Turns Out AI Could Start a Nuclear War After All

AI systems

AI systems pose a lot of risks on their own, but they also inadvertently affect other existential risks.

  • While natural extinction risks are not significantly impacted by AI, the technology could increase the likelihood of a catastrophic first-strike nuclear attack or the production of dangerous pathogens.
  • AI algorithms can promote misleading and hazardous information related to environmental risks such as climate change, and the development and training of AI systems can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Every major tech company is working on its own artificial intelligence (AI) systems. And despite the technology being in its infancy still, it will not stay so for long. In fact, researchers expect our generation to witness the rise of transformative AI. And it promises benefits to several sectors like never before. But, for now, let’s talk about the risks of AI systems in terms of their impact on already existing existential threats.

What’s an Existential Threat?

In his 2002 paper published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Nick Bostrom, a professor at Oxford University, defined an existential risk as “one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” In 2020, Toby Ord in his book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity goes on to split these risks into:

  • Natural Risks
  • Nuclear Risks
  • Biological Risks
  • Environmental Risks
  • Unknown Risks

Risks of AI Systems

It comes as no surprise that AI systems can modify existing power dynamics in the world, be it State-State, State-Corporation, or State-Citizen relationships. In the first instance, intelligent tech could come between two nations, as seen recently between the U.S. and the West vs. Russia and China. Now, as far as state-corporation relationships are concerned, the tech companies’ extensive spending on AI research could lead to an “AI arms race” with the state that would ultimately result in corner-cutting in terms of AI safety. Finally, state-citizen relationships are in dangers amid the adoption of AI surveillance systems.

Natural Risks

Natural extinction risks, such as asteroid impacts or supervolcano eruptions, are not caused or exacerbated by human actions, and therefore, there is no significant impact of AI on these risks.

Nuclear Risks

An AI arms race between two nuclear states could increase the probability of a first-strike nuclear attack, which would have catastrophic consequences, including the possibility of human extinction due to nuclear winter. The evolving international cybersecurity landscape could also make such an event more likely if a state is better able to protect its intelligence or gain greater access to its adversary’s.

Biological Risks

Responding to a global pandemic requires not only political bodies capable of dealing with the threat, but also a public that will play their part to protect themselves and others from the disease. Throughout the pandemic, social media played a role in spreading misinformation and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, hindering our ability to respond effectively. Additionally, the availability of powerful AI systems may make it easier for malevolent actors to design and produce dangerous pathogens to cause a pandemic.

Environmental Risks

The public and political spheres must agree on the dangers of climate change and strategies to alleviate them in order to address the ongoing crisis. However, AI algorithms can promote misleading and hazardous information, which can increase the likelihood of climate catastrophe. The development and training of AI systems also require large amounts of energy, which can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Final Thoughts

The intent here is not fearmongering but rather pointing out that, as humans capable in equal parts of creation and destruction, just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

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