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Oppenheimer and Artificial Intelligence: The Symphony of Eeriness | Article | Matt Braaten

Yuan Changming considered the intersections between Oppenheimer's nuclear weapon invention and the same trajectory of Artificial Intelligence.

"an article that explores the subtle horrendous connection between Oppenheimer’s views towards nuclear weapons, and policy on artificial intelligence in the contemporary age. Beautifully written, it challenges the controversial perceptions toward reality and morality, and the prerequisite of equilibrium in the wild realm of inventions"

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Oppenheimer and Artificial Intelligence


Oppenheimer and Artificial Intelligence: The Symphony of Eeriness 

In the middle of a horrendous storm in July of 1945, a collection of scientists sit inside of a dugout shelter with small windows peering out into the dark night of the New Mexico desert. It’s approaching 5:30am and the storm is clearing. In seconds this group of men , led by the infamous J. Robert Oppenheimer, awaits a moment that may change the world forever. At the zero hour, a bright flash akin to staring at the sun erupts out of the black and desolate landscape. The blinding light begins to settle, and in its wake is a fireball that appears to touch the sky. Sitting 10,000 yards away in the bunker, nearly thirty seconds elapse until the thunderous and violent roar of the explosion wash over the scientists' shack. It was in these moments that they all knew the world would never be the same again. They had harnessed the power of the atom, bringing the forces of the extraterrestrial world into the world of men. 

The recently released Christopher Nolan film, Oppenheimer, takes the audience into that bunker and captures the story of the complex character of whom the film is named. The physicist took charge of the Manhattan project, a military operation which mobilized two billion dollars worth of United States’ industrial might to develop a weapon that would end World War II. He orchestrated one of the most daring acts of scientific inquiry in history; and for his role as the father of the atomic bomb, he became the most famous scientist in the world since Einstein. After many years since he was the face of the scientific community, the film revitalizes Oppenheimer into the minds of Americans and others around the world. The film leaves viewers grappling with his legacy, the future of atomic weapons, and the ways in which political decision making interacts with scientific progress. Looking back at how the man contended with these fundamental questions can help society today grapple with the issues of the present. 

In the 1930’s Oppenheimer was an extravagant academic, captivating the classrooms of Berkeley physics courses with his charm, intellect, and ability to take extremely complex theories and present them in a digestible way. Touted for his vivacious ability to enrapture women or influence the opinions of others, he would leave those who encountered him in awe of the mind in which they had just engaged. He was frequently engaged with political activities associated with left-wing groups and friendly with many in the American Communist Party. While never a member himself, he considered himself a ‘fellow-traveler,’ or one who is not a bonafide, card-carrying member of a political group but may sympathize with its aims and policies. Whilst Oppenheimer, known colloquially as ‘Oppie,’  was making a name for himself within the US scientific and Berkeley political communities, the scientists Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassman, and later Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, had realized that bombarding the element uranium with neutrons in turn split the atom. The splitting of the atom resulted in a massive release of energy, which was a process never before seen. This discovery is what came to be known as fission. With unbelievable rapidity, physicists around the world began to build on this discovery. In 1939, Niels Bohr theorized that this process of fission was due to a specific isotope of uranium, U-235. The dominant isotope, U-238, is much more common and does have the potency to create any sort of self-sustaining chain reaction. Thus, to develop any sort of chain-reaction of nuclear fission in order to produce a bomb, Bohr believed that one would need to turn a country into a factory to produce enough U-235 to create a nuclear explosion. Little did he know that the U.S., under the direction of Oppenheimer, would do just that. 

These discoveries captivated the scientific community in a way similar to Einstein discovering relativity. The idea of quantum mechanics instilled a new understanding of the world in which we live. Another physicist, Leo Szilard, understood the implication of splitting the atom. A bomb could be created, and it is certain that someone will discover how to build it. Szilard enlisted the help of Albert Einstein to draw President Roosevelt’s attention to this possibility. Roosevelt initiated the Committee on Uranium, with himself as the head. 

