The sounds got here out of my mouth with an sudden urgency. The cadence was deliberate—extra befitting of an incantation than an order: one giant strawberry-lemon-mint Charged Lemonade. The phrases hung within the air for a second, giving technique to a stillness punctuated solely by the smooth whir of distant fluorescent lights and the light hum of a Muzak cowl of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain.”
The time was 9:03 a.m.; the solar had been up for just one hour. I watched the type girl behind the counter stifle a watch roll, a small mercy for which I will probably be eternally grateful. Her look indicated that she’d been by means of this earlier than, sufficient occasions to see by means of my bravado. I used to be simply one other man standing in entrance of a Panera Bread worker, asking her handy me 30 fluid ounces of allegedly lethal lemonade. (I’d have procured it myself, nevertheless it was stored behind the counter, like a managed substance.)
I got here to Panera to the touch the face of God or, on the very least, expertise the low-grade nervousness and physique sweats one can count on from consuming 237 milligrams of caffeine in quarter-hour. Actually, the web despatched me. Since its launch final 12 months, Panera’s extremely caffeinated Charged Lemonade has change into a well-liked meme—most notably on TikTok, the place individuals vlog from the entrance seat of their automotive about how hopped up they’re after chugging the neon beverage. Final December, a tongue-in-cheek Slate headline requested, “Is Panera Bread Attempting to Kill Us?”
Within the following months, two wrongful-death lawsuits have been certainly filed in opposition to the restaurant chain, arguing that Panera was accountable for not adequately promoting the caffeine content material of the drink. The fits allege that Charged Lemonade contributed to the deadly cardiac arrests of a 21-year-old school scholar and a 46-year-old man. Panera didn’t reply to my request for remark however has argued that each lawsuits are with out benefit and that it “stands firmly by the security of our merchandise.” In October, Panera modified the labeling of its Charged Lemonade to warn individuals who could also be “delicate to caffeine.”
The allegations appear to have executed the inconceivable: They’ve made a suburban chain finest recognized for its bread bowls really feel thrilling, even harmful. The memes have escalated. Search loss of life lemonade on any platform, and also you’ll see a cascade of grimly ironic posts about the whole lot from lemonade-assisted suicide to having the ability to peer into alternate dimensions after sipping the juice. Very like its late-aughts boozy predecessor 4 Loko, Charged Lemonade is driving a wave of recognition due to the implication that consuming it’s probably unsafe. One viral put up from October put it finest: “Panera has apparently found the fifth loko.”
Like many internet-poisoned women and men earlier than me, I possess each a basic Freudian loss of life drive and an embarrassing need to expertise memes within the bodily world—an effort, maybe, to situate my human kind among the many algorithms and timelines that dominate my life. However there’s one more reason I used to be in a strip mall on the shortest day of the 12 months, permitting the advisable every day allowance of caffeine to Evil Knievel its approach throughout my blood-brain barrier. I got here to make sense of a 12 months that was outlined by existential threats—and by a wierd, pervasive celebration of them.
In 2023, I spent a whole lot of time listening to sensible individuals discuss concerning the finish of the world. This was the 12 months that AI supposedly “ate the web”: The arrival of ChatGPT in late 2022 shifted one thing within the public consciousness. After a long time of promise, the contours of an AI-powered world felt to some as in the event that they have been taking form. Will these instruments come for our jobs, our tradition, even our humanity? Are they honestly revolutionary or simply showy—like spicier variations of autocorrect?
A number of the largest gamers in tech—together with a flood of start-ups—are racing to develop their very own generative-AI merchandise. The know-how has developed swiftly, lending a frenzied, disorienting feeling to the previous a number of months. “I don’t suppose we’re prepared for what we’re creating,” one AI entrepreneur instructed me ominously and unbidden once we spoke earlier this 12 months. Civilizational extinction has moved from pure science fiction to rapid concern. Geoffrey Hinton, a well known AI researcher who stop Google this 12 months to warn in opposition to the hazards of the know-how, recommended that there was as excessive as a ten p.c likelihood of extinction within the subsequent 30 years. “I believe that whether or not the possibility of existential calamity is 0.5 p.c or 50 p.c, we should always nonetheless take it critically,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, instructed my colleague Ross Andersen this previous spring.
In Might, tons of of AI executives, researchers, and tech luminaries together with Invoice Gates signed a one-sentence assertion written by the Heart for AI Security. “Mitigating the chance of extinction from AI must be a worldwide precedence alongside different societal-scale dangers resembling pandemics and nuclear warfare,” it learn. Debates as soon as contained to a small subculture of technologists and rationalists on area of interest on-line boards resembling LessWrong turned fodder for the press. Regular individuals attempting to maintain up with the information needed to hack by means of a jungle of recent terminology: x-risk, e/acc, alignment, p(doom). By mid-year, the AI-doomerism dialog was absolutely mainstreamed; existential calamity was within the air (and, we joked, in our fast-casual lemonades).
