Jun 5, 2024 - Technology

Open letters can't slow AI's juggernaut

Animated illustration of a robot tearing a letter in half and dropping it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The latest open letter seeking to slow the runaway train of AI development is likely to prove as ineffectual as the last one.

Why it matters: The argument over AI's long-term dangers has largely lost the interest of tech companies hell-bent on dominating what they see as their industry's next big platform.

  • The leading AI makers have raised enormous war chests to fund building AI faster, bigger and (fingers crossed) better — and it will take more than a list of signatures to change their course.

Driving the news: OpenAI employees and ex-employees Tuesday posted a new public call for whistleblower protections at leading AI firms.

  • The letter, titled "A Right to Warn about Advanced Artificial Intelligence," followed high-profile departures of safety leaders from OpenAI and controversies over exit letters the firm required employees to sign.

Flashback: In March 2023, just four months after OpenAI's launch of ChatGPT sparked an AI frenzy, prominent AI researchers and leaders signed a letter seeking a six-month "pause" in advanced AI development, citing existential risks to human survival posed by the technology.

  • The letter won wide news coverage, but there was no pause. In fact, ChatGPT's success kicked off an accelerating arms race — initially between OpenAI (along with its partner Microsoft) and Google, and eventually joined by every major tech company.
  • The same month that letter was posted, Elon Musk, its most famous signatory, incorporated his own AI company — causing cynics to suggest he wanted competitors to pause so his startup could catch up.

Yes, but: The persistence of employee dissent within OpenAI suggests the company might be less united than it appeared in the aftermath of its boardroom drama last fall.

  • After the firm's board fired CEO Sam Altman, virtually every OpenAI employee signed yet another open letter, demanding his return.
  • That letter did get results.

The big picture: Tens of billions of dollars are already committed to accelerating AI development.

  • The resources come from tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Meta, and from the venture capital firms, which are betting on a vast new wave of startup growth.
  • And they come from the toolmakers — most notably, chipmakers led by Nvidia and TSMC — building products to speed the AI makers' work.

This kind of investment tidal wave comes once every 15 years or so in Silicon Valley, most recently with the mass embrace of the smartphone around 2010; before that, with the rise of the internet starting in 1995; and before that, with the arrival of personal computing around 1980.

  • These waves have their own booms and busts, but none of them has ever been stymied.
  • Once companies find themselves in a race, they always seem to move faster than regulators, whistleblowers, dissenters and anyone else who wants to say, "Hey, wait a minute, think about the consequences."

Case in point: Google, which long led the world in AI research, was moving more cautiously in the pre-ChatGPT era. OpenAI's success led Google's leaders and investors to feel they had no choice but to move faster.

The other side: The AI boom is the first new tech wave to arrive after the era of the techlash, when political leaders and much of the public lost faith in tech firms.

  • The failures of the social media era could leave the public more ready to question AI firms' intentions and less eager to buy their promises.
  • Ultimately, tech companies must persuade businesses and individuals that AI is worth paying for. Otherwise, they'll find themselves with a lot of very expensive equipment and far fewer customers than they expect.
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