February 21, 2024

Such comparisons seem to be everywhere these days. “It’s like a nuclear weapon,” says a pioneering AI researcher explain. Top AI executives compare their products to nuclear energyA group of industry leaders warned last week that artificial intelligence technology could pose an existential threat to humanity comparable to nuclear war.

People have been comparing AI advances to splitting atoms for YearBut with the release of AI chatbots and AI creators calling for national and international regulation — in the same way scientists called for guardrails to manage nuclear weapons in the 1950s — the comparison has become more stark. Some experts worry that AI will obsolete jobs or spread disinformation in the short term; others worry that superintelligent systems will eventually learn to write their own computer code, break free from human control, and may even decide to wipe us out. “The creators of this technology told us they were concerned,” said Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which tracks human threats to civilization. “The creators of this technology are looking for governance and regulation. The creators of this technology are telling us to pay attention.”

Not every expert agrees that this comparison is appropriate. Some point out that the destructiveness of atomic energy is kinetic and proven, while the dangers of artificial intelligence to humans remain highly speculative. Others argue that nearly all technologies, including artificial intelligence and nuclear energy, have advantages and risks. “Show me a technology that can’t be used for nefarious things, and I’ll tell you a completely useless technology that can’t be used for anything,” says Julian Togelius, a computer scientist at New York University who works on AI.

But the comparisons have become fast and frequent enough that it’s hard to know whether doomsayers and defenders are talking about artificial intelligence or nuclear technology. Take the quiz below to see if you can tell the difference.

The above quotes are only part of the response and debate on artificial intelligence and nuclear technology. They have similarities, but also some notable differences: the fear of imminent devastation from atomic weapons; or the fact that advances in artificial intelligence are now primarily the work of private companies rather than governments.

But in both cases, some of the people who brought technology into the world are sounding the loudest alarms. “It’s about managing the risks of scientific progress,” Ms. Bronson, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said of AI. You don’t have to equate them to learn from them.”

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