Updated Nov 21, 2023 - Technology
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Myth of AI restraint

Animated illustration of a robot thinking, with ellipses moving inside its thought bubble.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Nearly every high-level Washington meeting, star-studded conference and story about AI centers on one epic question: Can this awesome new power be constrained?

  • It cannot, experts repeatedly and emphatically told us.

Why it matters: Lots of people want to roll artificial intelligence out slowly, use it ethically, regulate it wisely. But everyone gets the joke: It defies all human logic and experience to think ethics will trump profit, power, prestige. Never has. Never will.

  • Practically speaking, there's no way to truly do any of this once a competition of this size and import is unleashed. And unleashed it is — at breathtaking scale.
  • AI pioneer Mustafa Suleyman — co-founder and CEO of Inflection AI, and co-founder of AI giant DeepMind, now part of Google — sounds the alarm in his new book "The Coming Wave," with the sobering Chapter 1: "Containment Is Not Possible."

That's why Sam Altman getting sacked — suddenly and shockingly — should grab your attention. OpenAI — creator of the most popular generative AI tool, ChatGPT — became a battlefield between ethical true believers, who control the board, and the profit-and-progress activators like Altman who ran the company.

  • Altman was quickly scooped up by Microsoft, OpenAI's main sugar daddy, to move faster with a "new advanced AI research team."
  • Open AI's interim CEO is a doom-fearing advocate for slowing the AI race — Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear, who recently warned there's a 5% to 50% chance this new tech ends humanity.

What we're hearing: Few in Silicon Valley think the Shears of the world will win this battle. The dynamics they're battling are too powerful:

  1. Competition between technologists and technology companies to create something with superhuman power inevitably leads to speed and high risk. It's why free competition exists and works.
  2. Even if individuals and companies magically showed never-before-seen restraint and humility, competitive governments and nations won't. China will force us to throw caution to the wind: The only thing worse than superhuman power in our hands is it being in China's ... or Iran's ... or Russia's.
  3. Even if other nations stumbled and America's innovators paused, there are still open-source models that bad actors could exploit.

Top AI architects tell us there'll likely be no serious regulation of generative AI, which one day soon could spawn artificial general intelligence (AGI) — the one that could outthink our species.

  • Corporations won't do it: They're pouring trillions of dollars into the race of our lifetime.
  • Government can't do it: Congress is too divided to tackle the complexities of AI regulation in an election year.
  • Individuals can't do it: A fractured AI safety movement will persist. But the technology will solve so many big problems in the short term that most people won't bother worrying about a future that might never materialize.

Congress isn't giving up. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) — a former tech entrepreneur who has been a leader in the Capitol Hill conversation on AI — told us he sees more need than ever "for Congress to establish some rules of the road when it comes to the risks posed by these technologies."

  • But lawmakers have always had trouble regulating tech companies. Axios reporters on the Hill tell us there are so many conflicting AI proposals that it's hard to see any one of them getting traction.

Reality check: Global nuclear agreements did slow proliferation. Global agreements on fluorocarbons did rescue the ozone layer. Aviation has guardrails.

  • With AI, though, there's no time to build consensus or constituencies. The reality is now.

The bottom line: There's never been such fast consumer adoption of a new technology. Cars took decades. The internet didn't get critical mass until the smartphone. But ChatGPT was a hit overnight — 100 million users in a matter of weeks.

  • No way it'll be rolled back.

"Behind the Curtain" is a column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.

  • Go deeper: Axios' Dan Primack writes that there's a decent chance Microsoft's new "research lab" is a ruse to force OpenAI to rehire Altman.
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