Evgeny Morozov: AI, neoliberalism’s hip friend

Alongside the war in Ukraine, the new wave of the migration crisis, and the ongoing disaster of climate change, artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the subjects that have dominated the world this year. Depending on who you listen to, it will either solve all of humanity’s problems – or it will destroy civilization as we know it. Here is our first paradox: sometimes, it’s the very same people who say both things. And, surprisingly, they mostly come from Silicon Valley… 

Let’s go through some of the main AI-related developments this year, just to get a glimpse of what’s going on. I’ve described many of them in a long essay that appeared in the New York Times earlier this year. 

Evgeny Morozov, Internazionale a Ferrara 2023.
The author in Ferrara, during the International Festival 2023. | Photo: Gian-Paolo Accardo.

Let me give away the basic premise here: our current infatuation with the promise of AI is, in many ways, just an extension of our infatuation with the market and neoliberalism. There’s no way to understand why so many public institutions are falling for the sweet promises of AI pushers other than situate this marketing push in the broader history of privatizing solutions to what are otherwise public and collective problems. So to solve our problems via AI today is tantamount to solving them by the market. Personally, I find it problematic – and I hope that you do too. But this connection – between today’s AI and neoliberalism – is not well understood. So let me explain this a bit better. 

In May, more than 350 technology executives, researchers and academics signed a statement warning of the existential dangers of artificial intelligence. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” the signatories warned.

This came on the heels of another high-profile letter, signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple, calling for a six-month moratorium on the development of advanced A.I. systems.

Neoliberalism is far from dead. Worse, it has found an ally in AGI-ism, which stands to reinforce and replicate its main biases

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has urged responsible A.I. innovation, stating that “in order to seize the opportunities” it offers, we “must first manage its risks.” In Congress, senators called for “first of their kind” listening sessions on the potential and risks of A.I., a crash course of sorts from industry executives, academics, civil rights activists and other stakeholders.

The mounting anxiety about A.I. isn’t because of the boring but reliable technologies that autocomplete our text messages or direct robot vacuums to dodge obstacles in our living rooms. It is the rise of artificial general intelligence, or AGI, that worries the experts.

AGI doesn’t exist yet, but some believe that the rapidly growing capabilities of OpenAI’s ChatGPT suggest its emergence is near. Sam Altman, a co-founder of OpenAI, has described it as “systems that are generally smarter than humans.” Building such systems remains a daunting – some say impossible – task. But the benefits appear truly tantalizing.

Take Roombas, the smart vacuum cleaners. No longer condemned to vacuuming the floors, they might evolve into all-purpose robots, happy to brew morning coffee or fold laundry. The charm here is that, with AGI, they’ll be able to do it without ever being programmed to do these things.

Sounds appealing. But should these AGI Roombas get too powerful, their mission to create a spotless utopia might get messy for their dust-spreading human masters. After all, it’s us, the humans, who are the cause of all that dust – and, once again, since these Roombas are never properly programmed, they might reason that eliminating humans is one way to keep the household clean. So, think twice before getting yourself an AGI-powered Roomba. 

Discussions of AGI are rife with such apocalyptic scenarios. Yet a nascent AGI lobby of academics, investors and entrepreneurs counter that, once made safe, AGI would be a boon to civilization. Mr. Altman, the face of this campaign, embarked on a global tour to charm lawmakers. Earlier this year he wrote that AGI might even turbocharge the economy, boost scientific knowledge and “elevate humanity by increasing abundance.”

This is why, for all the hand-wringing, so many smart people in the tech industry are toiling to build this controversial technology: not using it to save the world seems immoral. So the risks of AGI destroying the plane pale in comparison with its promises: to cure cancer or to eliminate illiteracy or to give all of us a personal secretary. 

All these tech visionaries are beholden to an ideology that views this n…

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