‘AI is the biggest threat to humanity,’ says Elon Musk, ‘no it isn’t’, says Mark Zuckerberg, ‘yes, it is’, says Musk. Who is right?

Elon Musk told a gathering of US state governors that: “Until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal. AI is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive. Because I think by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”

“Normally the way regulations are set up is, a whole bunch of bad things happen, there’s a public outcry, and after many years a regulatory agency is set up to regulate that industry. It takes forever. That, in the past, has been bad but not something which represented a fundamental risk to the existence of civilisation. AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation.”

Many of those who work in AI were scathing of the comments by Elon Musk – in fact they were furious. There is much we need to think about regarding technology, and government is not getting it. Recently, US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin said that the threat to jobs posed by tech was not even on his radar. For many who follow tech, this raised serious alarm bells. Elon Musk had a rare opportunity to influence government, and he squandered it warning about some kind of Terminator scenario – Arnold Schwarzenegger coming back from the future, Cybermen roaming the streets of London – at least that is the gist of what Musk’s critics said.

Among the critics is the Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, who said “I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios — I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways, I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”

He continued: “One reason I'm so optimistic about AI is that improvements in basic research improve systems across so many different fields — from diagnosing diseases to keep us healthy, to improving self-driving cars to keep us safe, and from showing you better content in news feeds, to delivering you more relevant search results. Every time we improve our AI methods, all of these systems get better. I'm excited about all the progress here and it's potential to make the world better."

Musk responded saying "I've talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited."

Zuckerberg, replied saying, “I am right, I am right, I am right.”

Musk said “No, I am right, a hundred times over.”

To which Zuckerberg said: “I am right an infinity amount of times and in any case, I don’t like the way delays in Space X are hitting my plans for expansion in Africa.”

Musk said, “but at least I own more cars than you do”.

Okay, some of the above dialogue is not true, although Zuckerberg’s sideswipe at Musk over Space X is true.

But who is right?

Truth is, both know a fair bit about AI. It is crucial to the plans of both Facebook and Tesla. Maybe autonomous cars need more advanced AI than algorithms designed to target ads more accurately.

If you speak to experts on AI, very few, very few indeed, would agree with Musk. The fact is AI falls a long way short of what the writers of science fiction might have you believe.

But forward wind the clock three, four, five or six decades, who knows – both Zuckerberg and Musk may be around in six decades time, so it is in their interests to think about it.

The real question we should be asking is not so much, ‘can computers think like a human?’ It is can they, or will they one day, be able to think like an amoeba type organism? Because rats, dogs, pigs and chimpanzees evolved from amoeba like organisms, and that means a computer that can think like an amoeba could evolve into one that can think like a chimp – and in the digital environment evolution could be millions of time faster than natural evolution.

We are not there yet, but we maybe one day, and a computer that can think like chimp could evolve into one that could think in ways similar to that envisaged by science fiction writers. Cybermen are not likely to roam the streets of London – ever, nor is AI likely to send a muscular robot back in time from the future, but the future of AI is hard to predict, and debates, such as the one between Musk and Zuckerberg are an important part of advancing understanding.