It seems the code in Silicon Valley has changed. Of course, one event alone is not enough to bring about structural change, but a few of them ecosystem-wide can truly shake things up. One such example is the petition championed by Elon Musk and hundreds of experts calling for a “pause” in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, just a few lines of text published on 28 March have cut through two fundamentals of Silicon Valley ideology: the cult of performance and the parasitism of the state.
Since the 1970s and the birth of the microcomputer, Silicon Valley has been the pinnacle of performance, the obsession with which has reached new heights with the launch of ChatGPT. From the get-go, generative AI has primarily been viewed in terms of its economic potential.
Its ability to support the narrative that Silicon Valley remains a business maker – even in a time when interest rates are tightening – has left the Valley awestruck. In the words of Michael Dempsey, one of its most influential investors, “Entrepreneurs needed something new to talk about that would get venture capitalists excited.”
As early as 7 January, New York Times tech specialist Cade Metz expressed alarm at the generative AI investment frenzy (“A New Area of A.I. Booms, Even Amid the Tech Gloom”). According to PitchBook, a site specialising in mapping financial flows in the tech sector, investors sank nearly $1.37 billion into generative AI start-ups in 2022. This number matches their total investments in the past five years!
The one thing that all of these players have in common is that they value performance over impact. But we may be on the verge of a reversal of this dysfunctional hierarchy
The petition states that certainty of positive effects should come before the development of powerful AI systems. Admittedly, some might find it laughable that it has taken 67 years since the 1956 Dartmouth Conference (USA) – the legendary birthplace of AI – for us to think about the negative externalities of AI, or even doubt Elon Musk’s sincerity. But this call comes at a time when the demand for ethics is becoming increasingly prevalent among public opinion. Tech lay-offs at every turn have perhaps overshadowed this demand, but the resignation of talent, for whom technology is not an end in itself, remains a reality.
This could well be the founding act by stakeholders of an artificial intelligence that is based on “more accurate, secure, interpretable, transparent, robust, aligned, trustworthy and loyal” systems… provided that Silicon Valley does not forget where it came from.
In 1945, during World War II, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), Science Advisor to President Roosevelt, wrote a report titled “Science, The Endless Frontier”. Therein, he set out his famous innovation triangle: government, industry and university. The report would lead to the creation of the National Science Foundation, which – alongside the US Department of Defense – became the leading research investor in the United States.
However, while the Internet, Siri and Google Cars can all trace their origins back to military programmes, ironically the state remains conspicuously absent from Silicon Valley’s story. And yet, just like the epicentre of world tech relied on the state to get started, its most recent innovation will also need the state’s help if it is to prosper.
Regulation is, after all, the only leverage powerful enough to keep generative AI in line. While awareness may, by definition, be a necessary internal part of the tech world, it should not be trusted with creating a framework. The recent cuts in ethics departments at certain large tech companies are proof of this.
The “robust governance systems” called for by the signatories will require inspiration from both Europe and the US. Europe for its ability to create frameworks on the fly, taking into account organisational challenges; the US for its emphasis on rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing criminal conduct. In this respect, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a lesson on how to transform an industry – in this case, the energy industry – without ruffling any feathers.
Of course, many questions still need to be answered, such as: ‘How do we convert the awareness of a few into global change?’, ‘How do we organise this governance?’ However, given the high standing of its signatories and the strength of its argument, this open letter does have the potential to create the conditions needed for a new world order when it comes to AI. This is a key moment in history, perhaps even as significant as the Dartmouth Conference.
Ekimetrics is a company specialising in artificial intelligence solutions for businesses.