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What scares Elon Musk most? Artificial intelligence

Elon MuskIf there is anything making Elon Musk lose his sleep at night, it is not the performance of his Tesla cars or Falcon rockets. The billionaire technologist is deeply worried about artificial intelligence, which he has said time and again is an existential threat to humanity. He repeated his warning again at a gathering of US governors this weekend while stressing that lawmakers need to start regulating AI now.

Speaking at the US National Governors Association summer meeting in Providence Rhode Island, Musk said there is a need for precautionary, proactive government intervention in AI because ” by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late”.

Musk, who has previously compared work on AI to “summoning the demon” and stated that AI is one of the “most existential threats to the survival of the human race”, almost sounded the doomsday alarm: “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal.”

Terminator fears

Of course Musk was not referring to the AI that his companies or even those like Google or Microsoft currently use, but some super intelligent “Terminator” kind of entity.

The topic came up when Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who was interviewing him, jokingly asked if robots are going to take up everyone’s jobs in the near future. Musk was far from amused: “Yes, robots will do everything better than us.” But it wasn’t the job market which is bothering the tech maverick. “I have exposure to the very cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” he stressed. “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said.

Heavy criticism

Musk’s views came under a lot of attack and criticism from people on social media for spreading “doomsday fears”. A discussion on reddit.com called it alarmism. “The industry is still incredible nascent and he’s running around spreading doomsday prophecies akin to Skynet,” a comment from a user said.

Another comment went like: “It’s as if a caveman was rubbing two sticks together and another caveman were running around warning everyone that fire will eventually lead to a nuclear holocaust.”

David Ha, a Google Brain researcher, responded to Musk’s comments on Twitter saying he was “more concerned about abusing the use of methods that boil down to statistical analysis, to mask unethical human activities.”

François Chollet, the creator of the deep neural net platform Keras, replied: “AI/ML makes a few existing threats worse. Unclear that it creates any new ones.”

Interestingly, Musk’s OpenAI project seeks to open source artificial intelligence. Cynics say that he “is interested less in saving the world than in buffing his brand”, Maureen Dowd, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, wrote in a piece earlier this year, while noting that many Silicon Valley leaders, including Google Founder Larry Page, do not share Musk’s skepticism.

However, to his credit, Musk has support from leading scientists like Stephen Hawking and technologists like Bill Gates, who echo his concern and fear for artificial intelligence. Hawking has gone to the extent of predicting that AI could lead to the end of humankind.