Not much scares intrepid entrepreneur Elon Musk — not outer space, exploding rockets, supersonic air travel or disappointing us with unfulfilled promises. Robots, on the other hand? Elon Musk does not like smart robots.
While speaking on stage at MIT’s Centennial Symposium last week, Mr. Musk was asked if he had any thoughts on artificial intelligence. His response: the government needs to intervene before we all get ourselves killed.
“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish,” Mr. Musk said.
It’s jarring to hear a Silicon Valley executive call for more restrictive legislation in order to directly stifle innovation. But Mr. Musk says that he believes AI is our “biggest existential threat,” and compared artificial intelligence research to conjuring demons.
“You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he’s sure he can control the demon?” Mr. Musk said. “Doesn’t work out.”
The kind of AI Mr. Musk is talking about is what Singularity buffs refer to as “Unfriendly AI,” or theoretical supercomputers capable of doing major harm to people. Most of the regulation we already have around AI are minor laws to respond to simple automated systems, like the first attempts at regulating drone deliveries and self-driving cars.
Artificial intelligence, however, is a long way off from the point of Skynet-style world domination and human genocide — it was only a few months ago that a chatbot was able to beat the Turing Test and trick someone into thinking it was an odd Ukrainian kid. Not a great milestone after decades of computing history.
Still, John Frank Weaver, an attorney who specializes in artificial intelligence, recently wrote for Slate that “we need to legislate early and often,” saying:
This technology is going to develop fast, almost certainly faster than we can legislate it. That’s why we need to get ahead of it now. There are legitimate concerns about how AI and autonomous technology will impact the work force and our quality of life.
But politicians are often more reactive than proactive, and the few people who are regularly crying out for sudden action against Unfriendly AI are worried that by the time we pass any laws, it’ll be too late. Two researchers named Ben Goertzel and Joel Pitt, for example, suggested in the Journal of Evolution & Technology that it’d likely take some sort of “Sputnik Moment” — a big technological breakthrough that gets galvanizes us around a futuristic technology.
Until then, Mr. Musk, a man of characteristically cool composure, seems shaken by the idea. After he finished his Nostradamic warning and it was time to move on with the questions, a bright young woman asked him about the role of telecommunications in the colonization of outer space.
“Sorry, could you repeat the question?” he replied, dead in the eyes. “I was just sort of… thinking about the AI thing.”
You can watch the full talk below, but skip to 1:07:41 to hear Mr. Musk respond to the question of if he thinks artificial intelligence is “ready for prime time”: