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BusinessDay: Fears about AI apocalypse could be overblown


By Johan Steyn, 21 June 2023


The sphere of artificial intelligence (AI) is simultaneously filled with foreboding doom and promising innovation.


It’s a divisive technology that seems to be either humanity’s boon or bane, depending on which expert opinion you subscribe to. A flurry of reports has shed light on this paradox, bringing to the forefront a dichotomy of beliefs among industry leaders.


An alarming Livemint report revealed that many top CEOs have expressed grave concerns about AI’s potentially catastrophic effect on humanity. Citing their fears, these leaders forecast the destruction of humanity in a bleak five-year timeline due to the uncontrolled advancement of AI.


The report suggests that this “AI apocalypse” sentiment is shared by a significant portion of industry heads, underpinning a crucial debate on the ethical implications and safeguards related to AI.


This stark pessimism stands in contrast to the opinion of Meta’s AI chief, as reported by CNBC, who argued that AI is not yet even at dog-level intelligence. The top executive insisted that fears of AI surpassing human cognition and causing existential threats are premature and overblown. He believes AI’s capabilities are still nascent and far from reaching the maturity that dystopian fears suggest.


A study by CEOWORLD supports these contrasting views. The study found that 42% of CEOs fear that AI could destroy humanity in the next five to 10 years, underlining the growing concern within corporate circles. However, this also implies a converse belief held by the majority: that AI is not as destructive or as advanced as the minority assumes.


On one hand, there is the anxiety that AI, if left unchecked, could lead to unforeseen catastrophic consequences. This fear is driven by the rapid pace of AI development and the potential for misuse, whether through autonomous weapons, deep fakes or other sinister applications. The dissenting CEOs are calling for strict regulation and control measures to prevent this dystopian future.


On the other hand, there are those who feel the panic is premature, emphasising that we are far from developing an AI that can match, let alone surpass, human intelligence. This camp stresses the potential benefits of AI in enhancing productivity, improving healthcare and addressing complex issues like climate change. They argue that the fear of AI is based on misinformation and misunderstanding of its current capabilities and potential.


The dichotomy of these views serves as a stark reminder of the AI conundrum that society faces. The divide among industry leaders reflects a broader debate on how to balance the potential benefits of AI with the possible risks. However, both viewpoints underline the need for ongoing conversations about AI’s ethical implications, governance and risk management.


As we move into an AI-infused future, this debate underscores the importance of creating a robust regulatory framework. It also emphasises the need for transparency and education about AI’s capabilities and limitations. By doing so, we can harness the potential of AI while mitigating its risks, ensuring that this revolutionary technology is used responsibly and beneficially.


This discussion illustrates the urgency for a common understanding of AI, one that acknowledges its limitations while preparing for its advances. As we tread this path, our ability to guide AI’s development ethically and safely will determine whether we reap its rewards or face its feared catastrophes.


• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University and founder of AIforBusiness.net.

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