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At the age of 98, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has a whole new area of interest: artificial intelligence. He became intrigued after being persuaded by Eric Schmidt, who was then the executive chairman of Google, to attend a lecture on the topic while at the Bilderberg conference in 2016. The two have teamed up with the dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Daniel Huttenlocher, to write a bracing new book, The Age of AI, about the implications of the rapid rise and deployment of artificial intelligence, which they say “augurs a revolution in human affairs.” The book argues that artificial intelligence processes have become so powerful, so seamlessly enmeshed in human affairs, and so unpredictable, that without some forethought and management, the kind of “epoch-making transformations” they will deliver may send human history in a dangerous direction.
Kissinger and Schmidt sat down with TIME to talk about the future they envision.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Dr. Kissinger, you’re an elder statesman. Why did you think AI was an important enough subject for you?
Kissinger: When I was an undergraduate, I wrote my undergraduate thesis of 300 pages—which was banned after that ever to be permitted—called “The Meaning of History.” The subject of the meaning of history and where we go has occupied my life. The technological miracle doesn’t fascinate me so much; what fascinates me is that we are moving into a new period of human consciousness which we don’t yet fully understand. When we say a new period of human consciousness, we mean that the perception of the world will be different, at least as different as between the age of enlightenment and the medieval period, when the Western world moved from a religious perception of the world to a perception of the world on the basis of reason, slowly. This will be faster.
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There’s one important difference. In the Enlightenment, there was a conceptual world based on faith. And so Galileo and the late pioneers of the Enlightenment had a prevailing philosophy against which they had to test their thinking. You can trace the evolution of that thinking. We live in a world which, in effect, has no philosophy; there is no dominant philosophical view. So the technologists can run wild. They can develop world-changing things, but there’s nobody there to say, ‘We’ve got to integrate this into something.’
When you met Eric [Schmidt] and he invited you to speak at Google, you said that you considered it a threat to civilization. Why did you feel that way?
Kissinger: I did not want one organization to have a monopoly on supplying information. I thought it was extremely dangerous for one company to be able to supply information and be able to adjust what it supplied to its study of what the public wanted or found plausible. So the truth became relative. That was all I knew at the time. And the reason he invited me to meet his algorithmic group was to have me understand that this was not arbitrary, but the choice of what was presented had some thought and analysis behind it. It didn’t obviate my fear of one private organization having that power. But that’s how I got into it.
Schmidt: The visit to Google got him thinking. And when we started talking about this, Dr. Kissinger said that he is very worried that the impact that this collection of technologies will have on humans and their existence, and that the technologists are operating without the benefit of understanding their impact or history. And that, I think, is absolutely correct.
Given that many people feel the way that you do or did about technology companies—that they are not really to be trusted, that many of the manipulations that they have used to improve their business have not been necessarily great for society—what role do you see technology leaders playing in this new system?
Kissinger: I think the technology companies have led the way into a new period of human consciousness, like the Enlightenment generations did when they moved from religion to reason, and the technologists are showing us how to relate reason to artificial intelligence. It’s a different kind of knowledge in some respects, because with reason—the world in which I grew up—each evidence supports the other. With artificial intelligence, the astounding thing is, you come up with a conclusion which is correct. But you don’t know why. That’s a totally new challenge. And so in some ways, what they have invented is dangerous. But it advances our culture. Would we be better off if it had never been invented? I don’t know that. But now that it exists, we have to understand it. And it cannot be eliminated. Too much of our life is already consumed by it.
What do you think is the primary geopolitical implication of the growth of artificial intelligence?
Kissinger: I don’t think we have examined this thoughtfully yet. If you imagine a war between China and the United States, you have artificial-intelligence weapons. Like every artificial intelligence, they are more effective at what you plan. But they might be also effective in what they think their objective is. And so if you say, ‘Target A is what I want,’ they might decide that something else meets these criteria even better. So you’re in a world of slight uncertainty. Secondly, since nobody has really tested these things on a broad-scale operation, you can’t tell exactly what will happen when AI fighter planes on both sides interact. So you are then in a world of potentially total destructiveness and substantial uncertainty as to what you’re doing.
