Are we on the brink of a robot uprising? Billionaire mogul Elon Musk and a range of experts called on Wednesday, March 29, in an open letter for a pause in the development of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) systems to allow time to make sure they are safe.

An open letter, signed by more than 1,000 people so far including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, was prompted by the release of GPT-4 from Microsoft-backed firm OpenAI.

The company says its latest model is much more powerful than the previous version, which was used to power ChatGPT, a bot capable of generating tracts of text from the briefest of prompts.

“AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity,” said the open letter titled “Pause Giant AI Experiments”.

“Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable,” it said.

elon musk AI open letter
An open letter calling for a pause in AI experiments is hosted by the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute and was signed by prominent critics as well as competitors of OpenAI. (Image: Frederic J. Brown/ AFP)

Musk was an initial investor in OpenAI, spent years on its board, and his car firm Tesla develops AI systems to help power its self-driving technology, among other applications.

The letter, hosted by the Musk-funded Future of Life Institute, was signed by prominent critics as well as competitors of OpenAI like Stability AI chief Emad Mostaque. You can read it in full here.

Canadian AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio, also a signatory, at a virtual press conference in Montreal warned “that society is not ready” for this powerful tool, and its possible misuse.

“Let’s slow down. Let’s make sure that we develop better guardrails,” he said, calling for a thorough international discussion about AI and its implications, “like we’ve done for nuclear power and nuclear weapons.”

Other details in the open letter about the risks of AI

The letter quoted from a blog written by OpenAI founder Sam Altman, who suggested that “at some point, it may be important to get independent review before starting to train future systems”.

“We agree. That point is now,” the authors of the open letter wrote. “Therefore, we call on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.”

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Debate surrounds an open letter calling for a pause on advanced AI research. (Image: Josep Lago/ AFP)

They called for governments to step in and impose a moratorium if companies failed to agree.

The six months should be used to develop safety protocols, AI governance systems, and refocus research on ensuring AI systems are more accurate, safe, “trustworthy and loyal”.

The letter did not detail the dangers revealed by GPT-4. But researchers including Gary Marcus of New York University, who signed the letter, have long argued that chatbots are great liars and have the potential to be superspreaders of disinformation.

However, author Cory Doctorow has compared the AI industry to a “pump and dump” scheme, arguing that both the potential and the threat of AI systems have been massively overhyped.

Some experts disagree

Timnit Gebru, whose academic paper was cited to support the letter’s claim, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that her article actually warns against making such inflated claims about AI. “They basically say the opposite of what we say and cite our paper,” she wrote.

Her co-author Emily Bender said the letter was a “hot mess” and was “just dripping with AI hype”.

The risks of AI, she wrote, were never about AI being “too powerful” but rather they were “about concentration of power in the hands of people, about reproducing systems of oppression, about damage to the information ecosystem”.

Just hours after the letter was published, signatory Emad Mostaque, boss of British start-up Stability AI, had backed away from one of its central demands. “I don’t think a six-month pause is the best idea,” he wrote on Twitter.

He said, though, that there were “some interesting things” in the letter and it would help spark a debate.

Another signatory, psychology professor Gary Marcus, spent much of the day battling on Twitter with critics including computer science academic Nick Holliman, who accused him of taking part in a “silly distraction”.

“I have repeatedly argued… that we must be concerned with how existing systems perpetuate past bias,” he wrote after one user suggested the letter was signed by “white men” unconcerned with the current problems caused by algorithms.

This story was published via AFP Relaxnews

(Main and featured image: D Koi/ Unsplash)

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