The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elon Musk doesn’t think we’re prepared to face humanity’s biggest threat: Artificial intelligence

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, right, answers questions from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval during the National Governors Association summer meeting in Providence, R.I., on July 15. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The subjugation of humanity by a race of super-smart, artificially intelligent beings is something that has been theorized by everyone from generations of moviemakers to New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk-parody duo.

But the latest prophet of our cyber-fueled downfall must realize why people would be inclined to take his warnings with a grain of silicon. He is, after all, the same guy who’s asking us to turn over control of our cars — and our lives — to a bunch of algorithms.

Elon Musk, who hopes that one day everyone will ride in a self-driving, electric-powered Tesla, told a group of governors Saturday that they needed to get on the ball and start regulating artificial intelligence, which he called a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”

No pressure. When pressed for better guidance, Musk said the government must get a better understanding of the latest achievements in artificial intelligence before it’s too late.

“Once there is awareness, people will be extremely afraid, as they should be,” Musk said. “AI is a fundamental risk to the future of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not. They were harmful to a set of individuals in society, but they were not harmful to individuals as a whole.”

And then Musk outlined the ways AI could bring down our civilization, which may sound vaguely familiar.

He believes AI “could start a war by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and fake press releases, and just by manipulating information. Or, indeed — as some companies already claim they can do — by getting people to say anything that the machine wants.”

Musk said he’s usually against proactive regulation, which can impede innovation. But he’s making an exception in the case of an AI-fueled Armageddon.

“By the time we are reactive in regulation, it’s too late,” he said, confessing that “this is really like the scariest problem to me.”

He’s been warning people about the problem for years, and he’s even come up with a solution: Join forces with the computers.

He announced earlier this year that he’s leading a company called Neuralink, which would devise ways to connect the human brain to computers, CNN reported.

In the decades to come, an Internet-connected brain plug-in would allow people to communicate without opening their mouths and learn something as fast as it takes to download a book.

Other prominent figures in the world of science and technology have also warned against the dangers of artificial intelligence, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. But Musk concedes that people have been hesitant to accept their viewpoint.

“I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see like robots going down the streets killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” he said. “I think we should be really concerned about AI.”

Still, even to the biggest skeptic, one sentence offered some food for thought: “I have exposure to the very most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it.”

Maybe Musk knows something the rest of us don’t? He is, after all, a multibillionaire, capable of using obscene sums of money to develop AI. Maybe in some Musk-funded lab, or on some secret SpaceX satellite, there’s already a powerful AI on the verge of getting out.

Maybe it’s already loose.

Better safe than sorry:

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