Elon Musk is an AI doomsayer – but he may have a point

The future of AI, maybe. Image credit: camilkuo / Shutterstock.com

When Ernest Rutherford split the atom, his motive was pure. He wanted to help mankind. When John McCarthy invented– or at least coined the term – ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI), he too had the good of mankind at heart.

When Einstein pressured Roosevelt to set up the Manhattan Project, he did so because he believed the Germans were advancing with their nuclear ambitions and that the US, with support from the UK and others, should ramp up their response. We are still trying to undo the nuclear threat today.

Is the same happening with AI?

AI is obviously for good. The ITU even hosts a summit entitled AI for Good. The range of applications for AI expands on a daily basis. This week, we reported that AI enabled drones will be patrolling beaches in Australia on the lookout for sharks. This will almost certainly save a life or two.

AI will be an important tool in the improvement of customer service, online trading, cyber security – frankly, you name it.

Yet Elon Musk and others are actually rather worried that what started as an agent for good will be turned into an agent for bad. Very bad. In fact, it seems that part of Musk’s motivation to get to Mars is so that humanity has a bolt hole when the self learning version of AI realizes that humans are inefficient and wasteful and generally ruining our planet (all true). It is also the reason, apparently, that Musk is so obsessed with his neural lace that will cut out all the inefficient thumbs and fingers that are our current input mechanism to the devices that have already made us into cyborgs: our phones, tablets and laptops.

While Musk has clearly become a doomsayer, and has corralled over 100 tech titans to lobby governments to sign a treaty declaring that they will not use AI in the form of killer robots (a.k.a. lethal autonomous weapons), others will laugh and say, “That era is behind us, surely.”

Some others might also say, “Too late!”

Whether or not you believe that AI will turn us into a world where we wage war in a weird virtual video game while the destruction is actually happening (just somewhere else), it is something that we should take seriously.

After all, it has happened before. Many have laughed at the concept that the new technology of the time could be used for destruction, not creation – and they were typically at the same stage of that technological roadmap as we now find ourselves with AI.

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