Skip to main content

John Polanyi is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

It was inspiring when Professor Geoffrey Hinton declared his intention earlier this month to interrupt his work on the development of AI in order to warn the world of the danger of falsehoods, at a time when the future of mankind could be threatened by new developments in science.

“I’m just a scientist,” he said. We owe a debt to those who, like him, give timely warning of danger.

A previous generation will hear in him an echo of June, 1945, three-quarters of a century ago, when seven scientists with links to the then top-secret A-bomb project dared to declare, “we found ourselves … in the position of a small group of citizens cognizant of a grave danger.” That danger has waxed and waned ever since. Our future depends on the willingness of the informed among us to share their concerns.

My own instruction in such matters began in one peak of danger when, in the winter of 1960, the Kremlin hosted an international discussion by scientists in Moscow to explore the possibility of a stable peace in a world transformed. It was to be based on “minimal deterrence.” Participation in this discussion was by politically aware scientists from around the globe. In the dauntless imagination of a leading participant, Leo Szilard (who had donated his pioneering patent on atomic power to the British navy), bilateral disarmament should proceed, without delay, to the point at which peace was guaranteed by only a single A-bomb buried under Moscow, rendered unusable by the presence a second under Washington. But how would this vital standoff be verified? Surely by intrusive inspection – something new in the world. My friend and colleague, the Academician Nicolai Semenov, rose to protest, in high dudgeon. “Did you come to Moscow in order to insult us?” he asked.

The debate ground to a halt. In the silence, Leo Szilard told the story of two army officers at the close of the past war, approaching one another on horseback with pistols drawn. Was the other aware that an armistice had been signed? The more daring lowered his pistol. The other blamed himself for his failure to do so.

The Moscow gathering resumed.

The fever chart of war has gone through several near-death crises since then. In one, in 1962, I found myself insisting, in a national broadcast, that Canada disavow any intention of a pre-emptive attack on what had suddenly become a nuclear-armed Cuba. Nothing, it seemed to me, could justify the risk of a general war in a nuclear-armed world. This was not, in the heat of that moment, a popular view. However, with the passage of time, the principle of restraint was sufficiently accepted to permit the unprecedented bilateral renunciation of defences, legislated in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty.

The reasoning was simple. In the face of the devastating threat of modern weaponry, no defence would be adjudged sufficient. Instead, an arms race with missiles would shortly be replaced by one with anti-missiles, followed thereafter by their negation by anti-anti-missiles. The ABM Treaty stopped this futile and provocative progression for 30 years (with support from Canada) until, in 2002, a careless U.S. president withdrew his country from the ABM Treaty, allowing the dam to break. Mindless competition today has the name of “modernization.” It has unleashed a tidal wave of weaponry previously subject to restraint.

Five years after the demise of the ABM Treaty, Russia suspended the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. NATO naturally followed suit. Then it was the United States’ turn to wield the wrecking ball. It did so in 2019 against the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This had the distinction of being the first treaty to limit an entire category of nuclear-capable missiles. Of course, Russia followed suit.

Today, the last remaining constraint on Russian and U.S. intercontinental ballistic weaponry, the New START Treaty, is in the process of being rendered moot, as the two parties barely speak. My colleague Geoffrey Hinton’s claim – “I’m just a scientist” – brings a new ally. There will be others. What he suggests is that the thinking called AI could now be mature enough to contribute to the central question of the age: can reason be made to block the path to war? The answer has to be in the affirmative. No other can be contemplated.