It’s a little strange to say, “Oh, who’s going to get AI first? Who’s going to get electricity first?” It seems more like “who’s going to use it in what ways, and who’s going to be able to deploy it and actually have it be in widespread use?”
From 1870 to 1950, the introduction of electricity transformed life in the US and UK, as people gained access to lighting, radio and a wide range of household appliances for the first time. Electricity turned out to be a general purpose technology that could help with almost everything people did.
Some think machine learning could alter 21st century life in a similar way.
In addition to massively changing everyday life, past general purpose technologies have also changed the nature of war. For example, when electricity was introduced to the battlefield, commanders gained the ability to quickly communicate with units far away in the field.
How might international security be altered if the impact of machine learning is similar in scope to that of electricity? Today’s guest — Helen Toner — recently helped found the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University to help policymakers prepare for any such disruptive technical changes that might threaten international peace.
Their first focus is machine learning (ML), a technology which allows computers to recognise patterns, learn from them, and develop ‘intuitions’ that inform their judgement about future cases. This is something humans do constantly, whether we’re playing tennis, reading someone’s face, diagnosing a patient, or figuring out which business ideas are likely to succeed.
Sometimes these ML algorithms can seem uncannily insightful, and they’re only getting better over time. Ultimately a wide range of different ML algorithms could end up helping us with all kinds of decisions, just as electricity wakes us up, makes us coffee, and brushes our teeth — all in the first five minutes of our day.
Rapid advances in ML, and the many prospective military applications, has people worrying about an ‘AI arms race’ between the US and China. Henry Kissinger and the past CEO of Google Eric Schmidt recently wrote that AI could “destabilize everything from nuclear détente to human friendships.” Some politicians talk of classifying and restricting access to ML algorithms, lest they fall into the wrong hands.
But if electricity is the best analogy, you could reasonably ask — was there an arms race in electricity in the 19th century? Would that have made any sense? And could someone have changed the course of history by changing who first got electricity and how they used it, or is that a fantasy?
In today’s episode we discuss the research frontier in the emerging field of AI policy and governance, how to have a career shaping US government policy, and Helen’s experience living and studying in China.
- Why immigration is the main policy area that should be affected by AI advances today.
- Why talking about an ‘arms race’ in AI is premature.
- How the US could remain the leading country in machine learning for the foreseeable future.
- Whether it’s ever possible to have a predictable effect on government policy.
- How Bobby Kennedy may have positively affected the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Whether it’s possible to become a China expert and still get a security clearance.
- Can access to ML algorithms be restricted, or is that just not practical?
- Why Helen and her colleagues set up the Center for Security and Emerging Technology and what jobs are available there and elsewhere in the field.
- Whether AI could help stabilise authoritarian regimes.
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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.