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This time it’s different

Innovations in artificial intelligence are not a passing fad whose consequences are being exaggerated. These are transformative technologies that will be with us for a very long time. The wave of innovation sparked by AI will change the world

Artificial intelligence
Agriculture robotic and autonomous car working in smart farm.Kinwun (iStockphoto / Getty)
Moisés Naím

New scientific discoveries and technological innovations are often exalted as harbingers of sweeping change. However, few of these “breakthroughs,” live up to the hype. Instead, they are overtaken by other discoveries or technologies that go beyond what had initially been seen as a life-altering historic contribution.

That’s why it’s always a good idea to be skeptical of any new technology that, we’re told, will “change everything.” Typically, it’s just a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration, and the world doesn’t really change much after all. But sometimes — rarely — a new technology comes along that does set off profound and permanent changes in the lives of billions of people. Today, humanity finds itself facing one such moments. This time everything really will be different.

Recent innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) are not a passing fad whose consequences are being exaggerated. These are transformative technologies that will be with us for a very long time. Indeed, the wave of innovation sparked by AI will change the world. It will affect rich and poor, democrats and autocrats, politicians and business leaders, scientists and dropouts, as well as singers, writers and journalists. It will also impact all kinds of activities, professions and lifestyles.

The so-called “large language models”— which are not limited to the high-profile ChatGPT from OpenAI — are a type of artificial intelligence that can understand and generate human language, as well as automate functions that until now have required human beings. Other forms of AI have learned to identify and turn huge volumes of text, images, sounds, voices and videos into perfect imitations. They can produce complete sentences, answer any type of question, and can perfectly reproduce voices that cannot be detected as imitations. They are also able to learn a person’s voice and use it in a conversation with another individual who does not know they are talking to an AI-powered computer.

These models have an infinite number of practical applications. The fight against climate change and the diagnosis and treatment of serious health problems are being tackled more effectively thanks to the use of AI.

All of this is happening very fast. A report from UBS Bank reports that ChatGPT reached more than 100 million active users just two months after its launch. TikTok took nine months to reach that number, while Instagram took two and a half years. ChatGPT is the fastest adopted technology in history.

Like all new technologies, AI is a double-edged sword: it will have a positive and a negative impact. All technology is dual: Gutenberg’s printing press was used to print both the Bible and Mein Kampf.

In a very short time, dictators, terrorists, scammers and criminals will be putting all their creativity to work exploiting AI, with dire consequences for humanity. Trying to stop them will not be easy.

Those who try these technologies are surprised by their immense possibilities. But those who know them intimately and understand the risks they carry can easily see the global chaos they could engender. Scientists, business and security agencies that are heavily involved in the development of AI are raising the alarm about the rapid spread of the new technology. In a recent interview with Fortune’s Alan Murray, Tom Siebel, the head of a major AI group, repeatedly called the risk associated with these technologies “terrifying.” Elon Musk has said that AI could cause “civilization destruction.”

History shows that efforts to contain the spread and misuse of new technologies don’t work. Nuclear weapons, for example, continue to spread around the world despite the enormous efforts that have been made to limit their proliferation.

Once such a powerful new technology enters our species’ toolbox, there is no getting rid of it. The recent initiative by a notable group of experts to put in place a moratorium on the research and development of artificial intelligence demonstrates that even leading experts share the same intuition as many of us: we’re not ready.

Certainly our society is not ready for what is about to be thrust upon us as a result of the birth of artificial intelligence. Our only alternative appears to be to adapt as quickly as we can, because now that the Pandora’s box is open, there is likely no going back.

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