Brian Merchant: Column: Afraid of AI? The startups selling it want you to be

Brian Merchant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

You've probably heard by now: AI is coming, it's about to change everything, and humanity is not ready.

Artificial intelligence is passing bar exams, plagiarizing term papers, creating deepfakes that are real enough to fool the masses, and the robot apocalypse is nigh. The government isn't prepared. Neither are you.

Tesla founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and hundreds of AI researchers signed an open letter this week urging a pause on AI development before it gets too powerful. "A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture," three tech ethicists wrote in a New York Times op-ed. A cottage industry of AI hustlers have taken to Twitter, Substack and YouTube to demonstrate the formidable potential and power of AI, racking up millions of views and shares.

The doomscroll goes on. A new York Times columnist had a series of conversations with Bing and wound up afraid for humanity. A Goldman Sachs report says AI could replace 300 million jobs.

The concern has made its way into the halls of power, too. On Monday, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Connecticut, tweeted: "ChatGPT taught itself to do advanced chemistry. It wasn't built into the model. Nobody programmed it to learn complicated chemistry. It decided to teach itself, then made its knowledge available to anyone who asked.

"Something is coming. We aren't ready."


Nothing of the sort has happened, of course, but it's hard to blame the senator. AI doomsaying is absolutely everywhere right now. Which is exactly the way that OpenAI, the company that stands to benefit the most from everyone believing its product has the power to remake — or unmake — the world, wants it.

OpenAI is behind the buzziest and most popular AI service, the text generator ChatGPT, and its technology currently powers Microsoft's new AI-infused Bing Search engine, the product of a deal worth $10 billion. ChatGPT-3 is free to use, a premium tier that guarantees more stable access is $20 a month, and there's a whole portfolio of services available for purchase to meet any enterprise's text or image generation needs.

Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, declared that he was "a little bit scared" of the technology that he is currently helping to build and aiming to disseminate, for profit, as widely as possible. OpenAI's chief scientist Ilya Sutskever said last week that "At some point it will be quite easy, if one wanted, to cause a great deal of harm" with the models they are making available to anyone willing to pay. And a new report produced and released by the company proclaims that its technology will put "most" jobs at some degree of risk of elimination.

Let's consider the logic behind these statements for a second: Why would you, a CEO or executive at a high-profile technology company, repeatedly return to the public stage to proclaim how worried you are about the product you are building and selling?


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