Ted Chiang on the Risks of AI
Ted Chiang has an excellent essay in the New Yorker: “Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey?”
The question we should be asking is: as A.I. becomes more powerful and flexible, is there any way to keep it from being another version of McKinsey? The question is worth considering across different meanings of the term “A.I.” If you think of A.I. as a broad set of technologies being marketed to companies to help them cut their costs, the question becomes: how do we keep those technologies from working as “capital’s willing executioners”? Alternatively, if you imagine A.I. as a semi-autonomous software program that solves problems that humans ask it to solve, the question is then: how do we prevent that software from assisting corporations in ways that make people’s lives worse? Suppose you’ve built a semi-autonomous A.I. that’s entirely obedient to humans—one that repeatedly checks to make sure it hasn’t misinterpreted the instructions it has received. This is the dream of many A.I. researchers. Yet such software could easily still cause as much harm as McKinsey has.
Note that you cannot simply say that you will build A.I. that only offers pro-social solutions to the problems you ask it to solve. That’s the equivalent of saying that you can defuse the threat of McKinsey by starting a consulting firm that only offers such solutions. The reality is that Fortune 100 companies will hire McKinsey instead of your pro-social firm, because McKinsey’s solutions will increase shareholder value more than your firm’s solutions will. It will always be possible to build A.I. that pursues shareholder value above all else, and most companies will prefer to use that A.I. instead of one constrained by your principles.
EDITED TO ADD: Ted Chiang’s previous essay, “ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web” is also worth reading.