They call it a ‘city of yesterday’, where nostalgic Americans will escape the problems of the modern world.
In California Forever, children will walk to school and grandparents will live down the street from their grandchildren, say its founders. Promo drawings show youngsters riding their bikes down tree-lined streets and families canoeing on lily-covered lakes.
A secretive group of Silicon Valley moguls has paid $900 million for 50,000 acres of rural land in Solano County, north-east of San Francisco — and say their ‘sustainable community’ could one day house 400,000 people.
But will this old-fashioned suburban paradise also be free from Artificial Intelligence (AI), the potentially apocalyptic technology some say threatens our existence?
It’s a fair question given that one of the project’s main backers is the billionaire venture capitalist and software engineer Marc Andreessen. Two weeks ago, the Iowa-born tech guru published an extraordinary ‘manifesto’ warning the world of the folly of resisting the onward march of AI.
One of the project’s main backers is the billionaire venture capitalist and software engineer Marc Andreessen (pictured with wife Laura)
Despite the cosy suburban 1950s theme planned for California Forever, Marc and Laura prefer to wallow in very 21st-century splendour. In 2021, they bought a seven-acre compound in Malibu formerly owned by fashion mogul Serge Azria for $177 million (£145 million). Pictured: Uber-rich Malibu
He’s an influential figure and his 5,000-word Techno-Optimist Manifesto will be known to many of the politicians and Silicon Valley bosses attending Rishi Sunak’s world-first AI Summit this week at the former World War II codebreaking HQ, Bletchley Park.
From the devastating mental harm wrought by social media to the rampant misinformation, violence and pornography spread on the internet, technology is often blamed for many of the contemporary world’s problems.
However, with breathtaking nerve, Andreessen — one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley — argues precisely the opposite. In fact, there’s no modern problem that cannot be solved by technology, he insists, which is why we must do all we can to accelerate the dawn of ‘artificial general intelligence’ — when computers start to ‘think’ like humans.
Considerations like ethics, safety and regulations must not be allowed to get in the way, he argues. Dismissing his opponents as ‘elites’, ‘Luddites’ and ‘communists’, he insists there’s no cause for alarm. ‘We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt,’ he intones. ‘We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.’
It comes at a time when Big Tech is split into two factions over AI. On one side, the likes of Andreessen and Facebook’s head of policy, the ex-deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, are pushing for ever faster AI development.
On the other side, a group is fighting to slow — or even halt — research into the technology. They include the three pioneering computer scientists known as the ‘godfathers of AI’ — Yann LeCun, Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio — who have all expressed alarm at the way the technology is going amid fears it could even lead to the extinction of humanity.
Andreessen, 52, who’s been dubbed the ‘chief ideologist of the Silicon Valley elite’, and a coterie of other AI zealots in the tech world couldn’t disagree more.
It comes amid Rishi Sunak’s world-first AI Summit this week at the former World War II codebreaking HQ, Bletchley Park. Last night, he interviewed X CEO Elon Musk
Critics argue much of their enthusiasm is deeply self-serving, as these entrepreneurs have made millions — even billions — from digital innovations and stand to get richer still from AI.
Their ranks include those who’ve already made fortunes from such ethically questionable industries as cryptocurrencies, violent video games and social media.
Adding to the unease is the sense that their cause is beginning to feel like something of a religious cult. Many subtly signal their allegiance by adding an ‘e/acc’ tag to their profiles on X/Twitter. It stands for ‘effective acceleration’, a set of ideas centred around the theory that AI shouldn’t just be unrestrained but accelerated for the good of mankind.
Some of them say artificial general intelligence will be achieved by 2030. Tech venture capitalist and AI devotee Garry Tan has predicted that anyone with a job in future will either be telling a computer what to do, or having a computer telling them what to do.
Of course, we should by now be used to Silicon Valley moguls lecturing us about how to cope with a fast-changing world that they have done so much to manipulate.
However, as one might expect of someone who publishes his own ‘manifesto’ and who peppers his musings with references to philosophers from Heraclitus to Rousseau, Andreessen is considered to be virtually in a league of his own.
