OpenAI CEO Sam Altman once compared his firm’s controversial artificial intelligence ambitions to the Manhattan Project – the World War II-era US program to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.
Altman, 37, whose firm is behind the development of ChatGPT, reportedly invoked the Manhattan project and the words of its leader, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, while discussing the positive and negative effects of AI technology during a 2019 dinner meeting with the New York Times.
Altman said the historic effort to build the atomic bomb was a “project on the scale of OpenAI — the level of ambition we aspire to,” the New York Times reported.
The meeting reportedly occurred days after OpenAI secured a $1 billion investment from Microsoft.
“I try to be upfront,” he reportedly said said. “Am I doing something good? Or really bad?”
The tech entrepreneur reportedly touted the potential of so-called “artificial general intelligence” – or AI equal to the human brain – even as he acknowledged its potential to upend the job market, fuel disinformation on the internet and prompt other disastrous consequences.
During the meeting, Altman explained the rationale behind pursuing such controversial technology by paraphrasing Oppenheimer, who argued the advancements were inevitable.
“Technology happens because it is possible,” Altman said.
Representatives for OpenAI did not immediately return a request for comment.
Altman and Microsoft-backed OpenAI have faced unprecedented scrutiny in recent weeks due to the runaway success of ChatGPT. The chatbot has wowed the public with its lifelike responses to a variety of user prompts, even as it fuels rising concerns about AI’s destructive potential in society.
Last month, Elon Musk and more than 1,000 experts signed an open letter that urged a six-month pause in the development of advanced AI technology. The experts argued the systems could pose “profound risks to society and humanity” without proper oversight and developmental guardrails.
Risks posed by unrestrained AI include the spread of “propaganda and untruth,” job losses, the development of “nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us,” and the risk of “loss of control of our civilization,” according to the experts.
“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,” the letter says. “This pause should be public and verifiable, and include all key actors.”
Altman originally started OpenAI with tech moguls including Musk as a nonprofit — in part due to concerns that the drive for profit would fuel reckless development. Musk left OpenAI in 2018.
Altman, who also has invested in startups trying to develop clean nuclear energy and extend human lifespans, has no direct financial stake in OpenAI he told the Wall Street Journal last week.
“If you’re making nuclear fusion, it’s all upside. It’s just good,” Altman told the outlet. “If you’re making AI, it is potentially very good, potentially very terrible.”
Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman was one of the main dissenters to the idea of a pause.
Like Altman, Ackman compared the development of AI to the Manhattan Project – and warned that any delay in development would grant an advantage to US adversaries around the world.
“Shutting down AI development for six months gives the bad guys six more months to catch up,” Ackman tweeted last week. “Our enemies are working hard to develop their own @OpenAI. It would have been a mistake to delay the Manhattan Project and let the Nazis catch up. I don’t think we have a choice.”
OpenAI is one of countless firms racing to make advancements in the burgeoning AI sector. Microsoft rival Google recently released its own AI chatbot, dubbed Bard, to mixed reviews.
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