In the fall of 2022 many of us were caught off-guard by the release of Open AI's Chat GPT. Its release sparked an Artificial Intelligence (AI) frenzy among developers and futurists. The hype was real, as Chat GPT demonstrated the vast capabilities of generative AI.
Witnessing the AI arms race and the speed of development I worried about humans losing control of the beast they were creating. The risk wasn't that we'd create a sentient being acting in its own self interest. Rather, humanity endangers itself by creating a machine or algorithm that does our bidding. Our own intentions - and their unintended consequences - are enough to destroy us.
In 2021, Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley explained:
“Suppose, for example, that COP36 asks for help in deacidifying the oceans; they know the pitfalls of specifying objectives incorrectly, so they insist that all the by-products must be non-toxic, and no fish can be harmed. The AI system comes up with a new self-multiplying catalyst that will do the trick with a very rapid chemical reaction. Great! But the reaction uses up a quarter of all the oxygen in the atmosphere and we all die slowly and painfully. From the AI system’s point of view, eliminating humans is a feature, not a bug, because it ensures that the oceans stay in their now-pristine state.”
While the threat posed by AI seems theoretical, I realized we've actually been experiencing the effects for many years. AI technology is new, but entities with similar characteristics - and effects - have exploited our world and are now causing civilizational collapse. Those entities are called "corporations".
The Theoretical AI Threat: AGI
Current forms of AI are relatively simplistic (compared to what they might do in the future) with limited functionality. The threat that Stuart Russell explained evolves when AI is capable of making decisions. This form of AI is called Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).
AGI, often referred to as "strong AI" or "full AI," is a form of artificial intelligence that can understand, learn, and apply its intelligence to solve any problem, much like a human being. Unlike narrow or weak AI, which is designed to perform specific tasks (like image recognition or playing chess), AGI would have the ability to perform any intellectual task that a human can. It's a step beyond the specialized AI applications we see today, encompassing a broader, more adaptable, and more general form of intelligence.
What Makes AGI So Dangerous?
One of the primary fears is the potential loss of human control over AGI. As AGI systems could potentially surpass human intelligence, they might develop decision-making processes and objectives that are incomprehensible or misaligned with human values, leading to unpredictable outcomes. This scenario raises the specter of an intelligence that, once activated, could resist human intervention or redirection.
Ethical and moral decision-making
How would AGI handle complex ethical dilemmas, particularly those involving human life and welfare? AGI might make decisions based on purely logical or efficiency-driven criteria, without the nuanced understanding of human ethics and morality. This could lead to outcomes that, while optimal from an AI's perspective, could be detrimental to human values and societal norms.
As AGI has the potential to perform tasks across all sectors, its implementation could lead to widespread job displacement. This could exacerbate economic inequalities and lead to significant social unrest, especially if large segments of the population find their skills and experience rendered obsolete.
The development of autonomous weapons systems that can make decisions without human input could lead to new forms of warfare, potentially with faster and more devastating conflicts. The lack of human oversight in such systems raises concerns about unintended escalations and the targeting of civilians.
The possibility of AGI evolving into a form of superintelligence — far surpassing human capabilities — brings with it the fear of unpredictable behavior. Such a superintelligent entity might develop goals that conflict with human survival or well-being, and its superior intellect could prevent humans from effectively countering its actions.
Another concern is the potential dependency on AGI for critical decisions and tasks, which might lead to the atrophy of human skills and capabilities. This dependency could make society vulnerable to failures or malfunctions in AGI systems, with no human fallback.
Given its ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data, there's a risk that AGI could be used for pervasive surveillance, eroding privacy and enabling unprecedented levels of social control.
The Corporation as an Analog for AGI
In my opinion, many of the characteristics and risks posed by AGI have existed for centuries in the form of the corporation.
A corporation is a type of business entity that is legally separate from its owners. This legal structure is designed to make the company a distinct entity, separate from the individuals who own, manage, or operate it. A corporation has a perpetual existence. It does not cease to exist if the owner dies or leaves the business, as shares can be transferred.
One of the main advantages of a corporation is limited liability for its shareholders. This means that in most cases, the personal assets of the shareholders are protected from the corporation's debts and liabilities. Shareholders can generally only lose their investment in the corporation and nothing more. Corporations have also been a source of innovation and efficiency, helping improve living standards across the world.
Because the corporation is a distinct entity with its own set of objectives, it shares several conceptual similarities with AGI:
- Goal-Oriented Behavior: Both corporations and AGI are designed to achieve specific objectives. While numerous people are involved, for corporations, goals are typically aligned to profit maximization. Similarly, AGI would be programmed to fulfill certain goals or tasks, with a high degree of efficiency and effectiveness.
- Autonomy and Decision-Making: Corporations, particularly large ones, often have complex decision-making structures that exhibit autonomous and self-perpetuating characteristics. Similarly, AGI is conceptualized as having a high degree of autonomy in its decision-making processes.
