Yuval Harari on Threats to Humanity Posed by A.I.

The “Terminator” franchise depicted robots running in the streets and shooting people. “The Matrix” assumed that to gain total control of human society, A.I. would have to first gain physical control of our brains, and hook our brains directly to a computer network. In fact, however, simply by gaining mastery of language, A.I. would have all it needs to contain us in a Matrix-like world of illusions, without shooting anyone or implanting any chips in our brains. If any shooting is necessary, A.I. could make humans pull the trigger, just by telling us the right story.

The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’s demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away — or even realize it is there.

Social media was the “first contact” between A.I. and humanity, and humanity lost. “First contact” has given us the bitter taste of things to come. In social media, primitive A.I. was used not to create content, but to curate user-generated content. The A.I. behind our news feeds is still choosing which words, sounds and images reach our retinas and eardrums, based on selecting those that will get the most virality, the most reaction, and the most engagement.

While very primitive, the A.I. behind social media was sufficient to create a curtain of illusions that increased societal polarization, undermined our mental health, and unraveled democracy. Millions of people have confused these illusions for reality. The U.S.A. has the best information technology in history, yet U.S. citizens can no longer agree on who won elections. Though everyone is by now aware of the downside of social media, it hasn’t been addressed, because too much of our social, economic and political institutions have become entangled with it.

Large language models is our “second contact” with A.I. We cannot afford to lose again. But on what basis should we believe humanity is capable of aligning these new forms of A.I. to our benefit? If we continue with business as usual, the new A.I. capacities will again be used to gain profit and power, even if it inadvertently destroys the foundations of our society.