For most of my life, I have had difficulty sleeping, because my mind is constantly whirring about some topic, and I cannot shut it down. I ponder about many things. In recent months, what’s been keeping me up at night are existential threats to humanity. Two classic categories are nuclear warfare and climate change. A more recent one is artificial intelligence.
The threat of civilization-ending nuclear warfare has been on the minds of many thinkers since the days of World War II.
There are nine countries with nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.
The United States and Russia have, by far, the largest nuclear weapons stockpiles. The Israeli government deliberately remains ambiguous about its nuclear arsenal. Iran is close to obtaining nuclear weapons, and it is essential that this does not happen.
I am not afraid of Putin ordering nuclear attacks. I have consistently stated that Russia (essentially, that means Putin) is America’s biggest geopolitical foe. This is not the same as saying that they are the biggest existential threat to humanity. Putin may be an dictator who I would never want to live under, but he is not suicidal.
North Korea is a different matter. I have little faith in Kim Jong Un’s mental acuity. Unfortunately, his regime still shows no signs of collapse. America must work with China and persuade them that it is in the interest of both countries for China to end their support of the Kim regime.
What about terrorist groups? While white supremacists have, I think, killed more Americans in recent years than radical Islamists, I don’t think white supremacist groups are actively trying to obtain nuclear weapons more as they want a racially pure society to live in, which by necessity requires some land usable and fallout-free.
But Islamic State, and other cult-like terrorist groups, could launch suicide attacks by stealing nuclear weapons. Terrorist groups lack homegrown expertise to build and launch such weapons, but they may purchase, steal, bribe, or extort. It is imperative that our nuclear technicians and security guards are well-trained, appropriately compensated, and have no Edward Snowdens hidden among them. It would also be prudent to assist countries such as Pakistan so that they have stronger defenses of their nuclear weapons.
Despite all the things that could go wrong, we are still alive today with no nuclear warfare since World War II. I hope that cool heads continue to prevail among those in possession of nuclear weapons.
A good overview of the preceding issues can be found in Charles D. Ferguson’s book. There is also a nice op-ed by elder statesmen George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn on a world without nuclear weapons.
Climate change is a second major existential threat.
The good news is that the worst-case predictions from our scientists (and, ahem, Al Gore) have not materialized. We are still alive today, and the climate, at least from my personal experience — which cannot be used as evidence against climate change since it’s one data point — is not notably different from years past. The increasing use of natural gas has substantially slowed down the rate of carbon emissions. Businesses are aiming to be more energy-efficient. Scientists continue to track worldwide temperatures and to make more accurate climate predictions aided by advanced computing hardware.
The bad news is that carbon emissions will continue to grow. As countries develop, they naturally require more energy for the higher-status symbols of civilization (more cars, more air travel, and so on). Their citizens will also want more meat, causing more methane emissions and further strains on our environment.
Moreover, the recent Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain developments are computationally-heavy, due to Deep Learning and mining (respectively). Artificial Intelligence researchers and miners therefore have a responsibility to be frugal about their energy usage.
It would be ideal if the United States could take the lead in fighting climate change in a sensible way without total economic shutdown, such as by applying the carbon tax plan proposed by former Secretary of State George Shultz and policy entrepreneur Ted Halstead. Unfortunately, we lack the willpower to do so, and the Republican party in recent years has placed lower priorities on climate change, with their top politician even once Tweeting the absurd and patently false claim that global warming was a “hoax invented by the Chinese to make American manufacturing less competitive.” That most scientists are Democrats can be attributed in large part because of attacks on climate change (and the theory of evolution, I’d add), not because they are anti-capitalism. I bet most of us recognize the benefits of a capitalistic society like I do.
While I worry about carbon and temperature, they are not the only things that matter. Climate change can cause more extreme weather, such as droughts which have plagued the Middle East, exacerbating the current refugee crisis and destabilizing governments throughout the world. Droughts are also stressing supplies in South Africa, and even America, as we have sadly seen in California.
A more recent existential threat pertains to artificial intelligence.
Two classes of threats I ponder are (a) autonomous weapons, and a broad category that I call (b) the risks of catastrophic misinformation. Both are compounding factors that contribute to nuclear warfare or a more drastic climate trend.
The danger of autonomous weapons has been widely explored in recent books, such as Army of None (on my TODO list) and in generic Artificial Intelligence books such as Life 3.0 (highly recommended!). There are a number of terrifying ways in which these weapons could wreak havoc among populations throughout the world.
For example, one could also think of autonomous weapons merging with biological terrorism, perhaps via a swarm of “killer bee robots” spreading a virus. Fortunately, as summarized by Steven Pinker in the existential threats chapter of Enlightenment Now, biological agents are actually ill-suited for widespread terrorism and pandemics in the modern era. But autonomous weapons could easily be used for purposes that we can’t even imagine now.
Autonomous weapons will be applied on specially designed hardware. These won’t be like the physical, humanoid robots that Toyota is developing for home robots, because robotic motion that mimics human-like motion is too slow and cumbersome to cause an existential threat. Recent AI advances have been primarily from software. Nowhere was this more apparent to me from AlphaGo, which astonished the world by defeating a top Go player … but a DeepMind employee, following AlphaGo’s instructions, placed the stones on the board. The irony is that something as “primitive” as finely placing stones on a game board is beyond the ability of current robots. This means that I do not consider situations where a robot must physically acquire resources with its own hardware to be an existential threat.
The second aspect of AI that I worry about is, as stated earlier, “catastrophic misinformation.” What do I mean by this? I refer to how AI might be trained to create material that can drastically mislead a group of people, which might cause them to be belligerent with others, hence increasing the chances of nuclear or widespread warfare.
Consider a more advanced form of AI that can generate images (and perhaps videos!) far more complex than those that the NVIDIA GAN can create. Even today, people have difficulty distinguishing between fake and real news, as noted in LikeWar. A future risk for humanity might involve a world-wide “PizzaGate” incident where misled leaders go at war with each other, provoked by AI-generated misinformation from a terrorist organization running open-source code.
Even if we could count on citizens to hold their leaders accountable, (a) some countries simply don’t have accountable leaders or knowledgeable citizens, and (b) even “educated” people can be silently nudged to support certain issues. North Korea has brainwashed their citizens to obey their leaders without question. China is moving beyond blocking “Tiananmen Square massacre”-like themes on the Internet; they can determine social credit scores, automatically tracked via phone apps and Big Data. China additionally has the technical know-how, hardware, and data, to utilize the latest AI advances.
Imagine what authoritarian leaders could do if they wanted to rouse support for some controversial issue … that they learned via fake-news AI. That succinctly summarizes my concerns.
Nuclear warfare, climate change, and artificial intelligence, are currently keeping me up at night.