February 27, 2024

Hello, Tuesday! Smart Brevityβ„’ count: 1,776 words ... 6Β½ mins. Thanks to Sam Baker for orchestrating. Edited by Bryan McBournie.

1 big thing β€” Behind the Curtain: AI doom or boom

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios

Not since the atomic bomb has so much money been spent in so little time on a technology its own creators admit could … wipe out our entire species, Axios' Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write.

  • Why it matters: Most people ignore or dismiss the sentence above because it seems too ludicrous to be true. But as technological savants crank out new large-language-model wonders, it's worth pausing to hear their own warnings.

πŸ›°οΈ The big picture: Sometimes our world changes so fast, in so many head-spinning ways, that it's impossible to fully capture the wildness β€” and weirdness β€” of it all.

  • It's easy to think it's all hype when Google's AI tool, Gemini, portrays a white American founding father as Black, or when an early ChatGPT model urged a reporter to leave his wife.
  • But even skeptics believe that when some of the biggest companies in the world pour this much coin into one tech, they're sure to will it into something very powerful.

Let's set aside for one column whether generative AI will save or destroy humanity and focus on the actual words from actual creators of it:

  • Dario Amodei, who has raised $7.3 billion for his AI start-up Anthropic after leaving OpenAI over concerns over ethics, says there's a 10% to 25% chance that AI technology could destroy humanity. But if that doesn't happen, he said, "it'll go not just fine, it'll go really, really great."
  • Fei-Fei Li, a renowned AI scholar who is co-director of Stanford's Human-Centered AI Institute, told MIT Technology Review last year that AI's "catastrophic risks to society" include practical, "rubber meets the road" problems β€” misinformation, workforce disruption, bias and privacy infringements.
  • Geoffrey Hinton β€” known as "The Godfather of AI," and for 10 years one of Google's AI leaders β€” warns anyone who'll listen that we're creating a technology that in our lifetimes could control and obliterate us.

OK, maybe that's nuts. But Ilya Sutskever, a pioneer scientist at OpenAI, has warned the exact same thing. He became fearful that the technology could wipe out humanity," The New York Times reported nonchalantly.

  • OpenAI CEO Sam Altman takes the stance that AI will probably be great β€” but still warns we must be careful we don't destroy humanity. Altman, along with the three men above, was among the signatories to this chilling one-sentence statement last year: "Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war."

With equal certainty to what he calls the "doomers," Marc Andreessen, one of America's brightest tech investors, argues that a techno-utopia awaits us.

  • He expounds "effective accelerationism" β€” e/acc (pronounced ee-ACK), a play on Sam Bankman-Fried's "effective altruism" β€” pushing to move faster and with no limits to bring this AI tech to life and spread it everywhere. "The techno-capital machine works for us. All the machines work for us," he writes in his "Techno-Optimist Manifesto."

This debate often unfolds on X, where Elon Musk β€” who has warned that humans one day may need to merge with machines β€” is racing to unleash his own AI model, Grok, with a mode for machines to respond with mischievous humor.

πŸ” Between the lines: Both sides of this debate share the view that AI is unimaginably gigantically powerful, whether it destroys us or saves us.

  • Probably true! But that's also a self-serving view that puts their work at the center of the universe, notes Scott Rosenberg, Axios managing editor for tech.
  • The history of tech is that things get overhyped β€” then wind up being big, but not as huge as sold.

What we're watching: OpenAI, knowing that people fear AI destroying the world, is trying to mitigate those fears by building trust that it's deploying products as safely as possible.

  • For instance, Sora β€” OpenAI's new video tool, which conjures cinematic-quality clips from plain-text prompts β€” for now is available only to select creators, researchers, and "red teamers" to assess harms and risks.

We had a fascinating conversation with Srinivas Narayanan, V.P. of engineering at OpenAI, who leads the teams that build products, including ChatGPT and Sora.

  • "I'm going to be very humble and say I just don't know," Narayanan said about the doomer view. "I think it's important for us to approach this with humility.
  • "We are proactive about talking about the risks of these models," Narayanan said from San Francisco. "I want us to ... do the research that is necessary in order to give us the clarity that we need."

"The future I want is one where humans are still guiding the AI systems, right?" Narayanan added hopefully. "Ultimately, that's what we want."

2. πŸ“Š Immigration surges to top American worry

Gallup chart showing immigration as most important problem
Chart: Gallup

With President Biden and former President Trump making split-screen trips to the southwest border on Thursday, new data shows the issue is rising:

  • Gallup polling out this morning shows Americans consider immigration the country's single most important problem for the first time since 2019.

Immigration passed "government." The two issues tied for first for the past two months.

  • Immigration is the only issue to move meaningfully in the past month, Gallup said.

Explore the data.

3. πŸ›’ 30 years since food ate up this much income

🍞 Share of disposable income spent on food
Data: USDA. (USDA defines disposable income as the amount of money U.S. consumers have left to spend or save after paying taxes.) Chart: Axios Visuals

This stat could explain a lot about how voters feel:

  • Americans are spending more than 11% of their disposable income on food β€” the highest level in 30+ years, matching 1991, The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Groceries and restaurants are both getting more expensive.

