Jun 5, 2024 - Technology

Helen Toner: Skynet isn't the only AI nightmare

Helen Toner seated on stage wearing a burgundy jacket

Helen Toner at Axios' AI+ Summit. Photo: DP Jolly/Axios

We need to think more "holistically" about potential "civilization-scale bad outcomes" from artificial intelligence in coming decades, AI expert Helen Toner told Axios' Ina Fried at the Axios AI+ Summit Wednesday.

The big picture: Toner, the former director of OpenAI, left the San Francisco-based company behind ChatGPT after an effort to oust CEO Sam Altman failed last year.

  • "I just think sometimes people hear the phrase 'existential risk' and they just think Skynet, and robots shooting humans," Toner said Wednesday, referring to dystopian nightmares from the "Terminator" films and beyond.
  • "There's a lot of other ways that AI could really take things in a bad direction, and we do ourselves a disservice by locking in these very specific stories."

Toner, the director of strategy at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), had a seat on OpenAI's board beginning in 2021 — and participated in the abrupt firing of Altman in November 2023.

  • "I definitely want to give the new board a chance," Toner told Fried. "They have a lot of new structures in place that were not possible for us to put in place before November."

Efforts to map and understand the "black-box" workings of generative AI will help demystify it, Toner said.

  • "This is a very powerful technology. We don't know how it works. Right now it's being developed and pushed forward by a very small group of people."

The bottom line: The most important way for everyday users to influence AI's evolution, she said, is "not to think of this as a distant mysterious magical technology that you could never possibly have a view on."

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