Wednesday, April 24, 2024

RAND Corporation CEO On The Here-and-Now Dangers Of Artificial Intelligence

As we saw in April 14's RAND: "Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology: Risks and Opportunities" the RAND Corporation has very deep connections to AI, going back almost seventy years.

From Wired, April 23:

A National Security Insider Does the Math on the Dangers of AI
Jason Matheny, CEO of the influential think tank Rand Corporation, says advances in AI are making it easier to learn how to build biological weapons and other tools of destruction.

Jason Matheny is a delight to speak with, provided you’re up for a lengthy conversation about potential technological and biomedical catastrophe.

Now CEO and president of Rand Corporation, Matheny has built a career out of thinking about such gloomy scenarios. An economist by training with a focus on public health, he dived into the worlds of pharmaceutical development and cultivated meat before turning his attention to national security.

As director of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the US intelligence community's research agency, he pushed for more attention to the dangers of biological weapons and badly designed artificial intelligence. In 2021, Matheny was tapped to be President Biden’s senior adviser on technology and national security issues. And then, in July of last year, he became CEO and president of Rand, the oldest nonprofit think tank in the US, which has shaped government policy on nuclear strategy, the Vietnam War, and the development of the internet.

Matheny talks about threats like AI-enabled bioterrorism in convincing but measured tones, Mr. Doomsday in a casual suit. He’s steering Rand to investigate the daunting risks to US democracy, map out new strategies around climate and energy, and explore paths to “competition without catastrophe” in China. But his long-time concerns about biological weapons and AI remain top of mind.

Onstage with WIRED at the recent Verify cybersecurity conference in Sausalito, California, hosted by the Aspen Institute and Hewlett Foundation, he warned that AI is making it easier to learn how to build biological weapons and other potentially devastating tools. (There’s a reason why he joked that he would pick up the tab at the bar afterward.) The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauren Goode: To start, we should talk about your role at Rand and what you’re envisioning for the future there. Rand has played a critical role in a lot of US history. It has helped inform, you know, the creation of the internet—

Jason Matheny: We’re still working out the bugs. [*]

Right. We’re going to fix it all tonight. Rand has also influenced nuclear strategy, the Vietnam War, the space race. What do you hope that your tenure at Rand will be defined by?

There’s three areas that I really want to help grow. First, we need a framework for thinking about what [technological] competition looks like without a race to the bottom on safety and security. For example, how can we assure competition with China without catastrophe? A second area of focus is thinking about how we can map out a climate and energy strategy for the country, in a way that is acceptable to our technology requirements, the infrastructure that we have and are building, and gets the economics right.

And then a third area is understanding the risks to democracy right now, not just in the United States but globally. We're seeing an erosion of norms in how facts and evidence are treated in policy debates. We have a set of very anxious researchers at Rand who are seeing this decay of norms. I think that's something that's happening not just in the United States but globally, alongside a resurgence of variants of autocracy.

One type of risk you’ve been very interested in for a long time is “biorisk.” What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? Take us through that.

I started out in public health before I worked in national security, working on infectious disease control—malaria and tuberculosis. In 2002, the first virus was synthesized from scratch on a Darpa project, and it was sort of an “oh crap” moment for the biosciences and the public health community, realizing biology is going to become an engineering discipline that could be potentially misused. I was working with veterans of the smallpox eradication campaign, and they thought, “Crap, we just spent decades eradicating a disease that now could be synthesized from scratch.”.... 


Still a few bugs in the system. Ha Ha.