Why it matters: This measure could help explain why Americans feel badly about the economy, despite promising signs for the nation as a whole.

Prices ticked up again in January, even with overall inflation cooling.

  • Food producers are facing higher costs for some products, which they're passing along to consumers, and the tight labor market is also keeping labor costs high.

🍳 Good news: The closely watched price of Grade A eggs is down sharply from last year's stratosphere β€” $2.51 in December vs. $4.82 in January 2023.

4. πŸŽ₯ Late-night Biden

Actress Amy Poehler, President Joe Biden during an interview with host Seth Meyers on February 26, 2024
President Biden and actress Amy Poehler at 30 Rock yesterday with host Seth Meyers. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Images

President Biden used a light setting β€” taping NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers" at 30 Rock β€” to make serious news yesterday:

  • He said Israel has agreed to halt its Gaza offensive during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, if a deal is reached to free the remaining hostages being held by Hamas, Axios' Barak Ravid reports.
  • "My national security adviser tells me that we're close β€” we're close, we're not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we'll have a ceasefire," Biden said.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is making serious efforts to try to get a hostage deal that could lead to a six-week pause in the fighting in Gaza before the start of Ramadan in two weeks. But getting a deal by Monday will likely be an uphill battle due to major gaps between Israel and Hamas in the negotiations.

🎭 The lighter side: Biden, 81, joked about the age of former President Trump, 77, his likely opponent in November.

  • "You got to take a look at the other guy. He's about as old as I am," Biden said.

Biden said it's "about how old your ideas are," adding: "This is a guy who wants to take us back. He wants to take us back on Roe v. Wade. He wants to take us back on a whole range of issues that are β€” 50 to 60 years, they've been solid American positions."

5. Behind anti-Biden protest vote in Michigan

Photo illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios. Photo: Arab American National Museum

Arab Americans threatening to withhold support for President Biden in Michigan's primary today are upset with his support for the war in Gaza β€” which some see as the tipping point after decades of neglect, Axios' Russell Contreras writes.

In the Detroit area, home to the nation's largest Arabic-speaking population, the Listen to Michigan campaign has been urging voters to choose "uncommitted" on the Democratic presidential primary ballot.

  • Some Arab Americans there tell Axios that Biden's stance on the war has led them to avoid voting for him again β€” and they want to send a message.

πŸ—³οΈ Context: Some Arab American leaders say Israel's counterattack in Gaza became a reminder of how invisible they sometimes feel in America.

  • Some note that the U.S. Census doesn't keep track of Arab Americans. It estimates there are 2 million, but Arab groups say the number is closer to double that.

Schools rarely allow students to choose their racial identity as Arab American on information forms.

6. πŸ›« Quest for electric plane

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Small, short-range electric planes and electric air taxis could become commercially available as early as 2025, Axios' Joann Muller and Alison Snyder write.

  • But the holy grail β€” electrifying large jets β€” will require a whole new generation of batteries, motors and other technologies beyond what's powering today's electric cars.

πŸ”‹ How it works: "To fly an airplane you need two big things: power to propel them forward and energy to keep them flying for a long duration," said Kiruba Haran, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • It takes a lot of power to get a plane off the ground, and to keep it flying, but batteries for an airplane can't be too heavy or get too hot.

The bottom line: "We're trying to reinvent the electric machine," Haran said.

7. Mail scare for Don Jr.

People in hazmat suits outside Donald Trump Jr.'s home
Hazmat teams work yesterday at Don Jr.'s home in Jupiter, Fla. Photos: Axios source at the scene

A hazmat team and fire trucks were sent to the home of Donald Trump Jr. yesterday afternoon after the former president's son opened a letter and discovered white powder inside the envelope, a source told Axios.

Trump, the eldest son of former President Trump, was at his home office in Jupiter, Fla.

  • "The test results of the substance came up inconclusive on what it was exactly, but officials on the scene do not believe it is deadly," a spokesman for Trump said.

The typed letter contained eight paragraphs of vile rantings about the Trump family.

8. 🩺 $1 billion gift makes med school free

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 26: The Albert Einstein College of Medicine is seen on February 26, 2024 in the Morris Park neighborhood in the Bronx borough of New York City. Dr. Ruth Gottesman, a former professor at Einstein and widow of Wall Street financier David Gottesman, announced a $1 billion donation to the school, with the money to be used to cover tuition for all students going forward. The donation is one of the largest ever charitable gifts to an educational institution in the United States. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, seen yesterday. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

A $1 billion donation will make the Bronx-based Albert Einstein School of Medicine tuition-free for all students, The Wall Street Journal reports.

  • The gift came from Ruth Gottesman, 93, who joined the school's faculty in 1968. Her late husband, Sandy Gottesman, was an early investor in Berkshire Hathaway.

🧠 Why it matters: Several high-profile institutions have gone tuition-free recently β€” an acknowledgment that the cost of higher education is keeping talented prospects out of fields where they're badly needed.

  • NYU's medical school is tuition-free, and Columbia's is free for some students.
  • The graduate program in journalism at CUNY is also in the process of going tuition-free, the first of its kind to do so.

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