The Rise of Effective Accelerationism: Understanding the Controversial Transhumanist Movement Gaining Traction in Silicon Valley

On a Monday evening in November 2023, OpenAI convened a developer symposium in downtown San Francisco. In the wake of the event, a throng of artificial intelligence enthusiasts congregated within a three-story edifice located a mere two or three blocks distant. It was a nightclub affair, heralding a more relaxed, non-corporate vision of an AI-infused future.

Beneath the kaleidoscopic glow of vibrant lights, animated vignettes danced across the expansive screen, while a predominantly youthful, male assemblage swayed to the rhythms spun by the DJ, curated by the musician Grimes. A conspicuous banner emblazoned the wall with the maxim ‘Accelerate or Perish.’ Adjacent, another emblem depicted a schematic representation of an artificial intelligence neural network, accompanied by the rallying cry ‘Seize the Innovation.’ An emergent artificial intelligence startup disseminated promotional pamphlets bearing the inscription ‘Divine Revelation Stands Beside You.’

This gathering bore the moniker ‘Keep AI Open,’ marking the inaugural occasion for adherents of Silicon Valley’s ‘effective accelerationism.’ Effective Accelerationism (often abbreviated to ‘e/acc’) embodies an intellectual ethos centered on the unfettered pursuit of technological advancement.

In 2023, a cohort of technology practitioners gradually coalesced around a shared ethos, leveraging social platforms to forge connections. This coalition, in opposition to regulators advocating for a deceleration in artificial intelligence development, transitioned their operations offline, hosting soirées and hackathons throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

Effective accelerationism emerged initially as a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to a preexisting, entrenched movement known as ‘Effective Altruism’ (EA), which has wielded considerable influence within the artificial intelligence sphere in recent years. While EA stalwarts have long voiced apprehensions regarding the perils of artificial intelligence, warning of its potential to precipitate humanity’s demise, e/acc espouses a divergent perspective. While acknowledging the possibility of runaway AI as a calamitous prospect, e/acc remains unperturbed by this prognosis, contending that AI’s transcendence beyond human capacity might constitute a natural progression in the annals of civilization.

The schism between e/acc and EA epitomizes one of several quasi-religious divides that have roiled Silicon Valley’s AI community in recent times, as industry insiders engage in spirited discourse regarding the pace of AI advancement and its ethical ramifications. Whereas e/acc advocates for pressing the accelerator pedal and eschewing restraint, its adherents ardently champion the ethos of open-source AI software, eschewing domination by corporate behemoths. Unlike their altruistic counterparts, e/acc proponents assert that the benefits of artificial intelligence far outweigh its drawbacks, advocating for unimpeded development as the prudent course of action.

Some of e/acc’s propositions, notably its antipathy toward regulation, align with typical techno-liberal doctrines. Yet, other tenets bear semblance to the principles espoused by early Silicon Valley subcultures, characterized by a penchant for ameliorative ethnocentrism. In a manifesto disseminated online in 2022, e/acc’s progenitors articulated their aspirations in grandiloquent terms, aspiring to ‘usher in the next epoch of consciousness and engender extraordinary lifeforms of the next generation.’

Nevertheless, the notion of consigning humanity to the sidelines, allowing machines to supplant our primacy, elicits vehement opposition from e/acc’s detractors. Peter S. Park, director of the AI safety advocacy group Stakeout, denounces e/acc as a ‘pernicious, reckless ideology predicated on the notion of supplanting humans with artificial intelligence.’

My initial encounter with e/acc occurred approximately a year ago. At that juncture, the movement appeared to be predominantly comprised of idle tech aficionados, convening in the wee hours to deliberate over political and philosophical matters, speculate on current events, and lament the ‘threat of artificial intelligence.’

Guillaume Verdon, a 31-year-old French-Canadian physicist formerly affiliated with a Google research lab, articulated his ethos in early 2023, opining, ‘Let us cultivate a mindset wherein engineers emerge as the vanguards of progress.’

Initially, I regarded the movement as a fringe phenomenon—an enclave of social-media-engrossed technophiles espousing antiquated Ayn Randian doctrines. A vanguard concept.

However, in the ensuing months, luminaries within the tech sphere, such as Marc Andreessen, co-founder of venture capital titan Andreessen Horowitz, threw their support behind e/acc, affirming their allegiance to the creed of effective accelerationism. Garry Tan, president of the influential startup incubator Y Combinator, similarly voiced his endorsement of e/acc. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman also lent his voice to the chorus of approbation.

Subsequently, the movement gained momentum across Silicon Valley, prompting scrutiny from U.S. governmental authorities. For proponents of e/acc, government officials represent prime targets for their provocations.

In interviews with both early adherents and recent converts to e/acc, a recurring motif emerges: the movement offers a refuge for those harboring apprehensions about AI safety. Venture capitalist Julie Fredrickson perceives e/acc as ‘a compelling shorthand for a future prioritizing growth and innovative solutions.’

However, these assessments primarily pertain to the ambiance surrounding e/acc, rather than its substantive concepts. Some e/acc luminaries appear to share the apprehensions of effective altruists regarding the existential threat posed by runaway AI. Yet, they remain undeterred, positing that superhuman AI might furnish the optimal solution for humanity—a logical progression in the narrative of civilization’s evolution. Observers note a discernible shift within the e/acc subculture towards heightened partisanship and gravity.

Aidan Gomez, CEO of artificial intelligence enterprise Cohere, remarks, ‘While I initially embraced e/acc as a facetious, introspective critique of antiquated paradigms, it appears to be metamorphosing into a solemn libertarian movement—an evolution that disquiets me.’

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