Jul 21, 2023 - Technology

A-bomb and AI parallels are keeping tech awake

Oppenheimer Learning from Einstein. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

There's only one movie that matters this weekend to tech-industry insiders (Sorry, "Barbie").

Zoom out: Even before this weekend's release of Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer," Silicon Valley has been obsessed with the similarities between the current existential fear-mongering around AI and the nightmares that haunted the scientists who created the atom bomb in the darkest moments of World War II.

  • For tech leaders and workers who are still into books, one decades-old tome has been turning up on bedsides for the past few months: Richard Rhodes' Pulitzer-garlanded 1986 epic, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."

The parallels to today couldn't be clearer: Breakthroughs in basic research have led to immediate practical applications that offer enormous benefits but pose extreme risks.

Yes, but: The parallels have limits, too.For the Manhattan Project's scientists, a determination to build a Hitler-beating bomb overcame fears that their test of atomic fission might start a chain reaction in the earth's atmosphere that could destroy life.

  • That didn't happen — though in intervening decades we've found other very effective ways to dangerously heat our atmosphere.
  • In today's artificial intelligence craze, both the promised benefits and existential risks are far murkier.

Our thought bubble: It's a good thing any time the tech world can be persuaded that the future isn't all that exists and the past has some relevance, too.

The bottom line: Neither nukes nor algorithms have yet destroyed humanity's future — but hey, the millennium is young.

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