Elon Musk is a genius — a whirling dervish of intense mental and real-world activity who, apparently, can’t stop worrying about AI.
And now he’s got all of us worrying about artificial intelligence triggering World War III.
Is Musk wrong? My gut says: Yes, very wrong. Computers are smart and more rational than humans, so I think a sentient AI would do everything in its power to prevent a war. To be fair. Musk’s comments, which were triggered by a global AI supremacy statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, were more of a feint at AI’s possible role in the next, big global war.
China, Russia, soon all countries w strong computer science. Competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3 imo.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 4, 2017
It’s the “competition for AI superiority” that could lead to World War III.
Musk offered the dark commentary after The Verge posted a story on Putin’s comments before 16,000 school children on the country’s Knowledge Day, the official start of the Russian school year.
Putin, did not mention war, but he made it clear that he’s been thinking about AI and its role in the future of geopolitical relations:
“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” said Putin.
Some have taken the use of the word “ruler” literally and think that Putin was preemptively drawing battle lines: The subtext might have been: Win at this game and rule the world or be under Russia’s thumb.
I think that’s how Musk took it.
What’s frustrating is that Musk is in many, many ways so right about AI.
However, Putin followed with a less provocative tone, reminding students, “If we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today.”
After I read that sentence, I went back and reread the original line and though that maybe Putin was talking about “rule” as in “master,” a term students might interpret as opportunity. He was, after all, trying to inspire students to focus their studies on what might have the greatest impact on the future, and he’s right to identify AI.
Musk, on the other hand, is stuck on the same note. He rarely mentions AI in person or on Twitter without trying to instill fear.
It’s often tied to a cool and slightly scary idea: Neural Lace, Musk’s plan to embed computer technology inside of us, or, as he described in 2016: “Effectively merge in a symbiotic way with a digital intelligence.” Doing so would help us out think the AI robots surely coming to control or kill us. His plan may have inspired Facebook’s slightly terrifying “Brain interface.”
What’s frustrating is that Musk is in many, many ways so right about AI. He sees its potential and the anticipated exponential growth rate of Artificial Intelligence. He also sells AI. All the self-driving technology in his Tesla all-electric cars have AI and future Teslas could us AI to teach themselves to drive.
Musk has also been a driving force behind the creation of valuable organizations like OpenAI, which seeks to find a path to “safe” AI development.
This is a someone who gets it and, I believe, is excited by the opportunities afforded by AI.
And yet he’s clearly tormented by it, as well, which, I think, can blind him to some fundamental realities.
On September 4, North Korea reportedly tested a hydrogen bomb and claimed that it could put it on a warhead. People, quite reasonably, freaked out. President Donald Trump has responded with strong language and thinly veiled threats.
It feels like we’re on the brink of real war.
Which is one reason why I don’t think Musk’s comments were very responsible. AI as a WWIII-inducing threat is, for now, theoretical. North Korea’s actions are real and are calling for some kind of real response.
It’s true: That response will probably be more sanctions, but tearing down AI and claiming it could have a hand in war at the precise moment we might need some smart AI algorithms to help us run scenarios that can help us all figure a way out of this, seems wrong.
Can’t we build and celebrate AI before running away in terror?
Now is not the time for Musk to ratchet up his fear-mongering AI rhetoric. I welcome and agree with every bit of his oversight inclinations, but please can’t we build and celebrate AI before running away in terror? Musk is not alone in his AI doomsday predictions. He’s regularly joined by Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. But it’s Musk who bangs the caution drum most persistently. Eventually people could come to fear the growth of AI so much that they demand legislation to stop it cold. It could become as toxic as nuclear energy is in some parts of the world.
I know that is not Musk’s goal. Still, Musk, and maybe to a certain extent Putin, made people think of AI as it might be connected to weapons, even weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
It’s true, the Defense Department has been trying to build robot warriors for decades. What we’ve got, though, are mostly walking or running grunt bots, and robots that can go in a defuse bombs. There aren’t robot soldiers per se.
And the U.S. nuclear arsenal isn’t even connected to a network.
Concerns about AI as an overt threat have always been overblown. Like robotics, it will, for years, if not decades to come, have a slow, subtle and insidious impact on our lives.
AI is not the robot coming to kill you or the weapon targeted at your home state. It’s the algorithm-driven chatbot that talks to you online, helps recommend your next Netflix binge, seeks out your next Match.com date, or selects an on-the-nose ad to appear on this web page. It’s the program that makes planting decisions for farmers or ferrets out the possible cancer diagnosis in a patient before a human doctor could. It’s the image-recognition software picking out dogs, cats and people on Facebook images and the voice assistant with all the answers. It’s the program beating you at Go, chess and poker.
AI will beat us at a thousand small games and tasks before it launches World War III.
Musk and Putin are right. There are few technologies more important to the future of the modern world than AI. We should train in it, learn it, master it and stop running away from it.