Regret and remorse, the companions of progress  - Post
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Regret and remorse, the companions of progress 

Cillian Murphy in a scene from “Oppenheimer.”

Cillian Murphy in a scene from “Oppenheimer.”
| Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

In the movie Oppenheimer, the effect of the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki can only be guessed at from the reactions and nightmares of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist called the father of the bomb. It ended the war – initially killing over 110,000 in the two cities. Twice as many succumbed to burns, injuries, and radiation. We have been living in its shadow ever since. 

Einstein famously said that if he had known the Germans would not succeed in developing the atom bomb, he would not have lifted a finger. It was Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt that kick-started the race for the bomb in the US. 

Both Einstein and Oppenheimer lived to regret the consequences of their effort. Now here we are again facing another crisis with potentially devastating consequences. 

Geoffrey Hinton, the godfather of this new threat – Artificial Intelligence – has pointed to its “existential risk” and said that soon people will not know what is true any more with AI-generated photos, videos and text. 

Hinton, who developed the technology behind today’s AI, quit Google in order to “speak freely of the dangers of AI”, and because he regrets his contributions to the field. “It is quite scary,” he told New York Times. “I console myself with the normal excuse – If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.” 

In Hinton’s reckoning, AI could become more intelligent than humans, it could be exploited by rogue elements and would “allow authoritarian rulers to manipulate their people.” The autonomous weapon, the killer robots, aren’t too far into the future. 

This time the battle is not between two countries at war, but between two corporates wanting to control the market. Google and Microsoft. Google CEO Sundar Pichai says concerns about AI keep him awake at night and has called for a global regulatory framework. He admits that companies release AI systems that they don’t fully understand. 

In March this year, over a thousand industry leaders and researchers including Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and Elon Musk signed an open letter asking for a moratorium on new developments in the field. Scientists from Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Meta signed the letter, although later some claimed they hadn’t signed. Perhaps that was AI at work, forging their signatures! 

The many uses of AI, in science, in medicine, in daily life are undeniable. What cannot be denied too is that research progresses independent of moral considerations. There is too the human tendency to behave like the frog in gently heating water which remains in it till it is too hot to get out. Nuclear advancement can be monitored; AI, however, can be worked on in private and away from the limelight, making it more dangerous. 

Asked by BBC how he could work on such a potentially dangerous technology, Geoffrey Hinton paraphrased Oppenheimer, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.” The genie is out of the bottle; will we regret it or nurse a remorse if we hadn’t taken that road? 


AU Bureau
Author: AU Bureau

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