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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Navigating AI's Treacherous Waters: Humanity's Titanic Voyage

As humanity enters the uncharted waters of AI, can we avoid the icebergs?



KEY POINTS

  • Humanity faces existential risks from AI, much like the Titanic's ill-fated voyage.

  • The story of the Titanic can serve as a cautionary tale in which ambition and overconfidence lead to tragedy.

  • Even if someone isn't concerned about AI, they should be able to identify their "Titanic Wake-Up Calls."

I've been voicing concerns about AI since January 2023, when I first tried ChatGPT, a pioneering generative AI. Although I'm a tech enthusiast and see AI's great potential to better the world. I'm also aware of its many risks. Accessing AI's benefits also opens doors to its misuse. Echoing lessons from the Spider-Man movies, "With great power comes great responsibility." Harnessing AI's benefits while minimizing its risks will require great wisdom, skill, and unity.


To help you grasp AI's risks, I'd like you to entertain a thought experiment for a moment. Will you join me? It's important.


All Aboard Titanic Humanity

Imagine humanity is aboard a vast ship, Titanic Humanity, and sailing through endless oceans. It's a melting pot of cultures, religions, and ideas—essentially, it's us. On Titanic Humanity, diverse groups self-govern, build businesses, and engage in leisure. While tensions and conflicts do arise, many also find joy in friendships, family, and festivities during their voyage.


Life on Titanic Humanity has generally improved, though it's had its share of storms and setbacks, the ship has weathered damage, but we patch it up and continue. While internal conflicts haven't sunk us yet, the possibility looms. Despite these concerns, the journey has been relatively peaceful lately.


Yet, something is different now. Titanic Humanity has entered some very strange waters. There is a frigid chill as temperatures drop. There's mist in the air as the light plays tricks upon the water. The visibility has become poor. Reports of ice flows and potential icebergs have surfaced. Some passengers insist that continuing on this course is inviting disaster. They want to turn the ship around.


Though many passengers are increasingly worried about potential icebergs, no one can know for certain how many and how dangerous these icebergs are. Some insist that the risks will only escalate as the ship advances into these uncharted waters. These waters are so strange and different that even the most skilled sailors can't rely on past experience to foresee what lies ahead.


Many passengers are thrilled about the prospect of discovering new lands and untold riches in the unexplored vastness. Could there be treasures beyond our wildest dreams? A fountain of youth? Perhaps Titanic Humanity discovers a utopian paradise within these unexplored waters? Those who believe that there are fortunes to be had in this New World don't want to slow down at all. In fact, they wish to speed up in order to get these imagined riches as fast as possible.


Many passengers are preoccupied with daily life and too busy keeping their heads above water to worry about the ship's safety. They're consumed with their daily struggles. They focus on making it through the day and leave it to others to address any looming dangers.

While turning back from this voyage doesn't seem like an option, it's entirely possible to slow down and take greater caution when entering these weird waters. As the Titanic Humanity sails into these oceans of uncertainty, what are we to do? What is the wise and skillful course to follow? To decide, it may help to recall lessons from the real Titanic's tragic tale...


Lessons From the Titanic

The Titanic's story endures within our collective consciousness because its fate was avoidable and largely human-made. On April 14, 1912, it left England with 2,223 on board. Four days later, despite iceberg warnings, it struck one, which tore a huge gash along its hull. In just 2 hours and 40 minutes, the ship sank. The lack of lifeboats and freezing water led to the deaths of 1,517 people, most of whom were third-class passengers.


While many factors contributed to the sinking of the Titanic, perhaps one of the foremost reasons is that the Titanic was naively believed to be unsinkable. Engineers and investors were so enamored with their own ingenuity that they believed the Titanic simply couldn't sink. Caution took a backseat to pride, ambition, and overconfidence, which contributed to this disaster. Director James Cameron's 1997 epic blockbuster, Titanic, masterfully immortalized the gut-wrenching tragedy of the event while seamlessly integrating a fictional love story to amplify the emotional impact.


Sadly, in June of 2023, a deep-sea submersible named The Titan was exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. Led by wealthy adventurer and Titanic enthusiast Stockton Rush, along with four passengers, the expedition ended in irony. Much like the original crew and backers of the Titanic, Rush dismissed important regulatory safety measures, placing unfaltering confidence in his engineering skills and the sub's design. This overconfidence proved to be their undoing, as a structural failure related to its design caused The Titan to sink—tragically mirroring the fate of the very ship it was investigating.


What's Your "Titanic Wake-Up Call"?

Our human history is filled with cautionary tales of how human greed, pride, ambition, overconfidence, ego, naïveté, and recklessness can lead to disaster and suffering (e.g., Frankenstein's Monster, Jurassic Park, The Terminator, Ex Machina, Westworld, Wall Street). Yet, perhaps none resonate so deeply in our consciousness as the sinking of the Titanic because it really happened. This avoidable tragedy embodies the cautionary tale that is now embedded in our psyche. Yet, what have we learned?


Let's put ourselves back aboard Titanic Humanity because, in effect, that's where we are. We are heading into the AI oceans of uncertainty. Many don't believe there's any chance of encountering icebergs ahead and argue that there's no need to slow down. Many of us are too busy to be concerned. 


As we imagine ourselves aboard Titanic Humanity, what would we have to see or experience to convince us that it would be prudent to slow down as we navigate these potentially treacherous waters? What would these "icebergs" look like? AI cyberattacks that take down power grids or cause stock market crashes? AIs used for bioterrorism? Too many people falling in love with AI chatbotsAI "resurrections" of deceased loved ones? Deep fakes creating toxic divisions within our democracy? Massive job losses to AIs?


Fortunately, our Titanic Humanity is not doomed. However, we are entering these AI oceans of uncertainty. The crucial question is this: At what point does AI become your "Titanic Wake-Up Call" and compel you to not only acknowledge the iceberg ahead but to join the chorus of those sounding the alarm?


Even if you don't see any icebergs now or believe any are up ahead, we should all be able to identify what we would have to see to convince us otherwise. When you hear the Titanic Wake-Up Call, it means you've seen enough to convince you that slowing down is the prudent and wise course of action. You are willing to make some noise and insist on regulation because you realize that if we go full speed ahead, we are much more likely to run into some of these icebergs.


Even those of us who believe that Titanic Humanity will enter an ocean of very formidable AI icebergs can't say with any certainty what will happen. I cannot speak for everyone, but I believe that many of us feel that because we aren't certain, nor can we be certain, of what lies ahead, we wish to heed our cautionary tales. We know that we humans can be our own worst enemies; tragedies do happen, and there is nothing that can guarantee safe passage. We believe in logic, rationality, and caution over some kind of blind faith and hubris that humanity is unsinkable.


We recount cautionary tales to avoid making the same fatal mistakes. A purpose in life is to learn and grow, and one way we can fulfill that purpose is to learn lessons from our cautionary tales. While the sinking of the Titanic was an absolute tragedy, perhaps one way we can honor those who died so horribly is to learn from them. They are speaking to us right now and imploring us to slow down. Will we listen to them?


If you are not concerned about AI now, those of us who are understand. However, we ask that you identify your 'Titanic Wake-Up Call' regarding AI. If it comes, promise yourself that you will take action. For those who hear this wake-up call, please support our push for AI regulation so that we can avoid hitting these icebergs. We would be thrilled to have you join us. We welcome you as a fellow concerned citizen. Then, we can explore these uncharted waters safely when we use our cautionary tales to light our way into this New World.

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