It has been interesting to follow the spat in recent days between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. According to news reports, they disagree on the relative merits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for humanity. Zuckerberg has a generally more optimistic view – AI should be seen as a great aid to humankind, able to enhance the quality of life. As an example he cites the development of autonomous (driverless) cars. For Zuckerberg, there are no downsides. Musk, on the other hand, has a more cautionary approach. He believes AI to be a potential danger to humanity (and that Zuckerberg has a limited understanding of its potential for harm). It is good that Musk raises the alarm bell – although there are many areas in which AI can be of tremendous benefit to mankind, there are other disturbing issues that need to be faced up to as well. At first glance, it appears as if Musk is our knight in shining armour, guarding us against the downsides of an ever-increasing population of super-intelligent and powerful machines. But is this an accurate depiction? Some of his ideas are a little perturbing.
Musk has stated publicly that the only way in which humanity can survive as a species is to merge itself with machines. In other words, mankind should submit to what can only be described as the ultimate in transhumanism – the so-called singularity point described by the writer, futurist and transhumanist cheerleader Ray Kurzweil (Director of Engineering at Google). In the minds of many, this would mark the point at which humanity becomes enslaved to the machine. The ability for man to think for himself (and expand his own cognitive faculties) would be replaced by dependence on some super-algorithm running locally (most likely on some electronics embedded in the brain), or remotely on the cloud. The singularity is the point at which mankind would become subservient to a material intelligence which has no counterpart in the moral and spiritual domains. It would mark the point at which, rather than enhance the human condition, mankind as we know it today would become extinct. Although man-machine merge would not happen tomorrow, great strides have been made in the last decade or so developing algorithms that mimic the way in which the brain works. Artificial networks with ‘deep layers’ of neurons are learning to think (deep learning) and are already running on servers to provide solutions for tasks such as speech recognition, language translation and stock market prediction. Kurzweil predicts the singularity point to occur around 2045.
Another issue raised by Musk is the massive loss of jobs expected over the next ten to twenty years due to automation. He is right to do so ( A 2013 Oxford University publication reported that work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the US at “high risk”, with human workers being replaced in those jobs by robots within 20 years). Ditto this for the United Kingdom, and all other advanced Western industrialised nations. In his opinion, a solution to this problem would be the provision of a Universal Basic Income for all (an opinion increasingly shared by many executives in Silicon Valley). At face value, this sounds reasonable and civilised. However, realistically, the income could only be pegged at a low level – in effect, just enough to survive. It would imply regression to a society characterised by a tiny rich and powerful elite group holding sway over a disempowered majority living at subsistence level, with little or no power to advance their circumstances.
Is this the sort of future we would envision for ourselves? I think not. It begs the question, who or what is driving this agenda? The most obvious answer is that all is driven by the corporate world, where the bottom line is ever-increasing profits – the drive to automation is an obvious consequence of this. The current neo-liberal economic framework ensures that governments stand back with little or no interference in corporate agendas. However, the rate at which technology increases is exponential, and this determines the rate at which changes happen in society. Urgently, as a society, we need to start asking questions as to where we want to go.
I believe that Elon Musk is sincere in his concern for the future of humanity. Many of us, though, feel distinctly uncomfortable with the direction he suggests. However, by flagging the issue in the public domain, Musk does mankind a great service – it is up to us to take heed and act accordingly.