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Is an AI Apocalypse Plausible?

Is tech likely to cause a doomsday event? Millions of Americans seem to think so, according to a new survey. The survey includes responses from 6,200 Americans and extrapolated to provide stats that suggest up to 40 million Americans believe doomsday will happen in the next year, and 15.8 million Americans believe the most likely doomsday event is none other than an AI (artificial intelligence) apocalypse. Are these fears founded?

Random people in a random survey aren’t the only ones who think AI is capable of harming humanity. ChatGPT has created a lot of buzz on the topic of generative AI, and mainstream media is reporting that even scientists are warning about the dangers. In a statement on AI risk released by the Center for AI Safety, AI experts from dozens of companies and universities across the globe, as well as notable figures like businesspeople and government officials, say “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Research is being conducted that investigates how AI can align with shared human values. And many questions are being asked about whether the risks are worth the rewards as these technologies become more powerful and accessible. For instance, in one research study published in April, scientists explored the idea that artificial agents have traditionally been trained to maximize reward, which may “incentivize power-seeking and deception.” In the research study, researchers evaluated an artificial agent’s ethics in thousands of diverse scenarios centered on social decisionmaking. They determined that the AI demonstrated some “tension” between maximizing reward and behaving ethically—not unlike humans. Unlike humans, however, AI can be programmed to override ethics.

This conversation needs to happen now, because the global AI market is growing rapidly. According to Next Move Strategy Consulting, the AI market will reach nearly $2 trillion by 2030. AI technologies are expected to impact everything from supply chains and factories to marketing, customer service, and more.

ChatGPT and generative AI is creating disruption in industries like customer service, healthcare,  finance, media/journalism, and education, among others. On one hand, the technology is lauded as automating mundane and repetitive tasks that free up humans to do more high-level tasks. On the other hand, it’ll likely displace some jobs, and it could undermine the process of critical thinking—for instance, in education, when it’s used by students in place of learning how to compose.

Are the risks way more serious than job displacement and upending the status quo in education? Could AI spread misinformation to the point of causing political disruption globally? Is it a danger on par with nuclear weapons? While no one really knows for sure, the fact that enough people (and scientists) think it’s a possibility means these conversations need to happen.

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