Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told radio host Hugh Hewitt that humanity is “racing headfirst into a new era of artificial intelligence” without sufficient preparations of how that will impact the world.
“Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, a lot of really smart people are sounding an alarm that we’re not hearing,” Clinton said in an interview promoting her new book. “And their alarm is artificial intelligence is not our friend. It can assist us in many ways if it is properly understood and contained. But we are racing headfirst into a new era of artificial intelligence that is going to have dramatic effects on how we live, how we think, how we relate to each other.”
Artifical intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes — such as learning, reasoning, and self-correction — by machines. The technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, leading to innovations including smart home assistants and automated stock trading. At the same time, the evolution of AI has led to fears that AI could eventually surpass human understanding and upend societies.
‘We just don’t know’
Contrary to Clinton’s claim, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates hasn’t actually said that “artificial intelligence is not our friend.” In the foreword of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s book, Gates wrote that “AI is on the verge of making our lives more productive and creative” while also highlighting inherent challenges: “How do we help people whose jobs are replaced by AI agents and robots? Will users trust their AI agent with all their information?”
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is perhaps the most apocalyptic voice when it comes to AI, asserting that the technology poses a “fundamental risk to the existence of civilization” and is the most likely cause for World War III.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is ambiguous on AI, recently stating that creating effective AI “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”
‘We are totally unprepared’
Speaking to Hewitt, Clinton highlighted the potential negative consequences of integrating AI into society.
“You know, what are we going to do when we get driverless cars?” she continued. “It sounds like a great idea. And how many millions of people, truck drivers and parcel delivery people and cab drivers and even Uber drivers, what do we do with the millions of people who will no longer have a job? We are totally unprepared for that. What do we do when we are connected to the internet of things and everything we know and everything we say and everything we write is, you know, recorded somewhere? And it can be manipulated against us.”
Whatever happens, Hawking stressed, humans should be ready.
“Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization,” he told the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal earlier this month. “It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”
In 2015 Musk and Hawking joined other tech pioneers and academics in signing an open letter urging significant research on the societal impacts of AI.
Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election, noted that “one thing I wanted to do if I had been president was to have a kind of blue-ribbon commission with people from all kinds of expertise coming together to say what should America’s policy on artificial intelligence be?”
To be sure, Earth is facing some big problems, including climate change, overpopulation, epidemics, and asteroid strikes. But before we flee this planet like an action hero jumping out of an explosion, let’s think about this for a second. Sure, it’d be great to have a backup civilization somewhere in case asteroids wipe out all life on Earth. And it would be one of the most exciting things humankind has ever done. But what would it actually require?
Finding a second home for humanity
Mars is a somewhat obvious choice because it’s nearby, but it’s not exactly Earth 2.0. In fact, it’s arguably a lot worse off than Earth. It has toxic soil, it’s freezing cold, and the air is unbreathable. Any Martian colony would likely rely on regular care packages from home, which would not work well if Earth was done-zo.
If we really want to find the perfect home away from home, we could look to other star systems: with billions of planets in the Milky Way, there’s a good chance some will have water, land, and breathable air. But so far we haven’t found Earth’s twin, and our telescopes don’t have the kind of resolution that could tell us in detail what an exoplanet is like. Also, it would take hundreds of years to get there, and if those passengers don’t die along the way, they’d likely evolve into a new species before they even got to their new planet.
Bringing enough people
We would need to send significant numbers of people to other worlds in order to ensure the survival of the human species. Small colonies are subject to genetic anomalies from inbreeding, and vulnerable to getting wiped out in accidents.
NASA’s missions to Mars will likely only carry as many as six people at a time to the red planet. SpaceX wants to develop an Interplanetary Transport System to deliver 100 Martian settlers at a time, but at the moment it is nothing more than an imaginary behemoth.
The interstellar route is even more challenging, because we don’t even have an imaginary spacecraft capable of supporting thousands of people for hundreds of years on an interstellar journey.
And in either case, there’s always the politically charged question of: who goes and who stays? Do poor and disadvantaged people get left behind on a hellish world?
If we really want to thrive on another planet, we’ll probably have to adapt the environment to suit our needs. Sure, we might be able to terraform Mars, but it would take about 100,000 years for its atmosphere to become breathable. Hope you’re not in a rush to go outdoors without a gas mask anytime soon.
Paying for it
NASA’s Journey to Mars is expected to cost up to $1.5 trillion. And that’s just for the first crews. Later on, launches bringing settlers and supplies to the colony would probably still cost hundreds of millions of dollars each.
And SpaceX’s plan to build the Interplanetary Transport System sounds great, but CEO Elon Musk has been very open about saying the company has no idea how it would pay for such a vessel.
And exactly who would pay to colonize Mars? Why would the U.S. government spend all that money to sustain a colony? What would we get out of it, besides better chances for the survival of our species? Will the Martian colony produce valuable exports, besides the (obviously awesome) scientific discoveries that would come out of it?
Surely there are a few wealthy Earthlings willing to pay millions of dollars each for a ride to and a habitat on an alien world, but the majority of folks who want to go to the red planet hope to come home afterwards.
Solving the problems that are killing Earth
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Even if we do successfully colonize another planet, we’ll still have to solve all the problems that Earth currently faces. Our technologies are just as likely to destroy the environment on other planets, and epidemics and asteroids could wipe out a Martian settlement much easier than they could obliterate the entire population of Earth.
The television show that Stephen Hawking is promoting is all about how human ingenuity is solving the challenges of colonizing Mars. Well, surely if we can figure out how to survive on a completely alien world, then we can figure out how to survive in our own home—possibly a lot more easily and cheaply than the alternative.