“My concern with artificial intelligence is the existential threat,” says Eric Schmidt. The American was Google CEO from 2001 to 2011, then executive chairman of the board of directors of Google and Alphabet until 2017. “We don’t understand the implications of having such a level of intelligence that accompanies us every day, minute and hour. The ability (of artificial intelligence, AI) to work with us has never existed,” he warns Doctor of Computer Engineering.
During his appearance at a Wall Street Journal event in London on Wednesday, Schmidt also explained what he means by existential threat: “Existential threat is defined as the injury or killing of many, many, many, many people. That’s the definition.”
“And there are scenarios – not today, but quite soon – where these systems will be able to find zero-day exploits and machines or new kinds of biology,” Schmidt continued, “Sure, that is fiction today, but the conclusions are probably correct. When that happens, we need to make sure that we are ready, that these things aren’t being abused by evil people.” (Zero Day denotes previously unknown bugs in IT systems, note.)
National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence
Schmidt has been dealing with the subject for a long time, and not just as a hobby. In his capacity as Chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (such as the Commission on Artificial Intelligence and National Security), he and 14 other experts wrote a comprehensive report in 2021. “Americans have not yet realized how fundamentally the AI revolution will affect our economy, national security and welfare,” reads the first sentence of the 750-page document.
Even then, Schmidt delivered “uncomfortable news”: “America is not prepared to defend itself or be competitive in the AI era.” On the other hand, one includes a “strategy to defend ourselves against AI threats, use AI responsibly for national security, and win the broader technology competition”. The commission specifically identified China as a threat. The country is mentioned more than 600 times in the document, and Russia only a good 60 times.
“We must win the AI competition, which is an increasing strategic competition with China. China’s plans, resources and progress should interest all Americans. It is peer in many AI fields and a leader in some AI applications. We embrace China’s aspiration to overtake the US as the world’s AI leader within a decade,” wrote Schmidt and his vice-chairman Bob Work in the introduction. And: “China’s domestic use of AI sets a frightening precedent for anyone around the world who values individual freedom.”
America’s Hegemony is waning
The report’s executive summary admits that there is still much to be learned about AI and its future applications. But the experts have come to two fundamental convictions: First, AI is changing the world. AI brings the strongest tools in a human generation and is at the same time “dual use”, i.e. suitable for both civilian purposes and weapons.
Second, AI increases the vulnerability of the United States of America: “For the first time since World War II, America’s technological supremacy – the backbone of its economic and military power – is under threat.” Not only could China overtake the US in AI, AI also amplifies the threats of IT attacks and disinformation campaigns “which Russia, China and others are using to infiltrate our society, steal our data and interfere with our democracy.”
Two chapters of the report are then also devoted to the challenge of upholding democratic values such as data protection and civil rights when using AI for US national security purposes (pages 141 ff and 395 ff).
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