As the media obsesses over artificial intelligence with no shortage of opinions, it made me think about a post from 2016 on techno-optimism versus techno-pessimism. In that post, I defined the terms as follows:
Techno-optimism — the belief that technology can continually be improved and can improve the lives of people, making the world a better place. If you are a techno-optimist, you think technology has consistently improved our lives for the better and is likely to do so in the future. In considering societal problems, you think that the solution lies in technological innovation.
Techno-pessimism — a pessimist is likely to believe that modern technology has created as many problems for humanity as it has solved. The pessimist believes that seeking more technology is likely to bring about new problems and unforeseen consequences and dangers. Given that the pessimist sees technology creating its own problems, the answer to human progress often lies in a reduction of technological dependence, rather than an expansion of it.
This spectrum effectively captures the conversation regarding generative AI. In this emerging age of AI, one can feel both optimistic and pessimistic. On the pessimistic side, we see open letters that call for a pause in the training of language models. On the optimistic side, we see perspectives from leading figures like Ray Kurzweil.
Regarding the Open Letter to ‘pause’ research on AI ‘more powerful than GPT-4,’ this criterion is too vague to be practical. And the proposal faces a serious coordination problem: those that agree to a pause may fall far behind corporations or nations that disagree. There are tremendous benefits to advancing AI in critical fields such as medicine and health, education, pursuit of renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels, and scores of other fields. I didn’t sign, because I believe we can address the signers’ safety concerns in a more tailored way that doesn’t compromise these vital lines of research.
I am in complete agreement with Ray. History tells us that periods of great invention always take us in two directions: constructive and destructive. It is incumbent upon society to mitigate risk while enabling those innovations that advance human development. Said another way, manage the map. Allow for opportunity while limiting the disruptors.
With that said, where do you find yourself with regard to this question: Are you feeling positive or negative about the possibilities presented by rapid advances in science and technology? Please take a second to respond to the poll above. Are you a techno-optimist, techno-pessimist, or somewhere in the middle? With the expectation of rapid breakthroughs ahead, you will likely wrestle with that question a lot.