As universities across the country explored the possibilities of fission, a step was taken towards militarizing the technology. Another isotope, which would come to be known as Pluto, could be produced through the refinement of uranium. This purified uranium would increase the fissionable potential in the creation of a bomb. As World War II had brought the U.S. into its orbit by 1942, a soon-to-be General Leslie Groves was charged with organizing a scientific project to assemble America’s scientific, military, and industrial might to produce the atomic weapon in a race with the Nazis. The General chose Oppenheimer to lead this project despite his questionable past. Oppie quickly got to work assembling the best minds in the country, bringing them all to a remote location in New Mexico in order to produce a weapon to end the war. He rapidly became a strong leader. His team leapt science forward at a blistering pace and took on fundamental questions of quantum mechanics in order to harness the power of fission for the United States of America. 

Upon delivering this miracle for the country, Oppenheimer urged President Truman to share the discovery with Stalin and the allies in order to avoid conflict in the post-war period. Despite the scientific community’s advising, no such conversation was had. Truman explained to Stalin that the United States had a ‘new weapon of unusual destructive force,’ to which Stalin simply responded that he hoped the U.S. “make good use of it against the Japanese.” On August 6th and 9th, Stalin’s wish came true, and the U.S. unleashed the power of the atom on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Surrender followed soon thereafter. 

Before the horrific realities of the bomb's destructive capability were put on display in Japan, Oppenheimer knew what he had created. Following the first test of the atomic bomb, known as the Trinity test, he famously said a line of Hindu scripture from the Bhagavad Gita, “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the war, he came to grips with the consequences of what his scientific accomplishment had meant for the world. He, among other scientists such as Niels Bohr, knew that this weapon needed to be regulated amongst an international body to allow for the candid collaboration of politicians and scientists alike in order to ensure that it would not be utilized to destroy worlds. For the first time in history, Oppenheimer had given man the tools it needed to destroy itself. 

Oppie began to utilize his fame and connection to the Washington elite to try and influence atomic policy away from beginning an arms race with the Soviet Union that may very well end with nuclear armageddon. In the period of the early Cold War, Oppenheimer’s complicated past and endorsement of candor with political enemies created adversaries of his own. These political rivals sought to tear down his reputation in favor of building up a nuclear arsenal to ensure complete deterrence, maintain the mobilization of scientific resources to develop thermo-nuclear weapons, and keep the Soviet Union as well as allied countries in the dark as to the supposed mysteries of the militarized atom. This naive and ignorant approach seized the day, and Oppenheimer was systematically destroyed from ever influencing policy on the use of the weapon in which he created. 

As this animosity and pro-nuclear fervor grew, Oppenheimer gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 1953. He stood at the podium, looking out into the eyes of influential figures such as the young David Rockefeller, David Lilienthal, publisher of the Washington post Eugene Meyer, and other well known entities within the United States foreign policy establishment. He proceeded to advocate a policy of candor with the Soviet Union and the world, citing Secretary of War Stimson saying that “lasting peace and freedom cannot be achieved until the world finds a way towards the necessary government of the whole.” He outlined the potential arms race between the superpowers and warned those present of the insidious comfort they may feel being an estimated four years ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear arms race. What's the difference between drowning in one foot of water versus ten? He advocated to not get stuck in the complacent nature of the present, and to understand how rapidly the world had undergone such changes. All should understand their reasons why they believe what they do not only from the realities of the present, but to imagine what these realities may look like in three, four, or five years into the future. The situation was to either see the reform of the international arena to regulate the dangers of nuclear warfare, or to proceed on a course in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union may “be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” 

