Today’s AI threat: More like nuclear winter than nuclear war

Uncritically equating acute nuclear attack effects and AI threats risks reproducing the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking that drove some of the most dangerous dynamics of the nuclear arms race.

Last May, hundreds of leading figures in AI research and development signed a one-sentence statement declaring that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” While ongoing advances in AI clearly demand urgent policy responses, recent attempts to equate AI with the sudden and extreme immediate effects of launching nuclear weapons rest on a misleadingly simple analogy—one that dates back to the early days of the Cold War and ignores important later developments in how nuclear threats are understood. Instead of an all-or-nothing thermonuclear war analogy, a more productive way to approach AI is as a disruption to global systems that more closely resembles the uncertain and complex cascades of a nuclear winter.

Over the last year and a half, headline-grabbing news has fed into the hype around the awe-inspiring potential capabilities of AI. However, while public commentators brace for the rise of the machine overlords, artificial un-intelligence is already kicking off chains of widespread societal disruption. AI-powered disinformation sows distrust, social media algorithms increase polarization, and mass-produced synthetic media degrade democratic engagement while undermining our shared sense of reality.

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