Former and current employees of OpenAI warn of risks of advanced AI

Arva Rangwala

A group of current and former employees from some of the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) companies have issued an unprecedented warning, demanding greater transparency and accountability in the development of advanced AI systems. In an open letter released Tuesday, 13 AI workers from companies like OpenAI, Google DeepMind, called for a “right to warn” the public about the potential risks associated with powerful AI technology.

The Whistleblowers Sound the Alarm

The letter, first reported by the New York Times, represents a rare public rebuke from insiders working on the cutting edge of AI. It cites a alarming lack of effective oversight and safeguards within the industry as companies race to develop ever more powerful AI systems, potentially disregarding the risks and impact.

“AI companies possess substantial non-public information about the capabilities and limitations of their systems, the adequacy of their protective measures, and the risk levels of different kinds of harm,” the letter states. “However, they currently have only weak obligations to share some of this information with governments, and none with civil society. We do not think they can all be relied upon to share it voluntarily.”

Among the signatories are 11 current and former employees of OpenAI, the company behind the viral chatbot ChatGPT. This includes Daniel Kokotajlo, a former researcher who has placed the probability that advanced AI will destroy or severely harm humanity in the future at a staggering 70%. He believes there’s a 50% chance that researchers will achieve artificial general intelligence (AGI) – systems with capabilities on par with or surpassing the human mind – by 2027.

Existential Risks and Urgent Warnings

The concerns raised by the whistleblowers are not mere hypotheticals. Prominent AI experts like Geoffrey Hinton, known as the “Godfather of AI,” have endorsed the letter and warned that the threat of rogue AI systems is “more urgent” to humanity than climate change. Canadian computer scientist Yoshua Bengio and British researcher Stuart Russell have also lent their support.

The potential risks associated with advanced AI range from the spread of misinformation and exacerbation of social inequalities to the chilling prospect of losing control over autonomous AI systems, potentially leading to human extinction. As AI systems become more powerful and capable, the consequences of unintended behavior or misuse could be catastrophic.

“Companies are racing to develop and deploy ever more powerful artificial intelligence, disregarding the risks and impact of AI,” said Kokotajlo, one of the letter’s organizers. “I decided to leave OpenAI because I lost hope that they would act responsibly, particularly as they pursue artificial general intelligence. They and others have bought into the ‘move fast and break things’ approach, and that is the opposite of what is needed for technology this powerful and this poorly understood.”

A Call for Transparency and Whistleblower Protection

To address these concerns, the open letter lays out four key principles that AI companies should adopt to promote transparency and protect whistleblowers:

  1. No Retaliation for Criticism: AI companies should not punish employees for raising concerns about AI risks or criticizing the company’s approach.
  2. Anonymous Reporting: AI companies should create ways for employees to report AI risks anonymously to the company’s board, regulators, and independent experts.
  3. Support for Open Criticism: AI companies should allow employees to openly discuss AI risks while protecting trade secrets, creating a safe environment for sharing concerns without fear.
  4. Protection for Public Whistleblowers: If internal processes fail, AI companies should not retaliate against employees who go public with their concerns about AI risks.

“There should be ways to share information about risks with independent experts, governments, and the public,” said William Saunders, another former OpenAI employee who signed the letter. “Today, the people with the most knowledge about how frontier AI systems work and the risks related to their deployment are not fully free to speak because of possible retaliation and overly broad confidentiality agreements.”

Pushback from AI Companies

In response to the letter, OpenAI defended its practices, stating that it has avenues for reporting issues and does not release new technology until appropriate safeguards are in place. “We’re proud of our track record providing the most capable and safest AI systems and believe in our scientific approach to addressing risk,” an OpenAI spokesperson said in a statement.

However, the company did not directly address the concerns raised in the letter or the demands for increased transparency and whistleblower protection. Google and Anthropic, two other companies called out in the letter, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The letter’s release comes on the heels of revelations that OpenAI has dissolved its “Superalignment” safety team, which was responsible for creating safety measures for AGI systems that “could lead to the disempowerment of humanity or even human extinction.” Two key executives who led the team, co-founder Ilya Sutskever and safety researcher Jan Leike, have since resigned from the company, with Leike blasting OpenAI for allowing safety to “take a backseat to shiny products.”

A Growing Rift and Calls for Regulation

The open letter from AI whistleblowers represents a significant rift between AI companies and their employees over the responsible development of these powerful technologies. While companies like OpenAI tout their commitment to safety, many researchers and employees fear that the pursuit of profits and technological breakthroughs is taking precedence over addressing the risks.

The letter highlights the need for increased government oversight and regulation of the AI industry. As the whistleblowers point out, “So long as there is no effective government oversight of these corporations, current and former employees are among the few people who can hold them accountable to the public.”

Concern over the potential harms of AI has existed for decades, but the rapid advancements in recent years have intensified those fears, leaving regulators scrambling to catch up. The letter’s endorsement by influential figures like Hinton, Bengio, and Russell underscores the urgency of the issue and the need for action.

As the race to develop more powerful AI accelerates, the debate over the ethical and responsible deployment of these technologies will likely intensify. The open letter from AI whistleblowers represents a significant challenge to the industry, demanding greater transparency, accountability, and a voice for those working on the frontlines of this transformative technology.

The future course of action by AI companies, regulators, and policymakers in response to these concerns will be closely watched. But one thing is clear: the whistleblowers have sounded the alarm, and the world is now on notice about the potential risks of unchecked AI development.

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