Elon Musk summons the A.I. demon

2016-08-17-elons-demons

Back in 2014, Silicon Valley’s most popular billionaire, Elon Musk, had, in his characteristically visionary way, a dire warning for the public about “our biggest existential threat”:

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,” Musk said. “You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”

Less than two years later, however, Musk appears to have changed his mind, and embraced the proverbial dark arts. Late last year, Musk joined two other tech entrepreneurs — Peter Thiel, who Musk worked with at Paypal, and Sam Altman of Y Combinator, both of whom coincidentally attended the secretive Bilderberg meeting in June in Dresden, Germany — in creating an organization dedicated to the very thing he warned of: artificial intelligence.

“OpenAI is a non-profit artificial intelligence research company,” states the first blog post for the new, uh… venture philanthropy firm? “Our goal is to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.”

It continues:

Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact. We believe AI should be an extension of individual human wills and, in the spirit of liberty, as broadly and evenly distributed as possible.

The outcome of this venture is uncertain and the work is difficult, but we believe the goal and the structure are right. We hope this is what matters most to the best in the field.

Indeed, being able to offer what matters most to the best in the field seems to be a top priority for OpenAI, as the company has reportedly been poaching talent from other firms. Certainly Musk has not achieved the success that he has without knowing how to exploit opportunity, and he has done just that when it comes to taking advantage of government funding and subsidy programs to finance his electric car and solar energy initiatives.

So far, OpenAI’s work has focused on what appears to be fairly benign research, such as attempting to teach machines to understand language by reading Reddit. Musk’s electric car company Tesla, however, has faced serious criticism of its forays into the AI world following the death of a driver of one of its cars that crashed while driving in its semi-autonomous “Autopilot” mode.

Depsite several such crashes, however, Tesla said in July that it would not disable Autopilot, but was instead “planning an explanatory blogpost to educate customers on how the feature works.” Following a subsequent, somewhat unusual call from Consumer Reports to completely disable Autopilot, Tesla reiterated its commitment to the feature.

Two years ago, Musk was busy suggesting that the potential dangers of A.I. were comparable to or worse than nuclear weapons. Now, when it comes to making sure the (allegedly, partially) artificially intelligent cars his company sells are safe, at least, Musk seems to prioritize his desire to “innovate” — and to profit — over the safety of his customers.

Luckily, we have Youtube now, so perhaps 2016 Elon Musk can go back and revisit the wise words of 2014 Elon Musk, and if he’s up to it, maybe he can banish the demon that he unfortunately seems to have summoned under the mistaken misconception that he could control it.

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