grayscale photo of explosion on the beach

On the brink of Destruction: A Cautionary Tale for AI Enthusiasts

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

You might be familiar with this quote. It has been recently popularized in Christopher Nolan’s epic Oppenheimer, which I was lucky to watch just yesterday. This quote brings back memories. You might not know this, but I once almost earned an MA in political science. I had recently graduated from the Catholic University of Goiás in International Relations and written my undergrad dissertation about the Eurozone crisis in 2012. When I joined the poli sci master’s program, I wanted to write about Ukraine and the reannexation of Crimea. My advisor at the time was a Cold War expert and I somehow ended up writing about the Ukrainian post-Cold War denuclearization policy.

It sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, to make the story short, I was doing a lot of research on how Ukraine and Russia orchestrated a major challenge after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were thousands of nuclear warheads spread all over the former Soviet Union’s territory. With the dissolution of its nation, a lot of “new” countries found themselves storing these weapons. That was a threat to global security, after all, some governments having control of a potential atomic bomb can make a lot of people uneasy.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” was the inscription I chose to open my dissertation with after having learned that Robert Oppenheimer quoted it as he was an incredibly knowledgeable man and somewhat into Hinduism. Oppenheimer was the father of the atomic bomb, in case you didn’t know. The quote comes from a Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, and it refers to the story involving a discussion between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an incarnation of the deity Vishnu. Arjuna hesitates to wage war against his own relatives, but Krishna insists it’s his duty, known as “dharma”. Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his divine form, the “multiarmed form” and says:

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form

The movie shows how Oppenheimer was eager to test the first atomic bomb (Trinity Test – 1945), but also how divided he was upon realizing its awesome power. Some were ecstatic. General Thomas F. Farrell said:

the whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately

On August 6, 1945, three weeks after Trinity Test, at 8:15a.m., local time, a bomber aircraft under American Major Thomas Ferebee’s command launched Little Boy on Hiroshima in Japan, weighing 64kg full of uranium-235. Almost 45 seconds later, hundreds of thousands of Japanese saw a flash of white light followed by a deafening boom seconds later. In the next seconds, practically everything and everyone in a 1.6-km radius disintegrated. Over 70 thousand people were instantly vaporized or carbonized, hundreds of buildings and other constructions had their walls ripped off by the shockwave, and another 70 thousand were severely injured with burns from the collapses and smoke and debris inhalation.

Scientific discovery implications

Oppenheimer never apologized for the bombings of Japan. Maybe he should have shown some remorse publicly – maybe he shouldn’t. Some say his subsequent actions and policies, starting from 1945, speak for themselves. He was quite vocal about the dangers of this new nuclear era. He somehow demonstrated the behavior of someone burdened by guilt. The question here is: should he be blamed for what happened? He was, after all, the head of the Manhattan Project and the bomb may not have been created if it were not for him. Are scientists responsible for the bad – and good – outcomes of their discoveries?

I suppose his sense of duty – his “dharma”, we might say – compelled him to work on the project and beat the Nazis who, if had accomplished the task of producing a bomb, would have caused a lot more damage (The Man in the High Castle shows this alternative reality). He also believed that a weapon with astonishing power would probably put an end to all wars. We can see how gullible he was or at least how he rationalized the things he was doing.

We must remember that groundbreaking scientific discoveries are the product of years of research and joint effort. I mean, the team of scientists led by Oppenheimer had some of the brightest brains of the time.

What about AI?

As we reflect on the legacy of Oppenheimer, we can’t help but draw parallels to the contemporary world of artificial intelligence (AI). Just as Oppenheimer grappled with the consequences of unleashing the atomic bomb, today’s AI researchers and developers are confronted with profound ethical considerations. AI has the power to revolutionize industries, improve lives, and solve complex problems, but it also raises significant ethical, social, and political questions.

I myself wrote an article for New Routes Magazine with the title Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching: Not a Pandora’s Box (I may have been too optimistic at the time). However, I would also be gullible and blind to the devastating implications AI can have in the near and not-so-near future. Funnily enough, while waiting for Oppenheimer to start at a local theater, my wife and I watched a preview of The Creator, a movie that shows a dystopian future where humans are at war against AI – nothing we hadn’t already seen in Terminator or The Matrix.

If anything, Oppenheimer’s story underscores the importance of ethical responsibility in scientific and technological advancement. It prompts us to ask who should bear responsibility for the consequences of new technologies. AI consequences can already be seen and might manifest in issues like bias in algorithms, loss of privacy, and job displacement due to automation – have you heard about the Hollywood strike? And it gets worse. AI can help ill-intentioned people manipulate objective reality by creating realistic images, videos, and text. If AI keeps evolving – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – how will individuals, organizations, governments, and large corporations use it and how will it affect the lives of thousands, millions, even billions of people around the globe?

I tend to remain optimistic nonetheless. We haven’t had the global nuclear war many novels and movies promised us. We are still alive. We can learn and act collectively to stop – or at least minimize – the outcomes of modern tech and our reckless actions. However, I admit that watching Oppenheimer made me scared – it actually felt like a horror movie at times. If History has taught us anything, it’s that if something new is available, we will use it – and so will anyone else to accomplish the most unthinkable things. Science is amazing and it does make life better. However, we do need to make sure the consequences of any new scientific tool – as explosive as they can be – don’t blow up in our faces and bring us closer to destroying ourselves.

I think that should be our dharma, don’t you think? I am not religious and I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but I do like languages and a quick search about the term tells me that “dharma” comes from Sanskrit and it means:

-religious and moral law governing individual conduct consisting of truthfulness, non-injury, and generosity, among other virtues

-the doctrine, the universal truth common to all individuals at all times, proclaimed by the Buddha

I wish our universal truth, our moral law were that proclaimed by many religions and in Medicine: Do no harm. I just hope more people can learn how to use the things we create to do good. That’s the optimist – and maybe naive – in me wondering.

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