There are a number of ways that our AI and technological development can turn out. This is a hypothetical story about a way where AI development is stopped and a 'pivotal act' that does not require AGI occurs.
The first thing I notice when I wake up is that the sun is shining through the window. "Oh sh--" I bite off a curse. I've probably missed my class.
I reach for my phone, and suddenly, I'm startled by how hot it is. Searingly hot. I tentatively tap the screen, but it doesn't turn on. "Did the battery explode?" I mutter. A sinking feeling washes over me. This is a terrible start to the day.
I don't know it yet, but waking up late is soon going to be the least of my worries.
I run downstairs, grabbing my backpack. I walk over the where my laptop is charging only to realize in horror that smoke is trickling from behind the screen.
"What the hell?"
This is really bad. Maybe there was a huge electrical surge? Both my phone and the laptop are fried.
I open the door, jog down the stairs, and see dozens of students anxiously gathered outside.
"What's happening?" I ask, jogging up to the group. All of them look scared.
"Something bad is going on." One of them gestures towards smoke in the distance. "All of the computers are fried, both in the college and the town. Nobody has any idea what's going on. None of the phones work."
A chill settles over me. "Is it a cyberattack?" I ask. I've never heard of anything like this. I've heard that detonating a nuke in the atmosphere could knock out an electrical grid, but I feel like I would have heard it.
I look up at the sky. It's a crisp morning, probably about 10:00 AM or so.
There is not a single plane in the sky. Not even the faint, ever-present rumbling of jet engines at forty-five thousand feet. The day suddenly seems eerily quiet.
I listen harder. I don't hear any cars either.
It is then that I begin to realize the magnitude of what is happening.
The next week happens in a terrifying blur. School is cancelled. A few people have radios, the really old kind. Apparently the power grid across the entire US, and possibly the entire world, is down. Every computer seems to have spontaneously combusted or is now otherwise entirely useless.
Most of the cars on the road have been rendered unusable. They won't even turn on because the computers are fried. There are still a lot of older cars, so people begin to travel and move by radio.
After a stressful month, I catch a ride back to my house, which is just a few hours away by bus. The world seems to be going slightly back to normal but there are almost no functioning computers.
There are a few exceptions. A friend of mine dug out an old laptop of his that he hadn't used for years, and it still works. It seems like anything connected to the internet had been near-simultaneously destroyed.
Ten years have passed. The world is mostly back to normal. I've been farming extensively and working on computers in my spare time. Fortunately, I found a flash drive with most of my writing and life philosophy on it. We have an old computer in our house that still works, and so I've transcribed a lot of my writing onto paper. I'm never going to connect this computer to an internet, however.
Something deeply scary happened ten years ago, and whatever caused it is still around. About two months into the disaster, a new internet was set up. A lot of people had old computers, and the internet worked fine for another two months.
Then, mysteriously, every computer connected to it burned over a single night.
Every time someone tries to set up a large-scale internet, with a lot of devices, it inevitably burns. There's enormous research going into the cause behind it, but it seems like some sort of virus is infecting computers connected to a network and then destroying them. The virus is almost impossible to detect and it is constantly rewriting itself to avoid detection.
Whatever it is, it is smarter than us. It finds binary-level security exploits and infects a system from there. It's like a digital parasite, perfectly evolved to live in our computer networks and destroy them. Once it's in, you can't remove it, you can't analyze it, and you can't tell what it is communicating with. It is constantly mutating. Some call it a 'signal demon'.
As if on a timer, it destroys networks. Sometimes it waits weeks, sometimes it waits months, and sometimes it waits years.
Because of this, it is impossible to ever build an internet like the one we used to have. Even air-gapped systems are proving insecure once they get large enough.
Society has returned roughly to a state of normalcy. There are cars on the roads. Factories. Governments. Newspapers. Even wars. But we are stuck in the 1950s, handicapped by an inability to use computer networks long-term. We are adapting to live in a post-digital era.
Computer research is slow and rigorous. Most code is written at an assembly level.
One day, we will return to our former glory as a civilization. And we will be better. Our systems will be more secure.
I will not live to see that day. But I hope you, dear reader, will continue so that one day the dreams of human civilization can be safely realized again.
This short story is designed to illustrate an outcome I think is quite likely: as soon as our intelligent systems are capable of causing harm, they will. The release of ChaosGPT and the power of viruses like Stuxnet make it seem likely that future AI-powered viruses will destroy much of humanity's digital infrastructure.
That may not be the worst possibility. A biological virus targeting humans would be worse. Nanotech that causes everyone on Earth to fall over dead is much worse. I hope that digital systems are sufficiently connected and insecure that if AI goes evil early, which I feel like it will, it will only destroy our digital infrastructure and not our bodies.
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