Listen to Musk’s warning on AI: He knows the beast

Take it from someone who knows what he is talking about. Elon Musk has warned that artificial intelligence poses a risk to civilization as we know it. Or we should call it perhaps by what used to be a redundancy: “human” civilization. For the days of AI civilization may not be far off.

“I have access to the very most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” Musk said Saturday, speaking at the National Governors Association summer meeting in Providence, R.I. It was, he said, “the biggest risk we face as a civilization.”

Tesla has not responded to Fi’s request for comments.

As someone who benefits massively from AI, Musk is better qualified than most others to raise the alarm. That he is calling for regulation boils down to this: preventive measures are better than reactive ones. Because by the time the full consequences and AI potential for disaster is fully comprehended, any belated response will be more traumatic than a gradual approach.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson made a somewhat tepid case against regulation. They did recognize the importance of labor for healthy societies. Yet they skip that critical, uncomfortable issue to fast forward in defense of a friendly environment for technological progress.

But bad things, indeed, are already here. It is a fact that any business will hardly give up a potential for profit for the sake of higher ideals, if that compromises their ability to beat competitors. The law, however, is harder to beat. And with catastrophically high unemployment lurking around the corner, it is worth wondering if an economic crash is in the best interest of anyone.

Oh, and those bots may not be Terminator or the monsters imagined by H.G. Wells in the war of the worlds. Yet there seems to be damning evidence that bots manipulated by the usual suspects may have planted a president in the White House; are hoarding tickets for Broadway shows (“Hamilton”, anyone?), or tried to sway the elections in France, which could have put the presidency in the hands of a woman, Marine Le Pen, who doesn’t seem to have understood the lessons of history.

And our stance on AI may well stem from the conclusions we draw from the past. MIT’s McAfee and Brynjolfsson lean towards an unregulated marketplace, where AI thrives freely. Surely, in the past, everything from the wheel to the movable type to the Industrial Revolution and the computer that ushered in the digital era moved mankind forth. But as small letter disclaimers of investment banks say: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Our hunch tells us that we should listen to Musk. He is riding that tiger right now. He knows the beast he is talking about.