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Our ‘Oppenheimer moment’

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On August 16, 2023 TNWAC presented a conversation with Dr. Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  about the movie “Oppenheimer” and the lessons it gives us today in dealing with advanced technologies that pose a threat to humanity. On August 26, 2024 TNWAC President Emeritus Patrick Ryan shared a summary of that conversation in a column published in The Tennessean.

The column, “Our ‘Oppenheimer moment’: Today’s threats, from nuclear power to artificial intelligence,” is shared below as well as the video, Podcast and transcript from the TNWAC Webinar with Dr. Bronson.

The Tennessee World Affairs Council is a nonpartisan association. Any views in speaker programs, Webinars, columns, news reports and any other media are those of the speakers and authors.

Our ‘Oppenheimer moment’: Today’s threats, from nuclear power to artificial intelligence | Opinion

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

  • Patrick Ryan served 26 years in the Navy as a Submariner and Intelligence Officer. He is founder and president emeritus of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.

This summer’s blockbuster biopic “Oppenheimer” awakened a new interest in the dangers and promises of nuclear technology and, by extension, the double-edged sword of other advanced technologies.

Christopher Nolan’s opus chronicled J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work as a theoretical physicist heading the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory in the race to beat Germany to the atomic bomb.

The first bomb test in the New Mexico desert, called Trinity, was the dramatic turning point for Oppenheimer. While his scientific goals were fulfilled, the destructive power of the bomb led to misgivings about the consequences.

Oppenheimer helped the military plan the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but he questioned the ability to control such destructive weapons.

Oppenheimer and some fellow atomic scientists argued for international governance of nuclear power and openly opposed development of more powerful nuclear arms.

Why ‘Oppenheimer’ resonates with audiences today

“Oppenheimer,” the movie, continues with his further 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 community of nuclear scientists.

What about “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour journey through the accomplishments and struggles 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 (TNWAC) 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 its Ukraine quagmire. “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 when Oppenheimer and his colleagues were operating.”

These technologies are helpful – and can be dangerous

If we’ve reached a new “Oppenheimer moment,” as Alexander Karp argued last month in The New York Times when discussing A.I., then it’s time to examine the technologies like nuclear power that can be dangers to humanity while at the same time offer incredible opportunities 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 about 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 A.I. is a recent technology to join this category. There’s promise for advancements in education, medicine, manufacturing, art and much more. But there’s also alarms being sounded.

The debut of ChatGPT introduced the world to the power of A.I. last fall. Since then, a one-sentence statement from 350 A.I. experts, including senior officials at the top three A.I. 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?

We need more robust democratic discourse

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

What does this doomsaying mean for us citizens? Dr. Bronson at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 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 [archived 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.”

Patrick Ryan served 26 years in the Navy as a Submariner and Intelligence Officer. He is founder and president emeritus of the Tennessee World Affairs Council (TNWAC.org) and president of the Tennessee Submarine Memorial Association (TennSub.org)


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“Oppenheimer”: What Does The Story Tell Us About Existential Threats Then and Now

Dr. Rachel Bronson

President and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Bulletin keeps track of the “Doomsday Clock,” and every January reminds us how close we are to midnight. This year the clock ticked closer.

A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight

January 2023 “Doomsday Clock” Statement

About Dr. Rachel Bronson

Rachel Bronson is the president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She oversees the publishing programs, management of the Doomsday Clock, and a growing set of activities around nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. Before joining the Bulletin, Bronson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She also taught “Global Energy” as an adjunct professor at the Kellogg School of Management.

Prior to moving to Chicago, Bronson served as senior fellow and director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Earlier positions include senior fellow for international security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Bronson’s book, Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (Oxford University Press, 2006), has been translated into Japanese and was published in paperback in June 2008.

Her writings have appeared in publications such as Foreign PolicyForeign AffairsThe National InterestThe New York Times, The Washington PostHuffington Post, and The Chicago Tribune. She has appeared as a commentator on numerous radio and television outlets, including National Public Radio, CNN, al Jazeera, the Yomiuri Shimbun, PBS NewsHour,” “The Charlie Rose Show,” and “The Daily Show.” Bronson has served as a consultant to NBC News and testified before the congressional Task Force on Anti-Terrorism and Proliferation Financing, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, and the 9/11 Commission.

Bronson is a board director of the American University of Iraq Foundation and a board member of the Francis W. Parker School. She has served as co-chair of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Producer Guild, and as a board member of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Bronson was named by Today’s Chicago Woman magazine as one of 100 Women to Watch (2012), 20 Women to Watch by Crain’s Chicago Business (2008), a Carnegie Corporation Scholar (2003), and a Glamour Magazine “Wow Woman” (2002). She is a member of the International Women’s Forum, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economic Club of Chicago and the Pacific Council. She earned a BA in history at the University of Pennsylvania and a MA and PhD in political science from Columbia University in 1997.







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