The Only Thing We Have to Fear is….Artificial Intelligence?

Yesterday, one of the world’s wealthiest people, technological investor, Elon Musk, who is/was associated with companies like Tesla Motors and (which merged with PayPal), stated at a conference in Dubai that, “over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence…It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.” Musk went on to state that there is a high likelihood that in the near future, humans will need to merge with cyborgs through an artificial layer of intelligence attached to the human brain which will process at a much higher rate than “normal” human cognitive function.[1]  This discussion comes at an interesting point in human intellectual and political history.  Musk is a self-described “half-democrat, half-republican,” who is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” and who served as an advisor to incoming President Donald Trump on matters of strategic policy and his Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.  Musk has openly stated that one of his biggest fears is artificial intelligence in the hands of corporations who could use it for pure profit activity or in the hands of irresponsible governments seeking power.  This led to his founding of a non-profit, OpenAI, which allegedly seeks to counter the “irresponsible” use of AI for the above-mentioned goals.  Musk has also stated that he wishes to develop a human colony on Mars by 2040 to prevent “human extinction.”

So what do we make of Musk’s statements and fears over AI, human extinction, and their sociopolitical implications?  Is Musk just another sci-fi geek (albeit a very wealthy and successful one) who saw the Terminator movies at the wrong age?  Further, is it even possible that artificial intelligence could supplant human intelligence?  Are we destined to become extinct, or worse yet, obsolete, if we do not embrace the power and capabilities of this rapidly developing technology?

There are three big picture topics that need to be discussed here: the human, subjective elements of Musk’s positions, the sociopolitical implications of his agendas, and the ethical, moral, and scientific nature of his beliefs.  To begin, when we examine Musk’s background in light of his subjective personal experiences and his influences, we can easily see how technological determinism would come to be both his greatest fear and the goal of his life’s work; essentially, he is the embodiment of ideological catch-22.  By this, I mean that Musk has argued for the need to combat the use of AI for corporate profits, yet he employs, or has employed, such technology in his business ventures for profits.  Further, he fears that irresponsible use of AI could spell the end of the human species, yet he has openly stated that the United States is, “[inarguably] the greatest country that has ever existed on Earth…the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever been…[that there] would not be democracy in the world if not for the United States…[and that there are] three separate occasions in the 20th-century where democracy would have fallen with World War I, World War II and the Cold War, if not for the United States.”[2]  These statements read exactly like one would expect from someone who is an expert in technological economic development, but clearly lacks any depth of historical knowledge or inquiry.  The U.S. is currently the largest user of AI in military endeavours mostly embodied in drone-style attacks.  Further, assuming that Musk is aware of the fact that the United States is the only country to ever use nuclear weapons against another country (arguably unnecessarily) his trust in the U.S. to be “responsible” with AI, especially the current President who he advises, seems not only misplaced, but downright foolish.

Musk’s personal background (like that of most people) tells the story of why his opinions are so contradictory, fear-based, and confused.  Musk grew up in a multi-national setting, living in Canada, South Africa, and the U.S. at different periods.  Musk’s parents divorced when he was nine and thereafter he spent most of his time living in South Africa with his engineer father.  Clearly, he is someone of high capabilities in a technological and business sense as he developed and sold a primitive version of a video game when he was only twelve years old.  Musk’s childhood influences included Isaac Asimov, which explains his views towards extraterrestrial colonization.  However, Musk was also incessantly bullied throughout his childhood and even beaten unconscious at one point when he was living in South Africa.[3]  Musk’s largely successful academic, economic, scientific, and entrepreneurial career can be largely attributed to his visionary imagination combined with his investment instincts.  However, Musk has also struggled to find stability in his personal life, being married and divorced to first his wife form 2000-2008, then married to his second wife from 2010-2012, whom he remarried in 2013 and recently re-divorced in 2016.  This picture of “public success, private turmoil” is nothing new to historians or really anyone who pays attention to the people behind the success.

Musk’s personal views on some important scientific, philosophical, and theoretical subjects also help to shed light on this discussion.  For one, Musk believes that we “probably” live in a computer simulation: “The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable….”[4]  Musk stated in the same interview that chance of us not living in such a simulation are “one in billions.”[5]  An interesting discussion, but does the fact that video games have advanced in complexity and their realistic quality equate to all reality being a computer simulation?  We should probably be asking ourselves if we would seriously be entertaining Musk’s argument if he were not extremely wealthy.  If he was making the same claim outside of your local supermarket, you would probably laugh as you walked away from him.  What, then, does this reveal about our own attitudes and biases towards equating intelligence with wealth?  Nevertheless, Musk also believes that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible and that the laws of physics, in all likelihood, can explain all intelligence.  Aside from providing us with amusing inconsistencies, this extremely brief background gives us a look into the “human intelligence,” of this technological mogul.

Musk’s background clearly displays someone who is hyper-intelligent, introspective, and emotionally sensitive, but also heavily emotionally burdened, probably due to his childhood experiences.  Technology, in the sense of computers, created Musk’s “escape” from his own reality of emotional trauma in his parents’ divorce at a tender age and the physical and emotional trauma he suffered at the hands of bullies.  In some respects, he is superimposing his own subjective thoughts and experiences onto his ideological views towards technology and science; the exact opposite of the impartiality true scientific inquiry requires.  The inconsistencies in his views towards AI, namely his determinism and fear, when viewed in combination with his “fiscal conservativism,” simply do not make sense.  How can someone who makes money off such technology advocate that it should not be used to make money?  Or it is simply because he has already made his fortune that now it is okay to limit AI’s economic, for-profit use?  Further, how can someone who believes that the laws of physics control all intelligence be worried that AI will supplant and perhaps destroy humans?  Didn’t humans “discover” the laws of physics and create AI?  Like his influence Asimov, Musk sees technology as both a means of preservation and destruction; but doesn’t that presuppose human agency as a controlling factor toward either end?  Perhaps just like Asimov, Musk feels stifled and claustrophobic in the scientific fatalism of his own ideology?

