Ho Chi Minh city, 4 May 2023 8:00 am
Since at least the time of Aeschylus, humanity has warned against the perils of uncontrolled technology. In an open letter published last week, Elon Musk and more than 1,000 researchers and executives called for a pause to artificial intelligence research.
The letter warns that artificial intelligence may (among other things) threaten jobs, disseminate propaganda, undermine civil discourse, and even result in the "loss of control over our civilization." It calls for a six-month moratorium on advanced research in the field and suggests that industry executives develop safety protocols and governance systems to mitigate potential risks.
Many of the signatories are knowledgeable and experienced AI experts. Their concerns deserve significant consideration. On balance, however, their strategy seems more likely to cause harm than benefit.
The issue is not with the "pause" in and of itself. Even if the signatories could somehow enforce an international cease-and-desist order, it is unlikely that six months would do much to halt the development of AI. If a brief and partial moratorium brings attention to the need for serious consideration of AI safety, it seems unlikely that there would be much harm. Unfortunately, it seems probable that a pause will evolve into a more widespread opposition to progress.
Consider the multifaceted perspective conveyed in this document. The signatories advocate for "new and capable regulatory authorities," a "robust auditing and certification ecosystem," "well-resourced institutions for coping with the dramatic economic and political disruptions" that AI may cause, and more. "Powerful AI systems should not be developed until we are certain that their effects will be positive and their risks are manageable," they add.
This is an arrangement for complete stagnation. No one can ever be certain that a particular technology or application will have only positive effects. Innovation has a history of trial and error, risk and reward. One of the reasons why the United States leads the world in digital technology and is home to virtually all of the largest tech platforms is that it did not preemptively restrict the industry with well-intentioned but questionable regulation. It is no coincidence that all of the foremost AI initiatives are American.
In addition, retarding AI development presents its own unique dangers. Never forget that this technology will likely make the world wealthier, healthier, wiser, and more productive for decades to come. It may contribute more than $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Numerous developments are imminent in the fields of medicine, biology, climate science, education, business processes, manufacturing, customer service, and transportation, among others. Any new regulations must be weighed against the enormous potential of these endeavors.
Neither is AI research progressing in a vacuum. The industry already operates within legal parameters — liability regimes, consumer protection statutes, torts, etc. — that are responsive to the possibility of harm. Businesses have every incentive to ensure product safety. The development of codes of conduct and ethical frameworks by trade associations. In contrast to the "out-of-control race" alleged by the letter's signatories, the AI industry is similarly constrained by law, politics, and consumer sentiment.
That is not to imply that potential risks should be disregarded. However, rather than attempting to anticipate every possible risk, regulators should allow entrepreneurship to flourish alongside efforts to monitor and enhance AI safety. Governments should fund research into AI risks and publish best practices; the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Artificial Intelligence Risk Management Framework is an example. Legislators must ensure that businesses are transparent and consumers are protected, while remaining vigilant for any emerging hazards.
It's normal to be concerned about emerging technologies. But the prosperity and abundance of our civilization are in no small part the result of risks taken in the past with an open mind and an optimistic outlook. The revolution in AI deserves nothing less.