Anything that Elon Musk does generates huge fanfare, and recent announcements that he is creating a brain-computer interface is no exception. Yet if we take an objective look at Musk and his goals to change the world, do we find a beneficent entrepreneur working for the collective good or something a little more sinister?
The company creating the brain-computer interface is called Neuralink. It is focused on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence.
According to Musk, this is necessary as artificial intelligence may end up being the greatest threat to the survival of the human species. It’s worth recalling this tweet from Musk in 2014:
Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 3, 2014
This of course isn’t the first time that Musk has created a company that “shoots for the moon”. He has launched cost-efficient rockets into space and hopes eventually to inhabit Mars. He creates batteries that could lead to a world powered by cheap solar energy. Tesla creates beautiful electric cars that aim to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. He has also dreamed up the Hyperloop, an electromagnetic bullet train in a tube, which may one day move travelers between Los Angeles and San Frnacisco at 700 miles per hour.
Yet some in Silicon Valley argue that Musk is less interested in saving the world than in building up his own brand. To do this, he’s exploiting a perennial conflict: the one between man and machine, and our deeply rooted fear that our creation will turn against us.
There are a number of people suggesting that Musk’s epic “good-versus-evil” story line is about luring talent at discount rates and building his own A.I. software for cars and rockets.
One such naysayer is Andrew Ng, the chief scientist at Baidu (China’s Google). Ng refers to Musk’s framing of the dangers of A.I. as marketing genius:
“And I think it’s fascinating,” he said about Musk in particular, “that in a rather short period of time he’s inserted himself into the conversation on A.I. I think he sees accurately that A.I. is going to create tremendous amounts of value.”
As the L.A. Times reported in 2015, Musk’s growing business empire has been funded by $4.9 billion in government subsidies. He regularly employs a public-private funding model, creating companies that stir the public imagination and get government support. His businesses have rarely generated a profit and instead have been reliant on continued funding.
His recent proclamations about the dangers of A.I. follow a familiar pattern. After tapping into deeply held fears about climate change, he’s doing the same about A.I.
Perhaps the world will end up being a much better place thanks to the efforts of Musk to build important businesses. But at the same time we need to be informed about the real motivations of Musk and how savvy he is with the press.
Musk recently told Bloomberg’s Ashleey Vance, he was afraid that his friend Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and now the C.E.O. of its parent company, Alphabet, could have perfectly good intentions but still “produce something evil by accident”—including, possibly, “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”
As Vance sees it, “Elon wants all the toys that Larry has. They’re like these two superpowers. They’re friends, but there’s a lot of tension in their relationship.”
A rivalry of this kind might be best summed up by a line from the vainglorious head of the fictional tech behemoth Hooli, on HBO’s Silicon Valley: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”
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