Tech billionaires Jack Ma and Elon Musk can’t agree whether artificial intelligence is going to take over the world. Only one of them is what we might think of as a tech guy, and it’s that difference that means the other is likely to be right.
Musk, a physicist by training, is a well-known AI radical who sees the technology as a threat to the human race because, in his view, it will inevitably outsmart us and start running the world without heeding our needs.
“The biggest mistake I see AI researchers making is assuming that they’re intelligent,” he said during a debate in Shanghai on Thursday. “They’re not, compared to AI.”
He likened humanity to a bootloader – a small piece of software needed to turn on a computer.
Ma, who has a degree in English, took the opposite view. Humans, he said, invented machines, and he has “never seen a machine invent a human being”.
This might look like the kind of argument Musk should win by default. Ma’s business is e-commerce, in which artificial intelligence only plays an auxiliary role. The Alibaba founder has invested in some down-to earth applications of AI, such as face recognition and traffic management.
Musk, by contrast, has been more ambitious. OpenAI, the research group he co-founded (and left earlier this year) has been experimenting with writing and storytelling. Last month, a venture of Musk’s, Neuralink, demonstrated that it had made some progress in creating brain-computer interfaces.
Musk, in other words, probably has a wider window on the future than Ma and a better technical understanding of the subject.
But the argument took an unexpected turn when the Chinese billionaire challenged the Tesla chief executive officer to identify a machine that is smarter than humans. Musk started rattling off the usual examples of computers beating human world champions at chess and Go. “Trying to play a computer at Go is like trying to fight Zeus; it’s not going to work,” he said.
“It’s stupid to compete with a computer at playing Go,” Ma retorted. “Only stupid people compete with a car. It will run faster. Go is designed for humans to play with each other, chess is designed for humans to play with each other. I will never play chess against a computer. Let them play each other.”
In "War Games”, the 1983 science-fiction movie, a supercomputer decides against launching a nuclear war after working out the only winning move is not to play. Ma appears to have reached the same conclusion about AI. As he explained during the debate: “A smart person knows what he wants and how to get it; a wise person knows what he doesn’t want.”
If Musk’s future is a dystopia, Ma’s is one in which humans only apply AI where needed, without engaging in unnecessary competition with it. In a way, it looks much like the world of chess, where, even though they can’t overcome a computer’s brute force, top players can still make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year competing against each other and millions play just for fun or as a way of developing their cognitive skills.
The difference between the future worlds of Musk and Ma boils down to access. AI entities can only take over the world if they get access to important processes – nuclear launch codes in “War Games”, for example, but also major investment decisions, trade flows, policymaking and regulation. In Ma’s world, computers won’t get that access because it’s up to humans to decide whether or not to grant it. AI will only be used in functions where it remains a tool.
If investments in AI focus on such purely practical applications, the clearly visible barriers to its acquisition of human-like intelligence (things like common sense or emotions) may not even be overcome on the research level. But Ma's world doesn't collapse if the robots surmount that barrier. His argument depends on humans’ strong motivation for keeping control – the same motivation that has, at least for now, stymied genetic engineering that could lead to the creation of artificial humans.
Keeping control may be a small consolation; Musk and Ma agree that AI will take over from humans in many areas. But the latter makes an important point: This isn’t our world because humans are the best at everything; it’s ours because we made it so.