World War I was almost like that in the sense that everybody had planned very complicated scenarios of mobilization, and they were so finely geared that once this thing got going, they couldn’t stop it, because they would put themselves at a bad disadvantage.
So your concern is that the AIs are too effective? And we don’t exactly know why they’re doing what they’re doing?
Kissinger: I have studied what I’m talking about most of my life; this I’ve only studied for four years. The Deep Think computer was taught to play chess by playing against itself for four hours. And it played a game of chess no human being had ever seen before. Our best computers only beat it occasionally. If this happens in other fields, as it must and it is, that is something, and our world is not at all prepared for it.
The book argues that because AI processes are so fast and satisfying, there’s some concern about whether humans will lose the capacity for thought, conceptualizing and reflection. How?
Schmidt: So, again, using Dr. Kissinger as our example, let’s think about how much time he had to do his work 50 years ago, in terms of conceptual time, the ability to think, to communicate and so forth. In 50 years, what is the big narrative? The compression of time. We’ve gone from the ability to read books to being described books, to neither having the time to read them nor conceive of them nor to discuss them, because there’s another thing coming. So this acceleration of time and information, I think, really exceeds humans capacities. It’s overwhelming, and people complain about this; they’re addicted, they can’t think, they can’t have dinner by themselves. I don’t think humans were built for this. It sets off cortisone levels, and things like that. So in the extreme, the overload of information is likely to exceed our ability to process everything going on.
What I have said—and is in the book—is that you’re going to need an assistant. So in your case, you’re a reporter, you’ve got a zillion things going on, you’re going to need an assistant in the form of a computer that says, ‘These are the important things going on. These are the things to think about, search the records, that would make you even more effective.’ A physicist is the same, a chemist is the same, a writer is the same, a musician is the same. So the problem is now you’ve become very dependent upon this AI system. And in the book, we say, well, who controls what the AI system does? What about its prejudices? What regulates what happens? And especially with young people, this is a great concern.
One of the things you write about in the book is how AI has a kind of good and bad side. What do you mean?
Kissinger: Well, I inherently meant what I said at Google. Up to now humanity assumed that its technological progress was beneficial or manageable. We are saying that it can be hugely beneficial. It may be manageable, but there are aspects to the managing part of it that we haven’t studied at all or sufficiently. I remain worried. I’m opposed to saying we therefore have to eliminate it. It’s there now. One of the major points is that we think there should be created some philosophy to guide to the research.
Who would you suggest would make that philosophy? What’s the next step?
Kissinger: We need a number of little groups that ask questions. When I was a graduate student, nuclear weapons were new. And at that time, a number of concerned professors at Harvard, MIT and Caltech met most Saturday afternoons to ask, What is the answer? How do we deal with it? And they came up with the arms-control idea.
Schmidt: We need a similar process. It won’t be one place, it will be a set of such initiatives. One of my hopes is to help organize those post-book, if we get a good reception to the book.
I think that the first thing is that this stuff is too powerful to be done by tech alone. It’s also unlikely that it will just get regulated correctly. So you have to build a philosophy. I can’t say it as well as Dr. Kissinger, but you need a philosophical framework, a set of understandings of where the limits of this technology should go. In my experience in science, the only way that happens is when you get the scientists and the policy people together in some form. This is true in biology, is true in recombinant DNA and so forth.
These groups need to be international in scale? Under the aegis of the U.N., or whom?
Schmidt: The way these things typically work is there are relatively small, relatively elite groups that have been thinking about this, and they need to get stitched together. So for example, there is an Oxford AI and Ethics Strategy Group, which is quite good. There are little pockets around the world. There’s also a number that I’m aware of in China. But they’re not stitched together; it’s the beginning. So if you believe what we believe—which is that in a decade, this stuff will be enormously powerful—we’d better start now to think about the implications.