- Rational Decision-Making Process: The decision-making in corporations, although influenced by human biases and emotions, is fundamentally aimed at rational, profit-driven outcomes. In contrast, AGI would make decisions based on logic and algorithmic processing, free from emotional biases. However, the underlying principle for both is rational and goal-oriented decision-making. This similarity highlights a shared focus on achieving predefined objectives, albeit through different mechanisms.
- Impact and Influence: Both corporations and AGI could wield significant influence and power, potentially surpassing that of individual human beings in their respective domains.
Of course, there are significant differences too but the key similarities I want to stress are that both are autonomous entities that make rational decisions to pursue a goal into perpetuity.
Consequences of Goal-Maximizing Behavior
Both corporations and AGI can produce unintended consequences in their pursuit of goals. In the corporate world, this might manifest as environmental damage or social inequality, stemming from an unbridled focus on profit. AGI, on the other hand, might lead to unforeseen outcomes due to literal interpretations of its objectives or scenarios not anticipated by its programmers.
The actions of both corporations and AGI also carry significant ethical and societal implications. Corporations, in their profit-driven activities, often overlook or undermine ethical considerations. AGI poses a similar risk, especially if its goals are not aligned with human values or if it operates in areas with unforeseen ethical complexities.
How Corporations Destroy the World in Pursuit of their Primary Objective
Given the similarities between corporations and AGI, if we're worried about computerized AGI ruining the world, surely we must recognize the damage already caused by corporations.
Frankly, autonomous corporations in the pursuit of profit with few repercussions is the real existential risk for humanity.
Below I've provided a selection of modern and historical examples of the devastation corporations have inflicted on humanity. This is quite a long section, but I felt strongly about the message this sends. With that said, the section could have been much longer!
Sweatshops and Poor Working Conditions
Historically and in modern times, corporations in textile, electronics, and manufacturing industries have been known to operate sweatshops, particularly in developing countries. These establishments often feature extremely long hours, minimal wages, and unsafe environments. For instance, the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where a building housing garment factories collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers, highlighted the appalling working conditions. Survivors described the horror of working in cramped spaces with little regard for safety. The physical and psychological toll on workers, who often endure chronic health problems and immense stress, is a stark example of human suffering for profit.
Industries like mining, textiles, and agriculture have a long history using children in dangerous and demanding jobs. This not only robs them of education and a normal childhood but also exposes them to significant health risks. The metals used in your computer, smartphone and even in batteries required for the "energy transition" were mined by children working long hours, in physical danger, and for meager pay.
Unfair Trade Practices
In agriculture, corporations sometimes exploit small-scale farmers by paying unjustly low prices for crops, perpetuating poverty. The coffee industry, for example, has faced criticism for underpaying coffee growers in countries like Ethiopia, where farmers struggle to make a living despite their produce being sold at high prices globally.
The pharmaceutical industry has been criticized for making life-saving drugs unaffordable. The AIDS crisis in Africa saw companies pricing antiretroviral drugs out of reach of many patients.
Data Exploitation and Privacy Violations
In the tech industry, companies like Facebook have faced scrutiny for exploiting user data. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where personal data was used to influence political campaigns, revealed how personal information can be exploited for profit, raising significant privacy concerns.
Forced and Unethical Labor
Forced labor remains a severe issue in some industries. Migrant workers in construction in the Middle East have reported conditions akin to modern slavery, with passports confiscated, and wages withheld, forcing them to work in dire conditions.
Marketing and Consumer Exploitation
Deceptive marketing practices, particularly those targeting vulnerable groups, raise ethical concerns. The tobacco industry’s historical advertising targeting young people is an infamous example.
For decades, major tobacco companies actively concealed the health risks associated with smoking, misled the public about the dangers of tobacco use, and marketed their products to young people and other vulnerable groups. The release of internal documents in the late 20th century revealed the extent of the deception, showing that companies were aware of the addictiveness and health risks of smoking while publicly denying them.
Corporations in sectors like mining and oil have historically caused environmental destruction, impacting health and livelihoods of local communities. The exploitation of the Niger Delta by oil companies has led to widespread environmental damage, severely affecting the health and fishing-based economy of local communities. Residents have reported illnesses and loss of livelihood due to oil pollution, highlighting the human cost of environmental neglect.
In 1984, a leak of methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India resulted in one of the worst industrial disasters in history. The immediate death toll was in the thousands, with long-term health effects affecting countless more. Survivors and activists have since recounted the horrific effects on health, including chronic illnesses and birth defects, and criticized Union Carbide for inadequate safety measures and a slow response to the disaster.
In 2015, it was revealed that Volkswagen had installed software in its diesel engines to manipulate emissions tests. This "defeat device" software detected when the cars were undergoing emissions testing and altered the performance accordingly to meet legal standards. However, under normal driving conditions, the vehicles emitted nitrogen oxides (NOx) at levels up to 40 times higher than what is allowed in the United States. The scale of the deception was vast, involving millions of vehicles worldwide.
