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A leading contender to become the next governor of California who is also a leading supporter of Silicon Valley has warned about the threat from robotics. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has warned that AI is a fundamental threat to human civilization. This is one of the most important debates of our time, and there is an argument that gets forgotten.

Next year, California will have a new governor – and one of the key contenders is Gavin Newsom. Mr Newsom has long been thought of as an ardent defender of Silicon Valley. Recently he spoke to graduating students about a perceived threat from robotics. He said: “This is code red, a firehose, a tsunami, that’s coming our way.” And he told students to “exercise their moral authority” to improve society.

The wannabe Californian governor was focusing on the relationship between technology, jobs and inequality.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk, maybe Silicon Valley’s brightest star, has also been giving out warnings. Talking at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island, he told more than 30 US state governors that “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”

He continued: “On the artificial intelligence front, I have exposure to the most cutting-edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it. I keep sounding the alarm bell but until people see like, robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal.”

His remedy? Regulation.

He said: “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.”

But this time, it is no use waiting until it is too late, the way regulators have worked up to now will not be good enough, at least that is the gist of what he said. He explained: “Normally the way regulations are set up is, a 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.”

So, are either Musk or Newsom right?

Actually, the two men are talking about two different things. Mr Newsom is worried about automation, jobs and inequality. Musk worries about something even more dangerous.

The story about automation and inequality has been discussed here before, see: The problem of technology and inequality.

As for whether technology might destroy jobs, those who say it won’t hang their argument on the belief that technology will create more jobs than it destroys, and they say that the lesson of history is on their side. But actually, the lesson of history is that there are massive time lags involved, the innovations of the late Victorian age and the resulting economic boom, was separated by two world wars and a great depression in the US.

But what about AI posing some kind of existential threat?

Speak to a lot of experts on AI, and they laugh-off such fears and say computers or algoriths only do what they are programmed to do.

But here is another point that gets overlooked.

The human mind evolved. Consciousness evolved, self-aware living organisms we call humans evolved. And the earliest forms of life were simple. AI may not be able to create a self-aware system yet, but is it stretching credibility to say it could not create something that has a similar level of self-awareness as an amoeba? If the answers to that is yes, then presumably a self-aware AI system could evolve. Okay it took several billion years from an amoeba like organism to evolve into us, but in a digital environment, it might be possible for evolution to occur several billion times faster.

Both Musk and Newsom raise legitimate concerns. To ignore them would be an act of utmost folly.