Why do so many scientists do “science fiction” once they enter the public debate?
I know that it is a snarky comment… Hold me beer and let me explain: we have AI and ChatGPT works wonderfully because of this user experience that comes natural to us: chatting with it. But what is the debate about? AGI... And how dangerous it could be / will be. Why?
It seems to me that people – and that includes scientists— are rather willing to debate some fiction instead of putting their heads down and doing some work and appreciating how they all just got an intern and dozens of personal assistants over night!
Every debate around artificial intelligence (AI) inevitability leads to some artificial general intelligence (AGI) “I’ll be back” scenario discussion. That is just as true nowadays with noobs as for scientists and experts. The idea of a machine possessing an intelligence that could understand, learn, and apply knowledge across a broad range of tasks at the level of a human being is just too fascinating.
In a Zeitgeist where the search of identity and the question of who we are as an individual is summoned upon us, this weights heavier than globe on Atlas’ shoulders.
So it has become a popular topic beyond science fiction and special scientific circles, and has entered the public discourse and wider scientific circles of other sciences that have nothing to do with creating any machine learning or anything.
While the AI we interact with today, like ChatGPT, is not AGI, the discussions and speculations about AGI are important to shape our future responsibly and beneficially. But how to have them sincere? Definitely not by scientist dabbling more in fiction than science… unless, well they opt for real science fiction.
Scientists in the Public Discourse
Speculating about topics like artificial general intelligence (AGI), is doing more harm than good by focusing on the speculative and potentially fear-inducing aspects of the future, rather than on actual, immediate scientific progress. This is not specifically tied to the discussionas around artificial intelligence, but part of ongoing debates about the role of scientists in society.
The responsibility that comes with being a scientist – particularly one who engages with the public – is to do so accurately, honestly, and without unnecessary sensationalism.
Presenting the facts and the current state of their field mst be done as accurately as possible, while avoiding misrepresentations or exaggerations.
This includes avoiding overhype. While it's important to convey the potential implications and applications of AI, scientists should avoid overselling the possibilities, particularly when there's still a lot of uncertainty—like topics of AGI.
Acknowledging uncertainty and highlighting that science is a process of ongoing discovery. It is hard because we humans want certainty and rather strive for oversimplified sense making than acknowledging that most things are uncertain. And when it comes to science there's often a lot of uncertainty involved. And that is a very different kind of uncertainty than your typical lawyers’ kind of “it depends” answers!.
Because in addition to presenting the scientific facts and uncertainties, scientists also have a role in discussing ethical and societal implications. However, they should do so in a balanced, thoughtful way, without resorting to fearmongering or undue optimism. A.k.a communicating ethical implications.
So rather than promoting “it depends” or let themselves draw to false certainty, scientists should encourage critical thinking, promote scientific thinking, presenting different viewpoints where they exist and helping people understand the evidence behind different positions.
When done well, science communication can help foster a more informed, scientifically literate society, and can inform decision-making at all levels, from individual choices to public policy.
These efforts will support public trust and ensure that scientific communications are a force for good. That is more important today than ever.
But why does it seem that scientists and experts tend to lean towards fiction when it comes to debating AI and AGI? Do they mention Orwell when it comes to other topics just as much?
Why do some scientists tend to fiction once they enter the public debate?
It seems that when some scientists enter public discourse, particularly around topics like AGI, they can’t handle the complexity of the subject matter themselves. Some have the desire to capture public attention, and some few really feel the an urgency around the issue.
So they offend against every single form of good scientific communication:
The desire to captivate the public and make complex topics accessible leads them to overemphasize or oversimplify certain aspects, leading to overhype. The excitement and novelty of advanced topics like AGI just adds to this.
Overconfident statements that don't fully represent the state of science are a result of pressuring scientists into providing definitive answers. The scientific process involves considerable uncertainty. Interviewer and discussions participants have to acknowledge that.
Especially in when striving for social acknowledgement there is a clear tendency to lean into sensationalist narratives to capture attention. This is particularly evident with topics like AGI, where discussions about potential risks can easily get applause but the risk is that they easily drift into fear-mongering territory.
The most sensational narrative then biases the discourse towards that single narrative. In a bid to oversimplify complex topics we inadvertently neglect to present different viewpoints, thus neglecting critical thinking and the opportunity for the real discussion about ethical implications.
Again, oversimplifying or resorting to sensationalism will not help us to maintain public trust and promote a nuanced understanding of science. Maybe scientists should rather try to highlight valuable practical implications. I know practical may seem difficult for a scientist, but this is scientific communication, after all.
Scientists conflict with highlighting practical application
The many practical applications of AI that we have today, such as in the form of chatbots, personal assistants, recommendation systems, and other tools that can assist us in our work and daily lives represent significant progress and have a big impact on many people's lives.
Scientists, thinking and debating the valuable and practical sides of AI can highlight another role they have in society: the one of being a “thought leader” by having foresight and vision around their technology. With that approach scientists help us anticipate and prepare for the future by considering the longer-term implications and possibilities of their work, including potential risks. While these discussions can sometimes seem speculative or even fictional, they are often rooted in a deep understanding of the field and its trends.
By discussing the potential future of their field, scientists will inspire the next generation of researchers and practitioners.
It is both: thinking about the future and engaging in broader societal discussions, while also making tangible progress and delivering practical benefits in the present.
This can be difficult because scientists and researchers might be incentivized to engage in speculative narratives or debates about future technologies. The media attention it draws raises the profile of the scientists, which in return can help them secure funding, attract talented collaborators, or influence policy.
Maybe for each public TV interview scientist do, they must spend time in education and outreach activities, such as giving public lectures, participating in science festivals, or working with schools. This can help raise public awareness and interest in their field without resorting to sensationalism.
And it would reward them for the same incentives, without having to resort to speculative or fear-mongering narratives.
Scientists doing Science Fiction: Bridging the Gap and Unleashing Creativity
Scientists writing science fiction can be of great value. Science fiction done right has served us as a powerful tool to engage, foster dialogue, and explore the potential implications of scientific scenarios and technological advancement.
Because speculative storytelling, declared as such, can bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public, making complex concepts accessible and relatable.
You would have all the elements discussed earlier
Science fiction provides an accessible and engaging medium to communicate intricate scientific concepts to a broader audience. It captivates readers and viewers, drawing them into imaginative worlds while simultaneously conveying scientific ideas.
Imagination and Speculation
Science fiction allows them to explore and speculate on future technological advancements, AI development, AGI frontiers... The creative freedom that science fiction offers will stretch imaginations and potentially uncover new ideas and new perspectives for their research.
Forecasting and WarningScience fiction has proven to be a great medium to extrapolate current trends and possibilities, painting vivid scenarios of potential futures. By weaving narratives that reflect scientific advancements, scientists can raise awareness and help society anticipate and prepare for the consequences of emerging technologies.
Interest and PassionMany scientists have an innate passion for science fiction, often sparked by their own exposure to the genre during their formative years. Their scientific knowledge and expertise will help with the storytelling—just see what the movie “The Martian” has done to the genre!
Discussion of Ethical and Societal IssuesScience fiction has provided a fertile ground to explore ethical, moral, and societal implications of technology.
Anyways… scientists writing science fiction could be a better way of shaping the future and having impact beyond the scientific community than fear mongering and speculation