Oppenheimer's views resulted in him being burnt at the political stake, his reputation tarnished, and influence lost. The nuclear arms race that defined the Cold War period proceeded full-steam ahead. Oppenheimer understood that the genie could not be put back into the bottle, but he did believe there was time to reconcile the mistakes of the past in favor of an open discourse to limit the ever-present and looming nuclear threat. Instead, more and larger weapons were built. On several occasions, the world was brought into the brink of nuclear conflict. It wasn’t until after his death that Oppenheimer’s policy of candor began to gain traction. As the arms race was more apparently hopeless for a peaceful world, arms control agreements began to take shape. Starting with SALT, a treaty to limit the testing and production of nuclear weapons, and up to today’s arms agreements to limit the number of nuclear warheads and outlaw nuclear weapon research and development, candor on nuclear weapons has become one of the few areas of international cooperation. It leaves one to wonder where the world would be if Oppenheimer had not been silenced, and science prevailed following his speech on the policies of atomic weapons. 

The world today can draw many lessons from the bravery and wisdom of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Just as scientists in the 1930’s made stark discoveries at the splitting of the atom, scientists today have discovered the way to harness the abstract concept of intelligence. Just as physicists understood the implications of unleashing atomic energy, programmers understand the implications of unleashing artificial intelligence. Nuclear energy was deemed a potential source of energy that would rid the world of the need for fossil fuels. Artificial intelligence is posited as an efficient improvement to human capability, with some estimates advertising a $4.4 trillion dollar increase to the global economy on behalf of AI. However, this technology has eerie parallels to those of the nuclear age. 

After Otto Hahn and Stritz Frassman discovered fission, the jump from splitting the atom to exploding the atom happened within a decade. In similar fashion, AI has made technological advances at a brazenly fast pace. While not as fast as the jump from uranium radioactivity to atomic explosion, AI has developed from a processing chip known as a GPU, which could assist in neural network training at a faster pace than a normal computer processor, to the modern applications such as AI chatbots, humanoids, and programs that write passable college essays. Where these technological developments could go is still largely unknown. This period of groundbreaking and original discovery could be akin to the 1930’s, with scientists pushing the limits of artificial intelligence whilst understanding its potential harm. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, has already testified before Congress to urge regulation over the industry. One could imagine Oppenheimer himself, seated before a Congressional delegation, eloquently summarizing the vast array of knowledge about AI and presenting the case for regulation just as he did to the Council on Foreign Relations in 1953. 

There have been plenty of science fiction films, from The Terminator to Ex-Machina to the Avengers: Age of Ultron, that have portrayed the world after AI becomes more than mankind can control. Just as Oppenheimer quipped following Trinity, this technology may become death, the destroyer of worlds. While these notions appear far-fetched, so too were the fantasies of physicists at the scale to which their discoveries would reach before the atomic bomb. Just as policy makers opted for militarization upon the scientific understanding of the power of the atom, once AI reaches a level of military competence that may impact the balance of power, policy makers may again opt to mobilize scientific resources to harness this power. 

While there have been no secretive laboratories, AI has developed at a pace that is cause for alarm within not only the U.S., but to the international community as a whole. In the early 1950’s, Oppenheimer spoke of two options facing the world: international cooperation or be likened to the scorpions in a bottle. The international community today is again approaching this monumental crossroads. One path leads to furthering the “AI arms race” in which developments go unchecked, entering a world where science may dictate the terms and nations are drawn into conflict over the utility of this largely unknown technology. The other is to heed the lesson that Oppenheimer dutifully provided. International cooperation could serve to increase collaboration and improvement of the technology, lay the groundwork for its safe application, and allow the global community to develop artificial intelligence for the benefit of the community as a whole. In this day and age, the genie could be kept in the bottle. 

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Matt Braaten is a veteran of the United States Navy and recent graduate of Columbia University. 


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Pawners Paper: Oppenheimer and Artificial Intelligence: The Symphony of Eeriness | Article | Matt Braaten
Oppenheimer and Artificial Intelligence: The Symphony of Eeriness | Article | Matt Braaten
Yuan Changming considered the intersections between Oppenheimer's nuclear weapon invention and the same trajectory of Artificial Intelligence.
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