The first time we speak, Joep Meindertsma is not in a good place. He tears up as he describes a conversation in which he warned his niece about the risk of artificial intelligence causing societal collapse. Afterward, she had a panic attack. “I cry every other day,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his home in the Dutch city of Utrecht. “Every time I say goodbye to my parents or friends, it feels like it could be the last time.”
Meindertsma, who is 31 and co-owns a database company, has been interested in AI for a couple of years. But he really started worrying about the threat the technology could pose to humanity when Open AI released its latest language model, GPT-4, in March. Since then, he has watched the runaway success of ChatGPT chatbot—based first on GPT-3 then GPT-4—demonstrate to the world how far AI has progressed and Big Tech companies race to catch up. And he has seen pioneers like Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called godfather of AI, warn of the dangers associated with the systems they helped create. “AI capabilities are advancing far more rapidly than virtually anyone has predicted,” says Meindertsma. “We are risking social collapse. We’re risking human extinction.”
One month before our talk, Meindertsma stopped going to work. He had become so consumed by the idea that AI is going to destroy human civilization that he was struggling to think of anything else. He had to do something, he felt, to avert disaster. Soon after, he launched Pause AI, a grassroots protest group that campaigns for, as its name suggests, a halt to the development of AI. And since then, he has amassed a small band of followers who have held protests in Brussels, London, San Francisco and Melbourne. These demonstrations have been small—fewer than 10 people each time—but Meindertsma has been making friends in high places. Already, he says, he has been invited to speak with officials within both the Dutch Parliament and at the European Commission.
The idea that AI could wipe out humanity sounds extreme. But it’s an idea that’s gaining traction in both the tech sector and in mainstream politics. Hinton quit his role at Google in May and embarked on a global round of interviews in which he raised the specter of humans no longer being able to control AI as the technology advances. That same month, industry leaders—including the CEOs of AI labs Google DeepMind, OpenAI, and Anthropic—signed a letter acknowledging the “risk of extinction,” and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak became the first head of government to publicly admit he also believes that AI poses an existential risk to humanity.
Meindertsma and his followers offer a glimpse of how these warnings are trickling through society, creating a new phenomenon of AI anxiety and giving a younger generation—many of whom are already deeply worried about climate change—a new reason to feel panic about the future. A survey by the pollster YouGov found that the proportion of people worried that artificial intelligence would lead to an apocalypse rose sharply in the last year. Hinton denies he wants AI development to be stopped, temporarily or indefinitely. But his public statements, about the risk AI poses to humanity, have resulted in a group of young people who feel there is no other choice.
To different people, “existential risk” means different things. “The main scenario I’m personally worried about is social collapse due to large-scale hacking,” says Meindertsma, explaining he’s concerned about AI being used to create cheap and accessible cyber weapons that could be used by criminals to “effectively take out the entire internet.” This is a scenario experts say is extremely unlikely. But Meindertsma still worries about the resilience of banking and food distribution services. “People will not be able to find food in a city. People will fight,” he says. “Many billions I think will die.”