Then, as if by cosmic coincidence, this pressure of apocalyptic thought fused completely with popular culture in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Because the atomic-bomb creator’s biopic took over the field workplace, AI researchers toted across the Pulitzer Prize–successful e book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, suggesting that they too have been pushing humanity into an unsure, probably apocalyptic future. The parallels between Los Alamos and Silicon Valley, nonetheless facile, needled at a query that had been bothering me all 12 months: What would compel an individual to construct one thing if that they had any cheap perception that it would finish life on Earth?
Richard Rhodes, the writer of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, supplied me one clarification, utilizing an idea from the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. On the core of quantum physics is the concept of complementarity, which describes how objects have conflicting properties that can’t be noticed on the similar time. Complementarity, he argued, was additionally the identical precept that ruled innovation: A weapon of mass destruction may be a instrument to avert warfare.
Rhodes, an 86-year-old who’s spent most of his grownup life eager about our most damaging improvements and talking with the boys who constructed the bomb, instructed me that he believes this duality to be on the core of human progress. Pursuing our best ambitions could give technique to an unthinkable nightmare, or it might permit our goals to return true. The reply to my query, he supplied, was someplace on that skinny line between the joy and terror of true discovery.
Roughly 10 minutes and 15 ounces into my strawberry-lemon-mint Charged Lemonade, I felt a mild twinge of euphoria—a barely perceptible effervescence going down at a mobile degree. I used to be alone within the restaurant, ensconced in a sales space and checking my Instagram messages. I’d shared an image of the large cup sweating modestly on my desk, an inexpensive bid for some on-line engagement that had paid off. “I hope you reside,” one good friend had written in response. I glanced down at my smartwatch, the place my coronary heart charge measured a nice 20 beats per minute increased than normal. The within of my mouth felt improper. I ran my tongue over my enamel, noticing a high quality dusting of sugar blanketing the enamel.
I didn’t really feel the nice and cozy creep of loss of life’s candy embrace, solely a sensation that the lights have been very vibrant. This was accompanied by an edgy feeling that I’d characterize because the antithesis of focus. I stood as much as ask a Panera worker in the event that they’d been getting a whole lot of Charged Lemonade tourism round these elements. “I believe there’s been loads, however truthfully most of them order it by means of the drive-through or on-line order,” they mentioned. “Not many come up right here such as you did.” I retreated to my sales space to let my mind vibrate in my cranium.
It’s absurd to think about that lemonade may kill you—no much less lemonade from a soda fountain inside steps of a Jo-Ann Materials retailer. That absurdity is a big a part of what makes Panera lemonade an excellent meme. However there’s one thing deeper too, a reality lodged within the banality of a strip-mall drink: Demise is in every single place. At this time, you would possibly fear about getting shot at college or in a movie show, or killed by police at a site visitors cease; you additionally perceive that you could possibly contract a lethal virus on the grocery retailer or within the workplace. In the meantime, most everybody carries on like the whole lot’s high quality. We tolerate what feels prefer it must be insupportable. That is the temper baked into the meme: Demise by lemonade is ridiculous, however in 2023, it doesn’t appear so far-fetched, both.
The identical goes for computer systems and enormous language fashions. Our lives already really feel influenced past our management by the computations of algorithms we don’t perceive and can’t see. Perhaps it’s ludicrous to think about a chatbot because the seed of a sentient intelligence that eradicates human life. Then once more, it could have been laborious in 2006 to think about Fb taking part in a job within the Rohingya genocide, in Myanmar.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat for the subsequent hour subsequent to my now-empty vessel, anticipating some form of aspect impact just like the recipient of a novel vaccination. Across the time I may sense myself peaking, I grew fairly chilly. However that was it. No interdimensional imaginative and prescient, no coronary heart palpitations. The room by no means melted right into a Dalí portray. From behind my laptop computer, I watched a gaggle of three youngsters, all dressed precisely like Kurt Cobain, seize their neon caffeine receptacles from the online-pickup stand and stroll away. Every wore an indelible look of boredom incompatible with the respect one must have for loss of life lemonade. I started to really feel sheepish about my juice expedition and packed up my belongings.
I’d be mendacity if I instructed you I didn’t really feel barely ripped off; it’s an odd sensation, wanting a glass of lemonade to stroll you proper as much as the sting of oblivion. However a touch of impending hazard has all the time been a superb advertising instrument—one that may obscure actuality. A fast look on the Starbucks web site revealed that my go-to order—a barely defensible Venti Pike Place roast with an added espresso shot—comprises roughly 560 milligrams of caffeine, which is greater than double that of a giant Charged Lemonade. However I wished to consider that the meals engineers at Panera had pushed the bounds of the doable.
A few of us are drawn to (allegedly) killer lemonade for a similar cause others fixate on potential Skynet eventualities. The world appears like it’s changing into extra chaotic and unknowable, hostile and thrilling. AI and a ridiculous fast-casual loss of life beverage might not be the identical factor, however they each faucet into this power. We are going to all the time discover methods to create new, wonderful, terrifying issues—some which will in the end kill us. We could not wish to die, however in 2023, it was laborious to neglect that we’ll.