Tech venture capitalist and AI devotee Garry Tan (pictured) has predicted that anyone with a job in future will either be telling a computer what to do, or having a computer telling them what to do
Hailing from America’s small-town Mid-West, he’s a classic Silicon Valley success story. Playing around on the internet while at university, he co-created Mosaic, which became the first widely used web browser.
At only 22, after moving to the Valley, he became even richer when he co-founded Netscape, an early rival of Microsoft. Its stock market flotation in 1995 marked the beginning of the dotcom boom and made the outspoken Andreessen a business star.
He insists that the internet is a force for good, that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (in which he has heavily dabbled) are the future of money and that he believes in unfettered freedom of speech.
He’s already made some $2 billion (£1.6 billion) from the internet and, given that it’s estimated the AI industry could be worth nearly $2 trillion by 2030, that could be chicken feed if he gets his way.
Andreessen has his fingers in a lot of lucrative pies, not only sitting on the board of Meta, parent company of Facebook (which is expected to make untold billions from AI), but also on the advisory board for Neom, the putative ‘mega city’ in the Saudi Arabian desert on which staggering sums are being spent by the Saudis.
While other Silicon Valley moguls decided to leave the project following the Saudi regime’s involvement in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Andreessen remains on the board.
Since 2006, he has been married to ‘philanthropy guru’ Laura Arrillaga who, helpfully for the family finances, is the daughter of a billionaire property developer, not to mention a close friend of reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
Despite the cosy suburban 1950s theme planned for California Forever, Marc and Laura prefer to wallow in very 21st-century splendour.
In 2021, they bought a seven-acre compound in Malibu formerly owned by fashion mogul Serge Azria for $177 million (£145 million). It set a record for the highest price paid for a property in California. The compound includes a 10,000 sq ft main house, two guesthouses, cinema, bistro and spa.
Critics have been scathing about his new ‘manifesto’, which includes cringeworthy phrases such as ‘Love doesn’t scale, so let’s stick with money’ and ‘We believe in the romance of technology’.
The New York Times called it a ‘horrifying, silly vision for who should rule the world’ that illustrated ‘the delusion of people who’ve been able to buy their way out of everything uncomfortable, inconvenient or painful’.
Yet Andreessen is not alone. Another of AI’s most fervent apostles is Rich Sutton, hailed as a ‘rock star’ of AI but actually professor of computing science at Canada’s Alberta University. He calls the process of machines becoming more intelligent than humans ‘an unprecedented evolutionary transition, not just on Earth but in the entire Universe’.
Billionaire entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, pictured, just a fortnight ago published a manifesto listing safety, ethics and regulation as the ‘enemy’ to the future of AI
The ‘greatest risks’ posed by AI could come from ‘dragging our feet over it’, he claims. ‘Attempting to reverse or control this process is futile,’ says Sutton. ‘Our only viable path forward is to acknowledge its inevitability and craft a prudent, thoughtful plan for the transfer of stewardship to the AI heirs.’
Last month, he told a conference in Shanghai that, with AI, ‘inevitably we will create our successors’, asking his audience: ‘Why would we want greater beings kept subservient to us?’
Having worked until recently for Google DeepMind, one of the big AI firms attending the Bletchley Park summit, last month Sutton announced he was teaming up with computer games designer John Carmack to start a new company aiming to ‘bring greater focus and urgency to the creation of artificial general intelligence’.
Carmack, who as the creator of cult 1990s computer games Doom and Quake has been dubbed the father of violent ‘first-person shooter’ games, has an office packed full of superhero comic-book paraphernalia — hardly dispelling the stereotype of AI enthusiasts as naive sci-fi geeks.
Silicon Valley has proved that it cannot be trusted to do what it wants without responsible adults looking over its shoulder.
Many of those, led by Andreessen and Sutton, demanding they be allowed to go hell for leather for super-intelligent AI might well be better replaced by a machine — but only if it has an off switch.