Akira: the cyberpunk classic that warns us about AI dangers we overlook

May 20, 2024
Artificial intelligence
Pandora's Box
38 years ago, Akira was a cyberpunk futuristic piece that lived far away in a reality we didn’t have any connection with. Today, Tetsuo and Kaneda can be sitting in the seat next to you.
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As OpenAI speeds up to be ahead in the AI competition it's clear, the public figure of Sam Altman is undergoing a process of "Zuckerbification", which is the metamorphosis of his public figure from innovator into a corporate mastermind. The company will sacrifice caution for profits as the race for AI leadership will not become cheaper or slower as the company itself dismantles the structures in place to mitigate risks. A fitting analogy comes from a classic movie, Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo. It's the archetypal tale of radicalisation and the fallout that comes with opening Pandora's Box by those who want to play God. We know every possible mistake, and yet we seem bound to make all of them again.
Akira is arguably the best adult animation ever. It's about two members of a motorbike gang, Tetsuo and Kaneda, in a futuristic Tokyo, 31 years after its destruction. As the city prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2019 (an eerily coincidence considering the decision to host the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was made decades after the movie), Tetsuo falls into a state of mental degeneration. He develops God-like powers to the point that he can cause the extinction of the planet while creating a singularity. This is all caused by a secret military project involving esper children, who have abilities such as intuition, telepathy, psychometry, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, etc. If you've seen The Matrix and know about the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, you'll understand the vibe of what Akira is about. In fact, the esper children of The Matrix are based on Akira.
There is a zeitgeist in the world today that most people feel but don’t realise, or when they realise, they cannot say where it comes from. It’s a combination of the end of a sociopolitical cycle, an violent acceleration of technology and a world with dysfunctional priorities. These characteristics are hard to manage one at a time. At the same time, they are as controllable as solar flares. Akira is about an elite trying to control things that cannot be controlled (or at least, should not be dealt with in the first place). The analogy can put you in may different moments: the German conservatives trying to regain power from social democrats using the Nazis as a proxy, Donald Trump close to being given free reign to stand four years in power of a cracking democracy, Oppenheimer justifying the creation of the nuclear bomb using nuclear power as a deterrent. When one elite is losing power, it will do anything to stop the process.
The Guardian brought an excellent article from Caroline Haskins about a conference hosted by the Special Competitive Studies Project, a think-tank bankrolled by a former Google CEO and sponsored by Palantir, the Peter “competition is for losers” Thiel startup who has several government contracts with the US and Israel, among other clients with equivalent deep pockets. The tone of the article is of a disconnected from this world, where the people making decisions about wars and weapons could not be less prepared for the task due to the lack of contact points with the day-to-day life of the rest of the world. From making fun of American students protesting against the invasion in Gaza("a pagan religion infecting our universities") to the Palantir CEO joking about being the new Oppenheimer, the surrealism of the event is perfectly consistent with the zeitgeist of the planet at this moment. It really sounds like the Chernobyl TV series sequence, where a handful of low-level communist councillors, led by a die-hard leninist, decide not to evacuate Pripyat after the explosion of the reactor.
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What connects Akira with the borderline-lysergic world that is a hostage of corporate powers is the inability to see what is around the corner. In Otomo’s movie, government and military officials submit children to treatment to boost their esper capabilities, aware that risks like an uncontrolled singularity might destroy the universe. The race for space commercial travel between billionaires is outrageous, but it’s unlikely to bring unforeseeable consequences other than the current destruction of the planet (something most people simply don’t really care about). Open AI, Microsoft, Google, Meta, and other less known companies are in a race where an accident might bring consequences that only AI and doomsayers can imagine, is a very different one. When OpenAI dismantles the safety team, it is basically unlocking the seat belt. Yes, you might not need it, but it is negligence at best. Plus, what are Google, Meta and the others doing to be more careful? “Nothing”, you might say, and you are probably right.
This issue extends beyond the potential impact on journalism or the news industry I have been discussing (which would be by itself detrimental enough). Hasty and careless use of artificial intelligence, especially in sectors such as defense and public infrastructure, is a gateway to disaster. While making Akira, Otomo imagined that a nuclear war would happen in the 90’s (which was quite plausible then with the Cold War), but maybe a nuclear war is no longer the most worrying way to massive life-extinction, but a new singularity led by AIs that none manage to tame.
Once we believed that the startup economy was the way capitalism had found to be fairer and better, but that’s just bollocks. The Californian techs lost their shine of openness and modernity along ago, alongside the Cambridge Analytica, or the massacre in Myanmar. What counts in the end is money, just like everywhere else. Thinking like Macchiaveli, nothing changes - it’s the game like we play today. However, AI capabilities and risks go beyond crazy weather and inequality. A cyberpunk world is getting closer and closer to reality.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024