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The Campaign for Digital Disarmament

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The Campaign for Digital Disarmament

In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In it, he outlined and explained the emergence of...

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In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In it, he outlined and explained the emergence of an incredible new technology that he felt had the power to change the world. In good ways. And bad. The technology was nuclear power, which was then just emerging from academic laboratories in Europe. Einstein wanted the President to know just how existential an issue atom splitting was. Roosevelt, recognizing that an unbidden letter from the most famous scientist in the world was not an everyday occurrence, considered Einstein’s comments fully and duly set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium.

Fast forward to 1945 and the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan.

Twelve years later, Britain’s most famous professor, Bertrand Russell, was amongst the founders of The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization established to rid the world of not just nuclear weapons, but nuclear technology, period. CND, whose logo (an artistic rendering of the semaphore signals for the letters N and D) went on to become an iconic worldwide symbol of peace, was at the forefront of generations of protest, peaceful and at times quite violent, that continue to this day.

Last year, the British government passed legislation that committed trillions of pounds sterling to the next generation of nuclear submarines.

In 2009, a research project at the University of Illinois – ImageNet – began attracting attention in the press. The project team demonstrated that machine learning technology had become proficient at identifying objects in pictures without any human intervention. AI, long thought of as literally an academic exercise and the source of literary and cinematic fever dreams, was suddenly real.

In 2014, Britain’s most famous current professor, Stephen Hawking, stated that AI “could be the worst event in the history of our civilization”.

At the time of writing, the biggest, most successful, most powerful companies in the world are all “AI first” and have – at an incredible speed – injected AI into the core operation of their businesses with dramatic (positive) financial consequences.

At this week’s New York Times “Leading in the Age of AI” conference in Half Moon Bay, California, leaders from “the Four”, from the major Chinese internet companies, and from the top universities in the field, shared their views on the new AI dominated age that we are entering into.

All of them – bar one – spoke of wondrous technical achievement and amazing possibilities ahead; of curing cancer, of spreading high quality healthcare into the developing world, of modernizing manufacturing capabilities, of creating education systems fit for the 21st century.

And yet it was the one speaker who did not speak in excited tones about the wonders of AI who captured the attention of the conference attendees.

Marc Benioff, CEO of, said that the social media companies (well represented in “the Four”) were akin to cigarette manufactures. Facebook Messenger for Kids was he noted, to widespread recognition in the room, like the cigarette shaped candy that the tobacco giants of the 1950’s and 1960’s developed to build the habits – and profit streams - of a lifetime.

Benioff’s comments galvanized the mood of the attendees and from being a gathering of the brightest stars in the tech universe, the event suddenly turned into a gloomy and extended gaze into the navel of the digital revolution.

By now, I trust, my historical analogy is becoming clear. Prominent tech leader after prominent tech leader is coming out and saying, just as Einstein did about nuclear technology that AI fueled digital technology has a very real downside. An existential downside.

My expectation is that imminently we will see, as the emergence of CND followed the development of nuclear technology, the establishment of a Campaign for Digital Disarmament (CDD), as the techlash – building for some and now on full display hardens and organizes. Bodies such as the Open AI Institute and the Partnership on AI – both present at the NYT event – are sort of that, but more in my mind like the academic conclaves that discussed nuclear technology out of the public eye in the 1940s and 1950s before the issue fully exploded (probably not the right word) into the public discourse with Russell’s initiative.

I imagine CDD will set out an aggressive agenda of defanging Facebook and Twitter through extensive regulation around user profile transparency, data ownership and portability, high profile prosecutions of abusive and nefarious actors on the platforms, heavy fines to the service providers themselves if they can’t police activities on their platforms, and a raft of other measures. I imagine CDD will be led by a high profile tech player who proclaims that Dodge needs cleaning up and I’m the sheriff to do it. It’s not hard to imagine likely candidates who are musing on running for that office. Before they run for the highest one. Rewind six paragraphs for a clue.

CDD will tap a zeitgeist of fear and anxiety that is clearly abroad at the moment; responsible people, concerned about goings on in the Oval Office and their kid’s bedrooms increasingly see that there’s nothing as expensive as a free lunch, especially when they’re the product. CDD will, I foresee, become the lightning rod around which the techlash organizes itself.

And yet, though CDD will have an impact, in the way that CND did undoubtedly play a role in pushing the US to the SALT talks in 1969 and to reductions in the overall size of the nuclear stockpile, the cause of digital disarmament will ultimately go nowhere.

Enola Gay was dropped. Trident is being renewed. AI will be 100% central to ending cancer. AI will be 100% central to the next waves of major growth, opportunity, and renewal around the world. AI research, development, and deployment will not be stopped. AI will destroy jobs. AI will create jobs.

AI is here to stay.

A body such as CDD could have a very important role to play in helping set the “rules of the road” for the next phase of the development of the information superhighway. That will be a good thing, is necessary, and is to be welcomed.

But to imagine that we fully disarm – unilaterally or multilaterally – seems unimaginable.

The techlash has a ways to run. In fact, it may be the prevailing mood for some time. To extrapolate though that tech is over – that AI can be put back in the bottle (that the atom can be un-split) – is misreading the moment in history we’re in.

Einstein died in 1955, disillusioned by his inability to bend the will of the military-industrial complex in the way that in his imagination and on the blackboard he could bend light. Russell likewise, went to his grave in 1970, terrified that his children and grandchildren would soon join him in the afterlife following a nuclear catastrophe.

Of course, maybe ultimately they’ll be proven right – Rocket Man’s as unpredictable as the current occupant of the room where Einstein’s letter was sent.

But I doubt it. Just as I doubt that AI will fulfill its doomsday prophecy.

More likely, and in an irony that seemed lost at the NYT conference, AI will be key to making digital what we all want it to – a force for growth, for inclusion, for security, and opportunity. AI may have been involved in the poisoning of the digital well, but AI will be core to cleaning it up.

As the O.G. of AI – Andrew Ng – put it, “AI is the new electricity”. (Another irony, lots of electricity comes from nuclear power plants). Just as no business could run without electricity, Ng suggested, soon, no business will be able to run without AI.

So, my takeaway from two days of More Wondering About What To Do When Machines Do Everything was, look out for the CDD. They’re coming to a town near you soon. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk will draw quite a crowd. I’ll watch out for you on the march. I’ll wave. Good for you. But I won’t be joining you. Nuclear technology – despite its downsides – is still with us. And AI will be with us (the world) long after we’re (you and I) hanging with Al and Bertie.

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