Oppenheimer delivers an ethics lesson for Silicon Valley

Does Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk care if they spark a chain reaction?

The movie Oppenheimer asks a simple question: what motivates someone to create something that will have horrifying consequences?

To the modern viewer, Christopher Nolan’s film invites a follow-up. Why isn’t anyone asking themselves that question today?

The three-hour-epic and box office hit stars Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the USA’s development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. The film dramatises the ethical dilemmas Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists wrestled with as they raced to build a weapon that would kill more than 200,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There’s a running theme that Oppenheimer didn’t know if the bomb might start a chain reaction that never ends, burning up the planet’s atmosphere. In the film’s final moments, he and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) ponder this image. It’s a consideration for anyone developing a new technology or innovation. What will it ignite?

I doubt Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Sam Altman or many of today’s tech disrupters have thought about whether their obsessions could set the atmosphere on fire.

And can we trust them to care?

Oppenheimer’s world vs Silicon Valley

As much as I find technological change fascinating and exciting, the pace can feel scary. Artificial intelligence, digital surveillance, deepfakes, CRISPR, self-driving cars, the militarisation of space — these things are very real, and so are the possible consequences if (and when) they go wrong.

Should you think I’m exaggerating, consider the apparently innocuous example of social media. It began as a fun way to connect with friends, family and online chums. It became a global communication tool capable of subverting authorities, as in the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. Who knew Facebook’s introduction of the News Feed, adding the ability to share and debate current affairs, would be a major factor in the polarisation of politics and society, entrenching division, inflaming culture war and driving fake news.

And the question remains about the character and motivation of the people driving these changes, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Growth at all costs is the obsession of these companies and their billionaire owners. Zuckerberg and Facebook employees used to end their all-hands meetings by shouting “domination“.

Whatever their rationalisations, at least Oppenheimer and his team knew they were building a weapon of mass destruction. Modern innovation may not be so straightforwardly judged, but the ramifications for our world could easily be as great and terrible.

As Murphy’s Oppenheimer puts it in the film: “They won’t understand it until they use it.”

Or to quote Kenneth Branagh, channelling physicist Nils Bohr: “This isn’t a new weapon, it is a new world.”

The chilling irony of the bomb

There was a bleak irony to The Manhattan Project. As seen in the film, Oppenheimer and many of his colleagues were driven to build the bomb because they were determined Hitler shouldn’t be allowed to get there first.

the heroes of telemark

Of course, stopping someone from building a bomb and trying to build your own are different things. The Allies did try to thwart the Nazi bomb, including a commando raid to destroy a Norwegian hydro plant making heavy water (depicted in the rousing 1965 war movie The Heroes of Telemark).

Oppenheimer’s boss General Groves, played in the film by Matt Damon, also had a side hustle called the Alsos Mission, which sent soldiers, scientists and spies into Europe to round up the Nazi bomb-making programme.

That outfit was led by Boris Pash — the sinister spy catcher played by Casey Affleck in the movie — and a Dutch Jewish scientist named Samuel Goudsmit. Like Oppenheimer, Goudsmit had been friends with the man who was his wartime rival: Oppenheimer’s opposite number at the head of the German atomic bomb programme, Werner Heisenberg.

Heisenberg was unknowingly involved in one of the war’s oddest incidents. US Intelligence sent a former Boston Red Sox baseball player named Moe Berg to a Heisenberg lecture with a pistol in his pocket and orders to shoot the scientist if it emerged the Germans had made any breakthrough. This bizarre almost-assassination was also the basis for a film, 2018’s little-seen The Catcher Was a Spy starring Paul Rudd.

Oppenheimer’s opposing team

Berg’s instructions were part of a larger plan called the Alsos Mission, to see how far along Germany was in its efforts to build a rival bomb. And it eventually discovered that Oppenheimer and his colleagues were working on a false premise.

The German scientists never got anywhere because they were denied the endless resources poured into the American effort. That gave Heisenberg the luxury of claiming he never tried to build an atomic bomb anyway.

We’ll never know if that was true: Samuel Goudsmit, whose parents were among the millions murdered in Nazi concentration camps, didn’t believe him. Historian Thomas Powers came to a different conclusion in his book Heisenberg’s War, an essential read if you’re interested in the ethical dilemmas and moral obfuscations involved in the development of the bomb.

Ultimately, the Nazis provided the Manhattan Project with a handy rationalisation: when the bad guys are that clear-cut, you get to feel like the good guy even when doing something horrifying.

They’re going to use it

oppenheimer against atomic bomb blast

In the movie, General Groves is surprised by Oppenheimer’s naivety. Once it’s built, of course they’re going to use it!

That bleak statement holds true today. Whether a technology appears innocuous (like social media) or is clearly troubling (like AI, which some say could wipe out humanity), the Silicon Valley era’s growth-focused model is to make a minimum viable product and ship it. Like a self-driving car putting pedal to the metal, new technology is already on the road before we know what’s hit us.

At the risk of trivialising the subject matter, with Oppenheimer Christopher Nolan spends three hours debating a question which was masterfully explained in another movie. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: your scientists (and founders and stockholders and private equity backers) were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Ultimately, the real Robert Oppenheimer faced a force greater than atomic energy: politics. But you only have to look at the UK’s Online Safety Bill omnishambles to see it’s hard to imagine a government capable of curbing the imagination, ambition and just plain weird obsessions of today’s Zuckerbergs or Musks.

Moving fast and breaking things may be the mantra for entrepreneurs looking to crack new market sectors. But we can’t know the long-term effects of technologies that could unleash atomic forces on society and even humanity.

Or to paraphrase Oppenheimer himself: I have become growth, disruptor of worlds.

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Richard Trenholm
Richard Trenholm

Richard is a former CNET writer who had a ringside seat at the very first iPhone announcement, but soon found himself steeped in the world of cinema. He's now part of a two-person content agency, Rockstar Copy, and covers technology with a cinematic angle for TechFinitive.com