expanse of the Russian Empire.
For Germany more than any other country, speed was the key and any hesitation fatal.
The event that precipitated the 1914 war was the assassination of Austria’s Crown Prince by Serbians. After about a month of various demarches and ultimatums, Austria took the fateful step of mobilizing against Serbia.
Russia, seeing itself as the protector of all Slavic nations, mobilized in response.
Once Russia mobilized, Germany was a prisoner of its plans. Decades of planning had convinced the German generals that their plan was the only way they could “win,” whereas failing to follow the plan was unthinkable as it would certainly lead to defeat.
The war fought between 1914 and 1918 killed about twenty million people. It was known as The Great War until, due to the Great War’s indecisive conclusion, two decades later the Second World War began, which killed about seventy million people.
What does this have to do with AI? I think of mobilization as similar to a software program. The generals may have created the plans and the intricate timetables, but once created, the plans and timetables were in charge of the generals. Once started, the mobilizations, one leading to the next, could not be stopped. The generals and the rulers had lost their human agency, which, as I understand it, is the great fear of uncontrolled AI.
The only thing I would add is that human agency can be voluntarily surrendered or, supposedly, our agency can be taken away surreptitiously by machines smarter than we are.
Smarter? Not so fast, says the 1960s!