‘Accelerate or die,’ the controversial ideology that proposes the unlimited advance of artificial intelligence

‘Effective accelerationism’ — a fashionable Silicon Valley movement — pushes the idea that technological innovation without regulation or restrictions is the solution to all the problems in the world

A woman walks through the artificial intelligence exhibition area of the 2021 World Manufacturing Conference in Hefei, China, on Nov. 19, 2021.
A woman walks through the artificial intelligence exhibition area of the 2021 World Manufacturing Conference in Hefei, China, on Nov. 19, 2021.Future Publishing (Future Publishing via Getty Imag)

In the short period between one puff and another, every smoker has, at some point, likely experienced a blind faith in progress. “What if, in 10 years, they invent a cure for cancer?” they ask themselves, fantasizing about a future in which 50 cigarettes can enter the lungs like mountain air. This invocation to the divine power of science shares a spirit with “effective accelerationism.” This fashionable movement in Silicon Valley sees unrestricted technological progress as a solution to poverty, war and climate change. In short, advocates of this ideology think that tech can address all the big problems that threaten the planet.

In early December 2023, The New York Times infiltrated a party called Keep AI Open, attended by hundreds of young developers in San Francisco. This was a kind of introduction of effective accelerationism into society. Posters with slogans such as “accelerate or die” hung on the walls, while promotional leaflets were distributed proclaiming: “THE MESSENGER TO THE GODS IS AVAILABLE TO YOU.” According to the article, many of the attendees already knew each other from previous social media interactions, group chats and raves hosted in the Bay Area.

This group of people is united by a blind faith in the power of technological innovation, as well as a disdain for doomers (those who predict an imminent collapse of the planet). They scoff at those who worry about the safety of artificial intelligence (AI) and demand regulation.

Effective accelerationism advocates deregulated technological development. Its supporters believe in the need to allow emerging technologies to progress as quickly as possible, without obstacles that slow down innovation. They give special importance to AI and consider the path to technological singularity — a point where AI will vastly surpass human intelligence — as an inevitable destiny.

Prominent (and controversial) figures in Silicon Valley — such as Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the first web browser, or Garry Tan, president of Y Combinator, the most influential factory of successful startups — have recently increased the notoriety of this trend, providing it with direct support. Andreessen — the founder of Netscape, who’s considered a technological investment guru — published The Techno-Optimist Manifesto in October 2023. This document, with a style reminiscent of biblical texts, challenges the negative narratives commonly associated with technological development, such as those embodied by Prometheus, Frankenstein, Oppenheimer and Terminator. He advocates for a rejection of technological pessimism. “I am here to bring the good news,” the manifesto declares. “We can advance to a far superior way of living, and of being. We have the tools, the systems, the ideas. We have the will. It is time, once again, to raise the technology flag. It is time to be Techno-Optimists.”

Jorge Barrero — general director of the Cotec Foundation, a Madrid-based organization dedicated to the analysis and promotion of innovation — is critical of this vision: “It seems like a frivolity for young kids with money,” he notes in conversation with EL PAÍS. “I don’t detect a deep philosophical reflection behind this discourse. What I do observe is a parallel with traditional monotheistic religions, where the figure of the messiah or savior is central.”

Barrero points out that many supporters of effective accelerationism — who are directly involved in the development of AI — could be biased, due to their personal interests in the progress of this technology. “Although artificial intelligence [still isn’t capable of performing any human intellectual task], it has already shown its ability to surprise its creators with unexpected results and behaviors,” he maintains.

Marta Peirano — a journalist who specializes in technology — agrees with this criticism. “[The movement promotes] a sectarian, colonialist, racist and deeply opportunistic ideology based on false premises. It’s defended by individuals who think — as Peter Thiel says — that freedom and democracy aren’t compatible. Freedom is understood as the right to consume an exorbitant amount of resources — to accumulate an exorbitant amount of capital — at the expense of the future of everyone else.”

For Peirano, this ideology is wrong in assuming that technology inevitably leads to prosperity. “Technological progress without democracy has existed for most of history and it produces disease and corruption.” As an example, she cites the Industrial Revolution: a period of significant technological and economic advancement that initially did nothing to improve overall living conditions. “It would have produced a new Middle Ages without the public health and education laws that brought running water and schooling to [inner cities], the proliferation of academic institutions and libraries, or the labor movements that improved working conditions, wages and social protections,” she emphasizes.

Two opposing currents

To a large extent, effective accelerationism arises in response to effective altruism — a philosophy and social movement that seeks to maximize the effectiveness of charitable actions, by using evidence-based methods and critical reasoning to determine the most efficient ways to help others. Followers of this doctrine research how to earn the most money possible and donate it to causes that save the most lives, or reduce the most suffering for each dollar invested. However, in recent years, many philanthropists have expressed concern about the safety of artificial intelligence, with the idea that powerful AI could destroy humanity if not properly regulated. The confrontation between proponents of effective accelerationism and altruists represents one of the many schisms currently emerging on the AI scene in San Francisco.

Effective accelerationism is directly rooted in the writings of the British philosopher Nick Land, who proposes accelerating technological and social processes to induce radical changes in society and the economy. Land — who was quite influential in the late-1990s — considers capitalism to be an autonomous force that’s reconfiguring society. He suggests intensifying its effects to provoke a collapse that could overcome capitalism itself.

Land is also focused on how technology could lead humanity into a post-human era. A reference for the North American neoreactionary right, Land wrote The Dark Enlightenment in 2022, where he argues that accelerationists should support figures like Donald Trump to blow up the current order as quickly as possible.

Peirano questions whether the implementation of this ideology will really lead to the structural change in society that its followers proclaim. “You just have to see who proposes it — and what trends they propose to accelerate it — to realize that the change that they aspire to isn’t the end of capitalism, but the end of democracy.” According to the journalist, another significant risk of this thinking is the possible destruction of the only habitat that ensures our survival: the Earth. “It’s a scientific fact that the indiscriminate exploitation of resources has devastating consequences for millions of people. Any ideology that proposes to accelerate this exploitation — [while promising] the possibility of an evolutionary leap — must offer more guarantees, or at least more scientific evidence, aside from the indisputable fact that doing so will economically benefit its preachers,” she adds.

This past December, the world’s first piece of legislation related to artificial intelligence began to make its way through the European Union. While the official text of the agreement still hasn’t been published, its key points are known. Firstly, it entails a ban on AI facial recognition cameras that are capable of identifying people (in most contexts). Additionally, transparency criteria will be required for fundamental models — such as ChatGPT — which were not previously required. Different types of AI will also be classified into categories according to their level of risk, from an unacceptable risk that will entail their ban — such as emotion-recognition in educational and workplace environments — to an acceptable risk, exemplified by spam filters or content recommendation systems, such as those employed by Netflix.

Despite some criticism suggesting that EU member states will be left behind in the development of artificial intelligence due to the pioneering legislation, Barrero — of the Cotec Foundations — strongly supports the regulation of this technology. “When Europe defends this, it’s not only defending an economy, but also a way of life. What race are we going to lose? [We’re taking on] a lack of control, authoritarianism and inequality. If three unicorns (start-ups with a valuation of more than a billion dollars) have to be sacrificed, it seems to me that it’s a reasonable price to pay,” he shrugs.

Barrero trusts the human ability to avoid technological dangers. As an example, he mentions the failed prediction of John von Neumann, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the 20th century. “He predicted that human beings wouldn’t survive in a scenario of mutually-assured destruction, [with the presence of] atomic bombs. However, almost 80 years have passed since then… and we’re still here.”

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