Are nuclear weapons or Rogue AI the more dangerous risk?

I was going to write a long post on this question, as recently I had been urged to do by one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism movement, during a Sichuan lunch.

But then Putin declared a nuclear alert, and I figured a short post might be more effective.  To be clear, I think the chance of nuclear weapons use right now is pretty low.  But it is not zero, if only because of errors and misunderstandings.  So imagine this kind of scenario repeated across a few centuries, with an increasing number of nuclear powers at that.  And this time around, there is a truly existential threat to the current version of the Russian state, and a number of people are suggesting that Putin has gone a little wacko.

And this is in a world where, about one week ago, the conventional wisdom was that Russia would not really invade Ukraine at all, maybe just a limited police action in the east.

As for Rogue AI, here is a long Scott Alexander post (ungated) on the topic.  For now I will just say that it makes my head hurt.  It makes my head hurt because the topic is so complicated.  And I don’t take any particular form of technological progress for granted, not along any time frame.  That holds all the more true for “exotic” claims about what might be possible over the next few decades.  Most of the history of the human race is that of zero economic growth, sometimes negative economic growth.  And how good were past thinkers at predicting the future?  Don’t just select on those who are famous because they got some big things right.

So I see nuclear war as the much greater large-scale risk, by far.  We know nuclear weapons work and we know they can be deployed without any technological advances at all.  And we know they are highly destructive by their very nature, whether we “align” them or not, whether we properly train them or not.

How many people, as public intellectuals, have made “let’s make sure all countries holding nuclear weapons can accurately distinguish between an incoming rocket and a flock of birds” their main thing?  Zero?


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