Photo: Et-Zeichen via Flickr
When Elon Musk is not the billionaire CEO running three companies, he has a side hustle as our greatest living prophet of the upcoming war between humans and machines.
In his latest public testimony about the dark future that awaits us all, Musk urged the United Nations to ban artificially intelligent killer robots. And he and other fellow prophets emphasized that we have no time. No time.
In an open letter to the U.N., Musk, along with 115 other experts in robotics, co-signed a grim future where artificial superintelligence would lead to “lethal autonomous weapons” that would bring the “third revolution in warfare.”
And to add some urgency to the matter, the letter said that this future wasn’t a distant science fiction, it was a near and present danger.
“Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” the letter states. “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”
Although lethal autonomous weapons are not mainstream yet, they do already exist. Samsung’s SGR-A1 sentry robot is reportedly used by the South Korean army to monitor the Korean Demilitarized Zone with guns capable of autonomous firing. Taranis, an “unmanned combat air vehicle,” is being developed by the U.K. So autonomous weapons are already here. It remains to be seen, however, if this brings a new World War.
Elon Musk keeps telling you this
This is not the first time Musk has sounded the alarm on machines taking over. Here’s a look at all the ways Musk has tried to convince humanity of its impending doom.
And he hasn’t been mild in his warnings. If you’re going to get people to pay attention to your robot visions, you need to raise the stakes.
That’s what Musk did when he told Massachusetts Institute of Technology students in 2014 that artificial intelligence was “our biggest existential threat.” And in case he didn’t get the students’ attention there, Musk compared artificial intelligence research to a metaphor of Good and Evil.
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon, in all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out,” Musk said.
So what can humans use as prayer beads against these robotic demons? Musk thinks that we’ll need to use artificial intelligence to beat artificial intelligence. In a Vanity Fair profile of his artificial intelligence ambitions, Musk said that “the human A.I. collective” could beat rogue algorithms that could arise with artificial superintelligence.
We’re going to become robots’ house cats
If you’re not sold with A.I. being an existential threat to humanity, are you more alarmed when you consider a world where our robot overlords treat us like pets? This is an argument Musk tried in 2017.
When Musk founded his brain-implant company, Neuralink, in 2017, he needed to explain why developing a connection between brains and machines was necessary. As part of this press tour, he talked with Wait But Why about the background behind his latest company and the existential risk we’re facing with artificial intelligence.
“We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet — you know, like a house cat or something — or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI,” Musk told the blog. “A house cat’s a good outcome, by the way.”
Musk meant that being housecats for the demonic robot overlords is the best possible outcome, of course. But it’s also worth considering that housecats are not only well-treated and largely adored, but also, by acclamation, came to dominate the internet. Humanity could do worse.
If we can’t beat them, we’ll have to join them
Our impending irrelevance means we’ll have to become cyborgs to stay useful to this world, according to Musk. While computers can communicate at a “a trillion bits per second,” Musk has said, we flawed humans are built with much slower bandwidths —our puny brains and sluggish fingers— that process information more slowly. We will need to evolve past this to stay useful.
To do this, humans and robots will need to form a “merger” so that we can “achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence, and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem,” Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai in 2017, according to CNBC.
In other words, one day in the future, humans will have to join forces with artificial intelligence to keep up with the times or become the collared felines Musk fears we’ll become without intervention.
Musk’s warnings are only being slowly heard
What will it take for our robot prophet to be heard, so that his proclamations don’t keep falling on deaf ears?
Although Musk may seem like a minority opinion now, his ideas around the threat of artificial intelligence are becoming more mainstream. For instance, his idea has been widely adopted that we are living right now in a computer simulation staged by future scientists.
Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disagrees with Musk’s dark future, more tech leaders are siding with Musk when it comes to killer robots. Alphabet’s artificial intelligence expert, Mustafa Suleyman, was one of the U.N. open letter’s signatories. In the past, Bill Gates has said that the intelligence in A.I. “is strong enough to be a concern.”
So we can laugh now at these outlandish science fiction worlds where we’re robots’ domestic pets. But Musk has been sounding the alarm for years and he has held firm to his beliefs. What may be one man’s outlier theory now may become a reality in the future. If nothing else, he’s making sure you listen.