Is AI really a threat to human civilization?

June 26, 2023

Three UM-Dearborn experts say recent warnings that artificial intelligence may soon pose an ‘extinction-level’ threat are overblown. But we’re right to be concerned about other ways AI is reshaping our world.

A screenshot from the TV series Westworld. Actor Aaron Paul looks in horror at a synthetic intelligent being.
In the HBO series "Westworld," AI-powered androids from a Western theme park turn the tables on humans and turn us into the puppets. Credit: John Johnson/HBO/Warner Bros.

Even if you haven't been following the current conversations around artificial intelligence, it’s hard not to do a double take at the recent headlines warning that AI may soon represent a serious threat to human civilization. The stories revolve around recent statements made by several industry leaders, including one of AI’s “godfathers,” that the technology is now evolving so rapidly, it could represent an “extinction-level” threat sooner than expected — or at least trigger societal-scale disruptions on par with the recent global pandemic. Frankly, when you’re not an AI expert yourself, it can be hard to know what to make of such claims. For sure, today’s incarnations of AI can do impressive things, including many things humans could never do. And as we’ve detailed in the past, current AI-powered technologies have a problematic track record, whether it’s amplifying disinformation, perpetuating human racial biases or supercharging criminal scams. Maybe it’s not so hard to believe that the machines really are about to get the better of us.

Here at UM-Dearborn, we have a lot of faculty who work with artificial intelligence, so we thought it’d be interesting to put the question of whether AI really is on the verge of becoming a civilization-ender to three of the university’s leaders in this area. Professor Hafiz Malik, Associate Professor Samir Rawashdeh and Assistant Professor Birhanu Eshete were all in agreement that the assertion that artificial intelligence could represent an extinction-level threat any time soon is overblown. Rawashdeh quipped that folks seem to be forgetting that “we can always unplug them if they start misbehaving.” Eshete generally rates today’s version of artificial general intelligence as “cat-level.” Malik said that’s not giving cats enough credit. “I think when you see some of the impressive things AI can do, it can be easy to get the impression that the technology is further along than it is,” Malik says. AI may be able to beat the best human chess player or diagnose illnesses doctors can’t, but he notes those are “very task-specific things with strict constraints.” “General intelligence, the kind of intelligence that humans possess, where we can adapt to new circumstances, that’s not a kind of AI I would expect to see in my lifetime,” he says. “And as far as the pace of advancement, I would say it has been fairly steady, not accelerating rapidly.”

This points to an important distinction between types of artificial intelligence that’s often overlooked in the current discussions around AI. Today’s AI, which is mostly driven by machine learning, is task specific. It’s the technology that allows algorithms, when given enough exposure to, say, photos of cars or X-rays of a particular type of cancer, to learn the essential characteristics of those things. But artificial general intelligence, or AGI, is a completely different creature. It would mean that machines could, as humans do, adapt to an almost infinite array of new tasks without being specifically trained or programmed to do those tasks. Notably, while task-specific AI is becoming ubiquitous, AGI doesn’t exist yet. Some doubt that it’s even possible. If it is achievable, there are many who think that it wouldn’t look anything like today’s AI.

Still, Rawashdeh, Eshete and Malik all say it wouldn’t take something as advanced as AGI to cause big problems in the human world. Rawashdeh and Eshete both voiced concerns over the fact that the highest levels of artificial intelligence are basically controlled by a handful of very large, powerful companies, which are developing the technology for commercial purposes, not to benefit human society. “I think the real risk is we could very quickly become dependent on the technology in a huge range of sectors, and then we end up with systems that perpetuate inequality,” Rawashdeh says. “And at that point, you could imagine people saying, ‘Well, you can’t just turn it off because it would crash the economy.’” Like the justification used to bailout misbehaving banks during financial crises, AI could be judged too big to fail.

Disinformation is the other obvious area where we’re already seeing AI’s disruptive power. Disinformation, of course, is likely as old as human civilization itself. But Malik, who’s an expert in deepfakes, says AI has supercharged its impacts. “The polarization which we’re seeing around the world, not just in the U.S., has a lot to do with social media platforms, which are driven by algorithms, creating echo chambers where people end up with very distorted views of reality,” Malik says. Deepfakes, which he says are “getting better and better every day,” have only made people more vulnerable. In fact, scammers are now putting deepfake technology to use in even more clever ways. Malik says criminals can now use AI to synthesize voices in real time, complete with an array of accents, powering convincing phone scams designed to scare people into draining their bank accounts. Whether it’s social media disinformation or a criminal scam, Malik says the result is a general erosion of trust in information and democratic institutions. And if we’re looking for things that could legitimately contribute to an unraveling of human society, this loss of trust seems like a good place to start.

Concerns over these problematic sides of AI technology have also sparked conversations about how to protect ourselves, and Eshete and Malik say the European Union has been a leader when it comes to regulation. Just this month, the European Parliament passed a draft version of the EU AI Act, which, among other things, would seriously limit the use of facial recognition software and require creators of generative AI systems like ChatGPT to be more transparent about the data used to train their programs. Here in the U.S., Eshete notes the White House has also released the AI Bill of Rights to “help guide the design, use and deployment of automated systems to protect the American Public.” Eshete says penning good regulations is complicated by the fact that there still is no consensus among AI experts on whether AGI systems have anything resembling human capabilities, or even which risks we should be most worried about. He notes it’s really easy to get distracted by the frightening, future hypothetical threats of AI, like creating a lethal bio-weapon. “But there are all sorts of ways AI is already impacting people’s lives. So perhaps we should focus first on what is happening right now. And then once we’ve done that, we’ll have time to look at what’s coming.”

Eshete, Rawashdeh and Malik all say how much AI ultimately ends up reshaping our world, and whether its impacts will be beneficial or harmful, is largely up to us. Could we end up in a place where AI really does become a civilization-ender? Possibly. But if we do, we likely won’t have the machines to blame. 


Story by Lou Blouin