Something I often hear in the machine learning community and media articles is “Worries about superintelligence are a distraction from the *real* problem X that we are facing today with AI” (where X = algorithmic bias, technological unemployment, interpretability, data privacy, etc). This competitive attitude gives the impression that immediate and longer-term safety concerns are in conflict. But is there actually a tradeoff between them?
We can make this question more specific: what resources might these two types of efforts be competing for?
Media attention. Given the abundance of media interest in AI, there have been a lot of articles about all these issues. Articles about advanced AI safety have mostly been alarmist Terminator-ridden pieces that ignore the complexities of the problem. This has understandably annoyed many AI researchers, and led some of them to dismiss these risks based on the caricature presented in the media instead of the real arguments. The overall effect of media attention towards advanced AI risk has been highly negative. I would be very happy if the media stopped writing about superintelligence altogether and focused on safety and ethics questions about today’s AI systems.
Funding. Much of the funding for advanced AI safety work currently comes from donors and organizations who are particularly interested in these problems, such as the Open Philanthropy Project and Elon Musk. They would be unlikely to fund safety work that doesn’t generalize to advanced AI systems, so their donations to advanced AI safety research are not taking funding away from immediate problems. On the contrary, FLI’s first grant program awarded some funding towards current issues with AI (such as economic and legal impacts). There isn’t a fixed pie of funding that immediate and longer-term safety are competing for – it’s more like two growing pies that don’t overlap very much. There has been an increasing amount of funding going into both fields, and hopefully this trend will continue.
Talent. The field of advanced AI safety has grown in recent years but is still very small, and the “brain drain” resulting from researchers going to work on it has so far been negligible. The motivations for working on current and longer-term problems tend to be different as well, and these problems often attract different kinds of people. For example, someone who primarily cares about social justice is more likely to work on algorithmic bias, while someone who primarily cares about the long-term future is more likely to work on superintelligence risks.
Overall, there does not seem to be much tradeoff in terms of funding or talent, and the media attention tradeoff could (in theory) be resolved by devoting essentially all the airtime to current concerns. Not only are these issues not in conflict – there are synergies between addressing them. Both benefit from fostering a culture in the AI research community of caring about social impact and being proactive about risks. Some safety problems are highly relevant both in the immediate and longer term, such as interpretability and adversarial examples. I think we need more people working on these problems for current systems while keeping scalability to more advanced future systems in mind.
AI safety problems are too important for the discussion to be derailed by status contests like “my issue is better than yours”. This kind of false dichotomy is itself a distraction from the shared goal of ensuring AI has a positive impact on the world, both now and in the future. People who care about the safety of current and future AI systems are natural allies – let’s support each other on the path towards this common goal.