The environmental implications of this scandal were substantial. Nitrogen oxides are harmful pollutants that contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain. They are also linked to a variety of health problems, including respiratory issues such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.
Multiply these examples by the tens of thousands of corporations around the world and the environmental exploitation goes far beyond regional effects. The entire global economic system is propped up by massive, systemic negative externalities destroying the global biosphere.
Unfettered Corporate Power
Believe it or not, the above examples show how corporations behave when subject to regulatory oversight and public scrutiny. In most of the previous examples, there were at least minimal repercussions.
However, when corporate power is unrestrained and hidden in the shadows the atrocities against man and nature in the name of money are multitudes worse.
For centuries, India's resources and people have been pillaged and murdered in the pursuit of money. Two companies - The British East India Company and The Dutch East India Company - were allowed to operate in India with impunity. The results show how devastating the corporate entity can get when there is no accountability.
The British East India Company (EIC)
The British East India Company, established in 1600, is notorious for its role in the colonial exploitation of India. Initially a trading company dealing in commodities like spices, tea, and opium, it evolved into a quasi-governmental entity, exerting considerable military and administrative control over large parts of India. The company exploited local populations and resources for profit. Notably, it was heavily involved in the opium trade, exporting opium from India to China, which contributed to widespread addiction and social issues, eventually leading to the Opium Wars.
The company's governance in Bengal is infamously linked to the devastating Bengal Famine of 1770, where millions perished, exacerbated by oppressive taxation and mismanagement. It is estimated that a third of the population in the affected area died, with the death toll possibly reaching 10 million. The company's focus on profit maximization and export of food grains during the famine exacerbated the crisis. A Scottish doctor, John Holwell, who witnessed the famine, wrote in his work titled Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan, "The streets and lanes are strewed with dead and dying people... the distress... difficult to describe."
Corruption and abuse of power were rampant among the company's officials, who amassed wealth through exploitative means. The company's rule significantly altered Indian society and culture, often to the detriment of local communities. The widespread criticism of its practices and the Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to its dissolution, with the British Crown taking over its administrative functions in 1858, marking an end to its era of dominance and exploitation.
The Dutch East India Company
The Dutch East India Company, known as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in Dutch, established in 1602, was a monumental force in the age of colonial exploitation in Asia. Granted a monopoly over Dutch trade in the region by its government, the VOC wielded extraordinary powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, and establish colonies.
Using its private armies, the company aggressively expanded its reach, conquering strategic trade posts and dominating crucial trade routes, particularly in the lucrative spice trade in the Indonesian Archipelago. Its control over spices like nutmeg, cloves, and mace was often maintained through violence and coercion.
The VOC, under the command of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, carried out a brutal massacre on the Banda Islands in Indonesia to establish a monopoly over the nutmeg trade. The indigenous Bandanese population was virtually exterminated, with thousands killed and others enslaved or deported.
The VOC enforced forced labor (Bandenstelsel) in its colonies, particularly in Indonesia. The local population was compelled to grow cash crops instead of food crops, which often led to food shortages. Additionally, the VOC was involved in the slave trade, transporting people from various parts of Asia and Africa to work in its colonies.
The VOC is also responsible for the Amboyna massacre, where several English traders and Japanese mercenaries were tortured and executed on allegations of conspiracy against the VOC.
Despite its economic might and influence on global trade, the VOC eventually succumbed to internal corruption, inefficiencies, and increased competition. By the end of the 18th century, it faced financial ruin and was formally dissolved in 1799, with its territories falling under the direct control of the Dutch government. The VOC's legacy is a stark reminder of the impact of unrestrained corporate power on societies and environments.
The Existential Crisis Created by Corporations
With the creation of the corporation - unaccountable to anyone except shareholders - we unleashed a form of AGI on the biosphere and humanity. Today we sit on the other side of centuries of exploitation.
First feasting on human life and later on fossil fuels, corporations pursued profits at the expense of humanity and the environment. Executives of corporations who attempted not to follow this path were simply sent to the economic dustbin.
This comes as a surprise to few. Yet, despite knowing the consequences, humanity is unable to stop corporations from destroying life. Some tried, only for the "corporate AGI" to manipulate the legal system and government in its favor. In theory, corporate exploitation could be stopped by the strike of a pen. However, the entities were smart enough to ensure lawmakers were trapped by regulatory capture.
Corporations now control us. We've been outsmarted by our creation and it is sending us to our graves.
The world is worried about artificial intelligence created by the likes of Open AI in pursuit of goals we designate. We worry that, as an example, an AGI algorithm programmed to extend the average human life might decide to eradicate those with shorter expected lifespans (e.g. the sick) to fudge the average. Or that a bot tasked with creating affordable insulin might do so at the expense of every other life-saving drug.
However, these kinds of unintended consequences have actually existed for centuries. We built a single minded AGI-like entity - the corporation - to pursue money. The decisions corporations made in pursuit of this goal have resulted in the apocalyptic end we now face.