Photo by Steve Johnson on UnsplashDuring my recent trip to the Bay Area, I met lots of people who are involved in the field of AI. My general impression is that this region has more smart people than anywhere else, at least per capita. And not just fairly smart, I’m talking about extremely high IQ individuals. I don’t claim to have met a representative cross section of AI people, however, so take the following with a grain of salt.If you spend a fair bit of time surrounded by people in this sector, you begin to think that San Francisco is the only city that matters; everywhere else is just a backwater. There’s a sense that the world we live in today will soon come to an end, replaced by either a better world or human extinction. It’s the Bay Area’s world, we just live in it.In other words, I don’t know if the world is going to end, but it seems as though this world is coming to an end.Some people I spoke with worried that AIs would soon take all of the jobs—and wondered about the impact on the economy. As far as existential risk, it often seemed as if the optimists were the pessimists, and vice versa. As if humanity’s best hope is that the AI enthusiasts are overestimating the potential for AGI.One guy asked me if I were interested in cryonics. Not whether I was interested in it as a concept; was I interested in the sense of ready to sign a contract if he drew one up? He pointed out (half joking) that due to the rapid advance of AI, I wouldn’t have to spend much time being dead before I was revived.I’m probably giving you the idea that the Bay Area tech people are a bunch of weirdos. Nothing could be further from the truth. In general, I found them to be smarter, more rational, and even nicer than the average human being. If everyone in the world were like these people, even communism might have worked.There’s a weird disconnect between the AI world and the normal world. If the AI people are correct, then I don’t think the public has any idea what’s about to hit them. Consider a recent survey that discussed public attitudes toward AI. The public thought it might produce benefits in some areas, and then listed a few downsides:

There’s broad concern about the loss of the human element due to emerging AI technologies, especially in settings like the workplace and health care. Many Americans who would not want to apply for a job that uses AI in the hiring process recent survey as the reason why. In health and medicine, a majority of Americans think relying more on AI would hurt patients’ relationships with their providers.

The potential for negative impacts on jobs is another common concern with AI. Among those who say they’re more concerned than excited about AI, the risk of people losing their job is cited most often as the reason why. We also see this concern with some specific examples of AI. For example, 83% of Americans think driverless cars would lead to job loss for ride-share and delivery drivers.

Surveillance and data privacy are also concerns when discussing AI. Large majorities of Americans who are aware of AI think that as companies use AI, personal information will be used in unintended ways and ways people are not comfortable with.  

Note that there is no question about existential risk, despite the fact that some of the smartest people on the planet think the “P(doom)” risk is uncomfortably high. I’m not saying they are right, but does the public even know about these concerns?Leopold Aschenbrenner recently pointed out that even the federal government seems completely oblivious to the fact that AI research might have national security implications. Again, I don’t know how seriously we should take those concerns, but it shows the disconnect between the AI world and the normal world.Overall, I felt there was both excitement about the progress in AI and a sort of melancholy about the fact that we might not know how to control the technology. I was often reminded of Lars von Trier’s underrated 2011 film entitled Melancholia, where a few experts understood that the end of the world was near (due to an asteroid strike), but the broader public was partying like there was a tomorrow. BTW, that film nicely captured the feeling of dread when you can see the end and cannot do anything about it.Again, I’m not saying AI will be the end of the world. But spend enough time in the Bay Area and you begin to see the public’s fears as the optimistic case. All jobs are replaced by machines and we’re living on UBI? That’s great news! It means the world hasn’t been destroyed.Of course this is easy for me to say, as I’m retired and will soon be dead. One younger guy told me that he was having trouble deciding what field to study, as he could not think of a single white collar job that wasn’t going to be replaced by AIs. Ironically, it’s the manual jobs that will be the last to be replaced, as computers are good at what we are bad at, and vice versa.How seriously should we take the views of all these geniuses? I’m reminded of the observation that when playing the game of poker, if you cannot spot the “mark” at your poker table then you are the mark. I spent a few days among geniuses at the LessOnline meetup, and wasn’t able to spot the guy that was clueless about AI …All kidding aside, do you think the average person living near Oak Ridge or Alamogordo back in 1945 had any idea what the nearby eggheads were about to cook up?Toward the end of his long essay, Aschenbrenner has this to say about the need to take AI more seriously:

But the scariest realization is that there is no crack team coming to handle this. As a kid you have this glorified view of the world, that when things get real there are the heroic scientists, the uber-competent military men, the calm leaders who are on it, who will save the day. It is not so. The world is incredibly small; when the facade comes off, it’s usually just a few folks behind the scenes who are the live players, who are desperately trying to keep things from falling apart.

Right now, there’s perhaps a few hundred people in the world who realize what’s about to hit us, who understand just how crazy things are about to get, who have situational awareness. I probably either personally know or am one degree of separation from everyone who could plausibly run The Project. The few folks behind the scenes who are desperately trying to keep things from falling apart are you and your buddies and their buddies. That’s it. That’s all there is.

He’s still pretty young, but getting disillusioned at a fast rate. It’s worth noting that this isn’t just about him becoming less naive. The quality of our political establishment really is declining at an alarming rate. In the 1950s, we had people like Dwight Eisenhower. Now we have leaders like Trump.For me, the wake-up call occurred much later in life, back in 2008. I suddenly realized that monetary policy at our major central banks was not being run by “Princeton School” economists, even though a Princeton economist chaired the Fed. The stock market had a similar wake-up call, and promptly crashed in the fall of 2008.PS. If you have 4 1/2 hours to spare, this is the most interesting podcast I’ve ever listened to. Aschenbrenner graduated from Columbia at the top of his class, at age 19.More By This Author:Double Trouble
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