Regardless of the answers to these hypothetical questions I am asking, the reality of Musk’s statements must be measured against a sense of logical consistencies.  Could we actually be living in a “computer simulation?”  The answer depends on how we view the metaphor.  If we take his statement to be literal, then we arrive at a logical problem, who is doing the simulating?  It would be interesting to ask Musk if he believes his personal success is due to his abilities and decisions in life or rather owed to the random chance of his computer simulated existence.  Further, a “computer simulation” is a human invention.  So we would be the creators of a technology similar to the one that controls our existence?  For someone who argues that science and religion are incompatible, this argument sounds an awful lot like the “prime mover” theory of God (where God merely creates and let’s things play out as they will) that nineteenth century scientific Christians like Nathaniel Bowditch employed.  Just replace “computer simulation” with God or omnipotent intelligent being and you have the same deterministic view.  Now, if we view his statement more metaphorically, that our world is becoming more like a computer simulation because of the advance of technology (which is what his strange video game example seems to be speaking to) then that makes more sense.  But again, this is not a new problem or worldview.  This discussion is one that humanity has been having since Francis Bacon started it in the early seventeenth century with his New Atlantis.  The topic is the redeeming abilities of science, human reason, and technology to save or destroy humanity in light of the assumed existence of a higher, controlling power.

The bigger sociopolitical issue that his comments point to, in my opinion, is whether the pursuit of technology as an end in and of itself is healthy for our society?  I would argue that it is not because we end up serving the ulterior ends that Musk is worried about (greed, power hunger, ill-will, etc.) rather than using technology as a beneficial instrument.  It is wonderful that we have supercomputers powered by artificial intelligence like Watson, or self-driving cars, but are these instruments making our lives better?  Any technological innovation regardless of its “intelligence” by the mere fact that it is not self-organizing in a way that biological organisms are, can only be as intelligent as the collective sum of the people who created it.  It may possess more knowledge or awareness of facts, data, and patterns but it is not more intelligent in other realms.  Further, technology cannot spontaneously develop or reproduce like natural processes.  Unplug Watson and ask him something; see what his answer is.  Technology can and should only be used to benefit beneficent human goals, which presupposes a higher realm of intelligence than technology can ever provide; compassion.  Technology could be used towards compassion, but never exhibit it alone because it requires empathy, which requires consciousness.

Musk’s fears over AI becoming too powerful are symbolic of his hope that, like many technological entrepreneurs and scientists for centuries now, human technological “progress” will eventually triumph over nature and we will finally be able to truly “control” our destinies.  What better way of triumphing than eradicating our species; something that until now, only nature has had the power to accomplish.  But then again, Musk already has a technological escape from that in his planned colony on Mars.  Again, this sounds a lot like an Apocalyptic Second Coming or something from an L. Ron Hubbard novel, which is strange coming from an ardent atheist (I am being totally sarcastic here).  As Rupert Sheldrake argues so well in The Science Delusion, in many ways, materialistic science has replaced the Church as the new source of prevailing ideological worldviews in the educated Western world.  Musk argues that religion and science are not compatible but intellectual history shows that they are all too compatible, conceptually speaking.  In many ways, intellectual history since the Reformation has been the study of institutionalized science and institutionalized religion jostling for power in a causative philosophical sense.  This is not to take away from the incredible accomplishments or necessity of modern science which we now need to function on a day to day basis, but the truth is that the best available science cannot explain why we are conscious, never mind impart that kind of intelligence into a mechanical or digital form.  Further, beliefs such as Musk’s assume that humans possess a unique intelligence unto themselves, above and beyond other types of intelligence found elsewhere in Nature.  It seems more likely to me that we are part of Nature and its own kind of intelligent process rather than separate, above, and apart from it.  Should we then be worried that AI will control us someday? Probably not, and although it may make certain jobs obsolete, this has always been the quid pro quo in a capitalist society.  However, we should probably be concerned with larger issues of technological use by government or business for harmful purposes, like Musk suggests; but again, technology alone isn’t the problem, how humans choose to use it is.

In the end, Musk reminds me so much of those Gilded Age robber-barons who made enormous fortunes off new technologies and egoically counterbalanced it which philanthropy.  His non-profit initiatives like OpenAI still serve his own personal fears and beliefs much like the philanthropy of men like Rockefeller and Carnegie was aimed at placating the “masses” that served their personal socioeconomic agendas.  For someone who is self-described as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” this makes perfect sense; he will support a broader social agenda as long as it does not conflict with his economic self-interest.  Hence, his “socially progressive agenda” to combat climate change through use of alternative energy sources, like the use of electric cars, or his call from a carbon-output tax on businesses.  These are not bad ideas, they are, in fact, good ones, but when the person advancing them would “coincidentally” reap a profit from their implementation, it just looks bad.  This might be too cynical a view of history, technology, human nature, and even Musk himself, but then again, I am not the one advocating that we will need to move to another planet in the near future to save our species.  If we allow things like technology (or capitalism) to become ends in themselves, or to serve as tools for the advancement of delusional ideas, we often wind up collectively chasing our tails, wondering how we ended up where we are.



[1] For the complete story:

[2] Taken from Ben Wattenberg, “Elon Musk and the Frontier of Technology,” Think Tank.

[3] See Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, (2015).

[4] The Independent, June 2, 2016, “Elon Musk: The chance we are not living in a computer simulation is ‘one in billions.’”

[5] Ibid.


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