Home Brussels The rag-tag group trying to pause AI in Brussels

The rag-tag group trying to pause AI in Brussels

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OUTSIDE MICROSOFT’S OFFICE, BRUSSELS — It’s a small group for now, but it is warning of great dangers ahead.

On Tuesday morning, five members of the activist collective Pause AI stood by Microsoft’s Brussels lobbying office to protest against an event hosted by the U.S. giant on artificial intelligence. One carried a placard that read: “10 percent extinction risk is not acceptable.”

The small but devoted group of anti-artificial intelligence campaigners hit the town right as the world’s largest tech companies have locked horns to gain supremacy over AI technology. Just this week, Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai is in Brussels to meet with legislators on the topic of AI, while Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed company behind ChatGPT, is touring Europe meeting with heads of state including Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and France’s Emmanuel Macron.

In past months, new tools like the ChatGPT chatbot have caused a stir across the world, triggering fears that AI will lead to crises in education, jobs, art and culture — or worse.

The group gathering on the Brussels street corner is in the camp that thinks it’ll be worse: that AI could mean the end of humankind.

Launched a month ago, Pause AI is the brainchild of Joep Meindertsma, a 31-year-old Dutchman who first grew preoccupied with AI risk upon listening to a talk by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. When ChatGPT was released last November and caused a worldwide scramble for answers, Meindertsma jumped into action, created a group on messaging application Discord and started mobilizing those equally concerned about the transformative technology.

“The rate of AI progress is what scares me the most, because I’m not seeing the same rate of progress in AI alignment,” Meindertsma said. “There is a chance that we are facing extinction in a short frame of time.”

The group, which says it isn’t backed by interest groups or sponsors, has simple demands. First: stop the roll-out of ever-more-powerful AI systems. Second: all governments should sign up to an AI treaty.

Funnily enough, those goals already have influential proponents, including in the tech sector. In March, tech experts including Tesla CEO Elon Musk called for a moratorium on AI development. And last month, European Parliament lawmakers working on the bloc’s Artificial Intelligence Act also pushed for an international conference on AI. The EU’s law, which is expected to be finalized in the second half of 2023, could throw up significant barriers to developing risky AI applications, which is why U.S. tech titans are in the midst of a lobbying push.

In a statement, Microsoft said that while it is “optimistic” about AI, “as we move into this new era, all of us building, deploying and using AI have a collective obligation to do so responsibly.”

Meindertsma said he’s put his day job as chief executive officer of software firm Ontola on hold to work full-time on building a movement that would actually take action against the tech.

“I felt an urge to bring people together and inspire them to get in an ‘act’ mode, to contact their politicians,” he said. Most Pause AI members,  Meindertsma said, have a background in AI safety or work in tech. One Brussels protester, Ruben Dieleman, works for the Existential Risk Observatory, a Dutch foundation focused on threats with the potential to annihilate humankind. Another protester, who declined to give his name, said he was a student of robotics.

While the group’s Discord counts about 140 members, and the Brussels demonstration was puny, Meindertsma said he had scheduled a meeting with a European Commission cabinet official on Tuesday, although that was eventually postponed. The group has also orchestrated similar protests in London, near the headquarters of Google-owned AI lab DeepMind, and in San Francisco, in front of OpenAI’s offices. A New York protest is in the works.

This article was updated.

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