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Why Elon Musk Worries About Artificial Intelligence

Mar 27, 2017

Eclectic entrepreneur Elon Musk sure had plenty of things to say on Twitter late last week and into the weekend, what with spilling more details about Tesla's eagerly anticipated electric-vehicle-for-the-rest-of-us Model 3 (there's even a video) and hinting that homeowners may be able start ordering SolarCity's solar-integrated roof shingles as early as next month. One thing you won't hear him championing is the unfettered rise of artificial intelligence, which he once described as the "biggest existential threat" to humankind.

Musk's prejudice prompted him to donate millions to the ethics think tank OpenAI—and it's why he's urging other billionaire techies like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet's Larry Page to proceed with caution on their myriad of machine learning and robotics experiments. OpenAI is both an ethics and a research institution. Its mandate (plucked from its website): "Because of AI's surprising history, it's hard to predict when human-level AI might come within reach. When it does, it'll be important to have a leading research institution which can prioritize a good outcome for all over its own self-interest."

For more insight into Musk's motivation, I recommend Maureen Dowd's treatise in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Ostensibly, her article is about Musk, but she also does a masterful job of revealing where noted AI enthusiasts stand on the ethics debate. For example, Ray Kurzweil, who writes often about the coming merger of man and machine as part of his "Singularity" thesis, says "both the promise and peril are deeply intertwined."

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My gut reaction after reading Dowd's feature was this: Methinks Musk doth protest too much. After all, Tesla's autonomous vehicles are inherently dependent on machine learning software. Ditto, the rockets being developed by his SpaceX venture. Or as newly unemployed AI expert Andrew Ng, who quit his job at Baidu last week, told her: "I think it’s fascinating that in a rather short period of time he’s inserted himself into the conversation on A.I. I think he sees accurately that A.I. is going to create tremendous amounts of value.”

Is Musk really that frightened or is he just putting on a show to stoke our innate paranoia about smart machines? I'm not sure the answer really matters. Either way, he's raising our collective consciousness.

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