The war between AI and humanity may be a long way off, but the war between tech billionaire and tech billionaire is only just beginning. Today on Twitter, Elon Musk dismissed Mark Zuckerberg’s understanding of the threat posed by artificial intelligence as “limited,” after the Facebook founder disparaged comments Musk made on the subject earlier this month.
The beef (such as it is) goes back to a speech the SpaceX and Tesla CEO made to an assembly of US governors. Musk warned that there needed to be regulation on AI development before it’s too late. “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,” he said, adding that the technology represents a “fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”
Are both Musk and Zuckerberg missing the point?
It’s a familiar refrain from Musk, and one that doesn’t hold much water within the AI community. Pedro Domingos, a machine learning researcher and author of The Master Algorithm, summed up the feelings of many with a one word response on Twitter: “Sigh.” Later, Domingos expanded on this in an interview with Wired, saying: “Many of us have tried to educate [Musk] and others like him about real vs. imaginary dangers of AI, but apparently none of it has made a dent.”
Fast-forward to this Sunday, when Zuckerberg was running one of his totally-normal-and-not-running-for-political-office Facebook Live Q&As. At around 50 minutes in, a viewer asks Zuckerberg: “I watched a recent interview with Elon Musk and his largest fear for the future was AI. What are your thoughts on AI and how it could affect the world?”
Zuck responds: “I have pretty strong opinions on this ... I think you can build things and the world gets better, and with AI especially, I’m really optimistic. I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios are — I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways I think it is pretty irresponsible.”
He goes on to predict that in the next five to 10 years AI will deliver “so many improvements in the quality of our lives,” and cites health care and self-driving cars as two major examples. “People who are arguing for slowing down the process of building AI, I find that really questionable,” Zuckerberg concludes. “If you’re arguing against AI you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents.”
Someone then posted a write-up of Zuckerberg’s Q&A on Twitter and tagged Musk, who jumped into the conversation with the comment below. Musk also linked approvingly to an article on the threat of superintelligent AI by Tim Urban. (The article covers much of the same ground as Nick Bostrom’s influential book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Both discuss a number of ways contemporary AI could develop into super-intelligence, including through exponential growth in computing power — something Musk later tweeted about.)
But as fun as it is to watch two extremely rich people, who probably wield more influence over your life than most politicians, trade barbs online, it’s hard to shake the feeling that both Musk and Zuckerberg are missing the point.
While AI researchers dismiss Musk’s comments on AI as alarmist, that’s only in reference to the imagined threat of some Skynet-style doomsday machine. The same experts frequently point out that artificial intelligence poses many genuine threats that already affect us today. These include how the technology can amplify racist and sexist prejudices; how it could upend society by putting millions out of jobs; how it is set to increase inequality; and how it will be used as tool of control by authoritarian governments.
These are real dangers that need real solutions, not just sci-fi speculation.
And while Zuckerberg’s comments on the potential benefits of AI in health care and road safety are heartening, focusing only on the good that artificial intelligence can deliver is — in its own way — as limited as focusing only on the threat. Really, we need to combine both Musk and Zuckerberg’s approaches, and probably listen less to tech billionaires in the process.