[Two Cents] Artificial Intelligence: Doom or bloom?

You know the topic is a divisive one when two of today's most revered CEOs are having a good go at it. In this latest Two Cents, Kelvin Ong weighs in
By: | December 4, 2017

The Two Cents column sees HRM Magazine’s Kelvin Ong offer his “#NoFilter” take on the latest HR and business happenings from around the world.


A few months ago, I could barely contain my excitement, and it wasn’t just because Will and Grace made a comeback. You see, a war of words – sort of – had erupted in Silicon Valley between the lauded architects of two of modern civilisation’s most celebrated entities.

In late July, Elon Musk, the flashy CEO of electric car maker Tesla, and his more reserved contemporary – Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg – traded blows on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and its future impact on society.

At a national gathering of US state governors earlier that month, Musk had told attendees that AI, in its most realised form, would threaten the existence of mankind.

“I have exposure to the very cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” he said worriedly. Well. Colour me worried then.

This is not the first time Musk has struggled so heroically to warn the public about humanity’s impending doom in the face of robotics. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal,” he cautioned, adding that governments need to start regulating AI immediately.

A week later, Zuckerberg took part in a 90-minute-long live stream on heavyweight topics such as barbeque technology and meat-grilling tips. He also found time to suggest that people who “drum up doomsday scenarios” were “naysayers”, “really negative”, and “pretty irresponsible”.

“I don’t understand it,” he groused in a speech most believed was alluding to Musk’s admonition, before turning his attention back to marinating tenderloin.

Musk, not one to shy away from a riveting argument, took to Twitter after, and utilising all of 76 characters, wrote: “I’ve talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.”

I’ve also spoken to friends about this, and their understanding of the subject is, likewise, limited.

But as someone with some interest in androids, I can’t help but weigh in on this.

When the initial excitement of seeing two business moguls go at it Kanye-Taylor style settled, I find myself agreeing with Musk.

While Zuckerberg is right that AI is here to make our lives and jobs easier, not take them away, it’s almost careless, and in some ways, delusional, not to imagine Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence and his predecessor Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, becoming a reality.

Zuckerberg’s downplaying of AI’s danger is curious, especially since Facebook was forced to shut down two of its robots when they recently started communicating in their own language. If this had gone on any longer, the possibility of them disobeying and frustrating their human creators would no longer just be the work of fiction.

It’s not that machines will suddenly, overnight, gain consciousness and raise an army of humanoids to destroy all of us heart-beaters. Last year, the Centre for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence found that the real risk was not so sensational, but far more “insidious”.

Insidious because these systems, if left unchecked, will make the lives of programmers, cybersecurity officers, robot trainers, bio-statisticians and whatever other impressive-sounding yet-to-exist job title, a living equation-solving and decoding nightmare.

Rather than AI complimenting work, there is a very real threat of it complicating basic tasks. Privacy and security are also going to be an issue – no firewall will ever be strong enough to keep data safe.

Given this risk, governments will need to step in. Given they are regulating scientific, life-enhancing processes like artificial insemination today, why have they not been as quick to restrict the potentially damaging aspects of AI research?

Very few of Musk’s colleagues have backed up his opinion. Which leads me to wonder if that’s because he was revealing too much about the true depths of what these highly intelligent gadgets will be able to do.

Truth be told, while I joke about a peaceful “post-human” world, I do so badly look forward to co-existing with robots. But only if they make my life genuinely easier and not harder than it already is.