Our “Oppenheimer moment” and the threats of advanced technology

Published in The Tennessean on August 27, 2023

By Patrick Ryan

Game changing technologies both advance and threaten mankind, and require controls.

This summer’s blockbuster biopic “Oppenheimer” awakened a new interest in the dangers and promise of nuclear technology and, by extension, the double-edged sword of advanced technologies. Christopher Nolan’s opus chronicled J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work as a theoretical physicist who headed the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos as America raced to beat Germany to build an atomic bomb.

The first bomb test at a site called Trinity in the New Mexico desert was the film’s dramatic turning point for Oppenheimer. While his scientific pursuits were fulfilled, the destructive power of the atomic bomb led to misgivings about the consequences for mankind. Although Oppenheimer helped the military plan the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, he began to question the ability for control of weapons of such destructive power. Oppenheimer and some of his fellow atomic scientists argued for international governance of nuclear power and he openly opposed development of much more power hydrogen weapons.

“Oppenheimer,” the movie, continues with his travails. Despite worldwide celebrity as “father of the atomic bomb,” his political positions ran afoul of the government. The result was revocation of his security clearance and exile from the active community of nuclear scientists.

What about “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour journey through the struggles and accomplishments of a scientist many Americans knew little about, caused such a stir among movie-goers? Dr. Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the “Doomsday Clock” people, spoke at a recent Tennessee World Affairs Council Webinar, “…the movie is having such resonance because of how fraught the nuclear landscape is today … it’s tapping into the zeitgeist.” She pointed to developments like Russia’s naked threats to use nuclear weapons to resolve the quagmire it’s found in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. “This isn’t your father’s nuclear landscape,” she said, adding, “Major powers are shredding our arms control architectures … it is very similar to the moment that Oppenheimer and his colleagues were operating.”

If we’ve reached a new “Oppenheimer moment,” as Alexander Karp argued last month in the New York Times when discussing AI, then it’s time to examine the technologies like nuclear power that can be dangers to humanity while at the same time offer incredible advancements for society. As Oppenheimer said in 1947, “You argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”

We know the potential for nuclear weapons to end civilization and nuclear technology to provide life-saving medical applications and fossil-fuel free energy. There are other technologies that are both game changers for society and existential threats to humanity. Some have been with us for years; others are relatively new.

Biomedical technologies have been a godsend for human healthcare and disease treatment. Yet, a single virus spread to three quarters of a billion people, killing almost seven million worldwide and over a million in the United States. Did SARS-CoV-2, which gave us Covid-19, start in the wild or in a laboratory? No one who knows for sure is saying. What future existential threats will come from test tubes?

Generative AI is the recent technology to join this category. There’s promise for advancements in education, medicine, manufacturing, art and much more. But there’s also alarm bells being sounded. Last fall’s debut of ChatGPT introduced the world to the power of AI. Since then, a one-sentence statement from 350 AI experts, including senior officials at the top three AI companies, shocked the public this spring, “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.” “Extinction,” from a technology that students are using to produce faux term papers?

The control of these technologies – nuclear, AI and biomedical — falls among public, private and a combination of the two sectors. And they span the international community, many members not likely to agree on the responsible architectures like those Oppenheimer pursued.

What does all this doomsaying mean for us citizens? Dr. Bronson at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by Oppenheimer and his colleagues, says their purpose is to educate the public about these paramount issues, “We were founded on the belief the public is important to democratic discourse and [should] pressure our political leaders to do the right thing.”

That’s a good first step. Open the conversation at the grassroots level so our communities are informed and involved. That was the point of the TNWAC Webinar with Dr. Bronson [access at TNWAC.org] who said, “The dangers of these technologies insist that we stay focused because it’s too dangerous for us to throw our hands up and say, well, the time isn’t right.” We have reached our “Oppenheimer moment.”