I’ll give you my favorite example, which is in military doctrine. Everything’s getting faster. The thing we don’t want is weapons that are automatically launched, based on their own analysis of the situation.
Kissinger: Because the attacker may be faster than the human brain can analyze, so it’s a vicious circle. You have an incentive to make it automatic, but you don’t want to make it so automatic that it can act on a judgment you might not make.
Schmidt: So there is not discussion today on this point between the different major countries. And yet, it’s the obvious problem. We have lots of discussions about things which are human speed. But what about when everything happens too fast for humans? We need to agree to some limits, mutual limits, on how fast these systems run, because otherwise we could get into a very unstable situation.
You can understand how people might find that hard to swallow coming from you. Because the whole success of Google was based on how much information could be delivered, how quickly. A lot of people would say, Well, this is actually a problem that you helped bring in.
Schmidt: I did, I am guilty. Along with many other people, we have built platforms that are very, very fast. And sometimes they’re faster than what humans can understand. That’s a problem.
Have we ever gotten ahead of technology? Haven’t we always responded after it arrives? It’s true that we don’t understand what’s going on. But people initially didn’t understand why the light came on when they turned the switch. In the same way, a lot of people are not concerned about AI.
Schmidt: I am very concerned about the misuse of all of these technologies. I did not expect the Internet to be used by governments to interfere in elections. It just never occurred to me. I was wrong. I did not expect that the Internet would be used to power the antivax movement in such a terrible way. I was wrong. I missed that. We’re not going to miss the next one. We’re going to call it ahead of time.
Kissinger: If you had known, what would you have done?
Schmidt: I don’t know. I could have done something different. Had I known it 10 years ago, I could have built different products. I could have lobbied in a different way. I could have given speeches in a different way. I could have given people the alarm before it happened.
I don’t agree with the line of your argument that it’s fatalistic. We do roughly know what technology is going to deliver. We can typically predict technology pretty accurately within a 10-year horizon, certainly a five-year horizon. So we tried in our book to write down what is going to happen. And we want people to deal with it. I have my own pet answers to how we would solve these problems. We have a minor reference in the book how you would solve misinformation, which is going to get much worse. And the way you solve that is by essentially knowing where the information came from cryptographically and then ranking so the best information is at the top.
Kissinger: I don’t know whether anyone could have foreseen how politics are changing as a result of it. It may be the nature of the human destiny and human tragedy that they have been given the gift to invent things. But the punishment may be that they have to find the solutions themselves. I had no incentive to get into any technological discussions. In my 90s, I started to work with Eric. He set up little seminars of four or five people every three or four weeks, which he joined. We were discussing these issues, and we were raising many of the questions you raised here to see what we could do. At that time, it was just argumentative; then, at the end of the period, we invited Dan Huttenlocher, because he’s technically so competent, to see how we would write it down. Then the three of us met for a year, every Sunday afternoon. So this not just popping off. It’s a serious set of concerns.
Schmidt: So what we hope we have done is we’ve laid out the problems for the groups to figure out how to solve them. And there’s a number of them: the impact on children, the impact on war, the impact on science, the impact on politics, the impact on humanity. But we want to say right now that those that initiatives need to start now.
Finally, I want to ask you each a question that sort of relates to each other. Dr. Kissinger, when, in 50 years, somebody Googles your name, what would you like the first fact about you to be?
Kissinger: That I made some contribution to the conception of peace. I’d like to be remembered for some things I actually did also. But if you ask me to sum it up in one sentence, I think if you look at what I’ve written, it all works back together toward that same theme.
And Mr. Schmidt, what would you like people to think of as your contribution to the conception of peace?
Well, the odds of Google being in existence in 50 years, given the history of American corporations, is not so high. I grew up in the tech industry, which is a simplified version of humanity. We’ve gotten rid of all the pesky hard problems, right? I hope I’ve bridged technology and humanity in a way that is more profound than any other person in my generation.
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