Culture Magazine

Oppenheimer [Media Notes 131]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I didn’t see Oppenheimer when it was in theaters, but I’ve just watched it on Amazon. Was it a tad long, at 180 minutes? Possibly. The texture reminded me a bit of Maestro, moving between color and black-and-white, with vision/dream sequences, and quick movement between scenes. I note, however, that while Maestro moved chronologically, Oppenheimer moved around in time, with a security hearing from 1954 functioning as a temporal focal point. Most of the action takes place before that point, but there is a bit after.

Mostly, however, I was struck by rough parallels between events in the film and current controversies about AI. On the one hand there is the theme of existential threat. Creating massive destruction, obviously, is the point of building an atomic bomb. Beyond that, however, Edward Teller had done some preliminary calculations that suggested an atomic explosion might set the atmosphere on fire and thus destroy all life on earth. In the case of AI, I believe that the threat of a rogue AI dominating earth is mostly projective fantasy, leakage from the (Freudian) unconscious world into the public sphere.

Such leakage does, however, lead to a lot of interpersonal jockeying for position and recognition. In the case of the film, the major jockeying is between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, a major bureaucrat in the government security apparatus, but there’s enough to spread around among a half-dozen to a dozen characters. In this scrum technical and scientific questions become inextricably intertwined with policy and security. The same thing is now happening in AI. The technical and scientific questions are obscure, more so than in the case of the atomic bomb. That obscurity means that those issues will inevitably mix with the questions of social policy and security that are also in play. Everyone who’s visible enough to be mentioned in The New York Times seems to be making a play for the history books. Billions of dollars are being wagered in the process. And you can watch it play out in real-time on X.

It’s crazy. 

I mean, sure, yeah, social forces, whatever. But the insecurities of powerful men, what a trip. Yikes!


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