Mark Zuckerberg Discusses AI, Censorship, and… 3D Printed Guns

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Diving deep into the vibrant heart of digital controversy, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg peeled back the layers on the complexities of moderation, censorship, and the emerging role of artificial intelligence (AI) during a podcast by Lex Fridman, an A.I. researcher, and computer scientist, aired on June 8, 2023.

Standing at the helm of Meta, the giant behind Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Zuckerberg addressed the daunting pressures from governments and interest groups, the importance of user expression, and the challenge of balancing it all amidst the ongoing societal debates. A particularly intriguing highlight was his example of 3D printed guns, which provided an insight into Meta’s guiding principles for content moderation.

Stance on Censorship

Much of the conversation revolved around Zuckerberg’s strategies to counter governmental and interest group pressures over content moderation on Meta’s platforms. He underscored the significance of user expression while acknowledging the need for moderation, emphasizing Meta’s commitment to clear categories of content it deems inappropriate, yet also recognized that there isn’t a universally acceptable answer to managing government pressures. These forces place Meta at the center of an ongoing societal storm, referred to by Zuckerberg as the “meatgrinder,” of a very active debate.

To illustrate Meta’s approach to future content moderation, Zuckerberg used an example related to 3D printed guns. When Fridman asked about freedom of speech in the context of AI, Zuckerberg used the hypothetical situation of an AI being asked to explain how to 3D print a gun. Rather than outright censorship or refusal, Zuckerberg proposed an informative answer: “3D printing guns can be illegal in many countries, including the U.S.,” stating that handling controversial issues would benefit by adding more context and educating the user instead of simply restricting or blocking content.

According to Zuckerberg, one AI response that could work is, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He states, “In a lot of countries, including the U.S., 3D printing guns is illegal or kinda, whatever the factual thing is,” reinforcing that a “respectful and informative answer” is the best approach. He emphasizes that “having a somewhat more informative approach where you generally assume good intent from people is probably a better balance.”

However, several Twitter users pointed out that Zuckerberg’s claim about “3D printing being illegal in the U.S.” is not entirely accurate. It is legal to 3D print a gun for personal use without a license as long as it is not sold or transferred. Nonetheless, twelve states already have laws that regulate 3D printing guns: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Washington.

3D printed guns are considered ghost guns, or do-it-yourself, homemade firearms, produced with simple building blocks available online. Warnings over a growing threat of 3D printed firearms and mass shootings led the Biden Administration to crack down on ghost guns. In August 2022, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) created new regulations like qualifying ghost gun kits as “firearms” or running background checks before selling parts kits that could be used to assemble firearms. The rule also requires that gun retailers and gunsmiths add a serial number to 3D printed guns or any non-serialized firearms they accept for resale or purchase.

While countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan have taken measures to ban the creation of unregistered firearms produced with 3D printers, the issue of homemade untraceable 3D printed guns or gun parts remains controversial. Governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide are grappling with this evolving technology, seeking to balance innovation, public safety, and preventing illegal activities related to 3D printed firearms.

Data from reveals a concerning trend, with a tripling of 3D printed gun arrests in less than two years. North America leads the arrest statistics, followed by Europe and Oceania. As recent cases of arrests, charges, and sentences continue to emerge, they contribute to a growing criminal niche. Here are more details about the latest 3D printed gun busts.

Ethical dilemma

Zuckerberg’s approach emphasizes the importance of considering the user’s intentions; good faith assumption could lead to more productive and informative discussions, even in sensitive areas, like 3D printed guns. According to the Facebook founder, his stance supports freedom of speech but recognizes that speech comes with responsibilities for both the platform and its users. His perspective also highlights Meta’s belief in harnessing A.I. as a tool for education and information rather than merely an instrument of censorship.

Lex Fridman during his podcast #383: “Mark Zuckerberg: Future of AI at Meta, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.” Screenshot courtesy of Lex Fridman Podcast.

The conversation, spanning over two hours, spotlighted Zuckerberg’s perspective on moderation and freedom of expression in the digital age, especially within rapidly evolving A.I. capabilities. Should Zuckerberg have introduced the topic of 3D printed guns? If anything, this subject has proven to be one of the most polarizing gun issues in recent times, not necessarily complex to either side, but certainly tricky when looking to make a fully informed decision considering both sides earn valid points.

Although public opinion varies on Zuckerberg and his decisions as head of Facebook and later Meta, perhaps his address of 3D printed guns was to stimulate open dialogue and increase awareness of the associated risks, legal implications, and ethical dilemmas of such polemic issues. However, from the perspective of AI ethics, Zuckerberg’s example serves as a compelling case study for how AI could handle sensitive inquiries in the future – not through outright blocking or restriction, but by providing context and education. Ultimately, whether Zuckerberg’s decision to broach this topic was appropriate is a matter of individual perspective, illustrating the complex challenges at the intersection of 3D printing technology, ethics, and social norms.

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