Why the open letter to ‘build AI for a better future’ falls flat

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In the canon of AI industry open letters — remember the “pause” letter from last March? — I would venture to say that the latest, titled “Build AI for a Better Future,” might take the cake. A deflated, flat cake, that is.

The letter, started by venture capitalist Ron Conway and his firm SV Angel, has over 300 signatories including companies like OpenAI, Salesforce, Google, Meta and Microsoft. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman touted the “spirit of this letter,” while other companies were “proud” to sign it.

But the letter, which calls “on everyone to build, broadly deploy, and use AI to improve people’s lives and unlock a better future,” is not just short (barely four brief paragraphs), but short on specificity and context. This is especially concerning at a moment when Google continues to be dragged for its Gemini fails; OpenAI’s nonprofit structure and AGI mission has come under fire again; and Anthropic’s new Claude 3 models are being hailed as having “near-human” abilities.

Open letter offers vague pronouncements on AI benefits and risks

With vague pronouncements like “The purpose of AI is for humans to thrive much more than we could before,” and “AI is for all of us, and all of us have a role to play in building AI to improve people’s lives,” it’s difficult to understand what the point of the letter really is; who it is meant to target; and why it is being published now.

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In fact, the letter is rather insulting to the public’s intelligence: After all, we have arrived at a moment in the frantic pace of AI development where the public — both consumers and businesses — are seeking answers to a lot of questions about transparency, accountability, and consideration of privacy, bias, and inequality. The public is also rightfully concerned about serious issues like the impact of AI on climate change, the workforce, elections, and warfare.

None of those questions or issues are addressed in the “Build AI for a better future,” and the letter does nothing to move us farther away from what I described as the “disillusionment cliff” back in October 2023. In that piece, I said that along with the fast pace of compelling, even jaw-dropping AI developments, AI also faces a laundry list of complex challenges, from lawsuits to deepfakes.

I wrote: “The bottom line is that AI may have incredible positive potential for humanity’s future, but I don’t think companies are doing a great job of communicating what that is. Where is the “why” — as in, why are we going through all the angst of building all of this? What is the current and future value of generative AI to individuals, workers, enterprises, and society at large? How do the benefits outweigh the risks?”

I’m afraid that “AI is still early, but it’s on its way to improving everyone’s daily life,” is not nearly enough.

Others have criticized the open letter

I’m not the only one that is criticizing the ‘Build AI for a better future” open letter. Emily Bender, professor of linguistics at the University of Washington, parodied the letter with her own version, “Build ‘AI’ for a More Exploitative Future,” writing “we call on everyone to give up their data and acquiesce to more precarious employment so that the tech barons can enjoy an even wealthier future.”

In addition, I spoke with Signal Foundation president Meredith Whittaker today, who told me the letter struck her as “very odd,” as though it had asked ChatGPT “to generate platitudes.”

“Who is this trying to convince, and frankly, of what?” she said. “The pronouns couldn’t be broader — ‘we call on everyone.’”

Unlike the raft of open letters from 2017-2021, Whittaker pointed out, in which workers demanded changes from large tech companies — protesting Google’s work with the Pentagon, for example — the new letter repurposes the “open letter” form in a “sterile” way for “corporate marketing.”

It appears, she explained, “to be meant to signal the benevolent intentions of the very firms who could make changes while disavowing their own power to simply make these changes.”

The bottom line, she said, is that the letter is a “profoundly patronizing document” that lacks real, clear commitments to measure and report progress.

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