Strange things are happening in the artificial intelligence world.
Last month some scientists at industry-leading OpenAI sent a letter to their board warning about a new discovery they feared would threaten humanity.
What was it? We don’t know. One story says an AI project called “Q-star” was showing human-like math skills. The researchers supposedly thought the system was becoming dangerously intelligent.
This may have been related to the drama soon afterward in which the OpenAI board fired CEO Sam Altman, only to bring him back days later. We don’t know what that was about, either. But OpenAI now has some new board members including Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and economist who was sure inflation would cause mass unemployment last year.
That didn’t happen. But could the AI systems whose inventors now work for the same Larry Summers kill all our jobs, thus proving Summers was right? Maybe, but count me dubious.
I used to see AI as a big threat to human employment. Now I’m not so sure. With workers in short supply, I think AI will more likely let employers squeeze more productivity from the same number of workers.
That’s not all bad, given the structural labor shortage. Yet AI will still bring big changes… and some may be scary.
Remember Edward Snowden? He was the National Security Agency analyst who in 2013 spilled the beans about the US intelligence community’s aggressive data collection programs.
Snowden’s motive is still murky. It may have actually been a Russian intelligence operation. But the NSA “collect it all” strategy he revealed was quite real.
One little detail from back then stuck with me: The NSA had a way to remotely activate iPhone microphones and listen to whatever was being said nearby, even with the phone turned off.
That’s pretty scary if you think about it… but the public response was a giant yawn. Not long after, Americans began inviting strangers to listen to us over voice control devices like Amazon’s Alexa. Privacy is overrated, it seems.
The main backers of this capability seem to be not intelligence agencies, but advertisers. Noticed how you can mention a product in casual conversation, then suddenly ads for it are everywhere you look? Spooky.
It’s not clear this is always voice-driven. Maybe you also sought the product on a search engine, which then used that knowledge to show you relevant ads.
Whatever the advertisers are doing is creepy but usually harmless. It might even help direct you to what you need. All good. But what happens when AI gets involved?
Answer: The surveillance accelerates to lightspeed.
Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier has a terrifying new post on AI and Mass Spying you really should read. AI changes everything.
“It has long been possible to tap someone’s phone or put a bug in their home and/or car, but those things still require someone to listen to and make sense of the conversations… Spying is limited by the need for human labor.
“AI is about to change that. Summarization is something a modern generative AI system does well. Give it an hourlong meeting, and it will return a one-page summary of what was said. Ask it to search through millions of conversations and organize them by topic, and it’ll do that. Want to know who is talking about what? It’ll tell you.
“The technologies aren’t perfect; some of them are pretty primitive. They miss things that are important. They get other things wrong. But so do humans. And, unlike humans, AI tools can be replicated by the millions and are improving at astonishing rates. They’ll get better next year, and even better the year after that. We are about to enter the era of mass spying.
“Mass surveillance fundamentally changed the nature of surveillance. Because all the data is saved, mass surveillance allows people to conduct surveillance backward in time, and without even knowing whom specifically you want to target. Tell me where this person was last year. List all the red sedans that drove down this road in the past month. List all of the people who purchased all the ingredients for a pressure cooker bomb in the past year. Find me all the pairs of phones that were moving toward each other, turned themselves off, then turned themselves on again an hour later while moving away from each other (a sign of a secret meeting).
“Similarly, mass spying will change the nature of spying. All the data will be saved. It will all be searchable, and understandable, in bulk. Tell me who has talked about a particular topic in the past month, and how discussions about that topic have evolved. Person A did something; check if someone told them to do it. Find everyone who is plotting a crime, or spreading a rumor, or planning to attend a political protest.”
That last part is critical. It’s not just about “them” hearing what you said yesterday. AI enables long-term tracking and analysis. Which, for a business seeking customers who fit a certain profile, is a really valuable tool. You can bet many will take advantage.
One economic danger here is if people respond to mass surveillance with self-censorship. Growth depends on the free flow of ideas. If you can’t speak freely in your own office, business ideas that might otherwise have been huge may never even be mentioned.
This is why authoritarian regimes can rarely sustain economic growth. The US isn’t like the Soviet Union (yet). But we’ll soon have technology the KGB never dreamed of.
See you at the top,