AI, destroyer or savior? Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg trade insults

The moral behind their feud: AI is good or bad for you. Until it's not.

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It's always going to be entertaining when two leading luminaries in the tech industry start slinging a little mud at each other.

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And so it was early this week, when Tesla and SpaceX's Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg traded jibes on social media over what they believe is the future potential of AI.

During a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday, a viewer posed this question to Zuckerberg: "I watched a recent interview with Elon Musk and his largest fear for the future was AI. What are your thoughts on AI and how could it affect the world?"

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Zuckerberg didn't hold back: "I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic. And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios - I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible," said the Facebook CEO who has spoken at length in the past about how AI can save lives in diagnosis of diseases as well as driverless cars.

"One of the top causes of death for people is car accidents, still, and if you can eliminate that with AI, that is going to be just a dramatic improvement," said Zuckerberg.

Musk was at his dismissive best: "I've talked to Mark about this," he wrote. "His understanding of the subject is limited," was his brief but effective, Twitter-aided counterpunch.

There is, of course, some history to all of this. Musk has for some time now has been the tech world's Nostradamus, warning us about an eventual "evil AI" where machines, much like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, outstrip human intelligence and cause our own destruction if not properly monitored and regulated.

"We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes," tweeted Musk in 2014. A few months later he followed this up by saying that he is "increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish."

Paranoid delusions thanks to sleepless nights tweaking both Tesla's and SpaceX's business models? Unclear for now. But there is apparently enough merit in Musk's comments to bring no less a space aficionado than physicist Stephen Hawking onto his side when he said this in a video appearance at the 2017 Global Mobile Internet Conference Beijing. "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and could be superseded by AI."

Musk is no idle spinner of grand thoughts. He puts his money where his mouth is, having co-created a non-profit called Open AI that, flush with a $1 billion investment, aims to make sure that AI is omnipresent and not subject to abuse by any one person or Skynet-like entity. Both Hawking and Musk are also co-signators of the Asilomar AI Principles, a 23-point roadmap to ensure that AI would be used for good in the future.

Plus, Musk -- ever the busy-bee -- has also formed Neuralink, a company that aims to make humans into cyborgs with the help of a "neural lace" studded with electrodes that enmeshes the brain -- a concept still very much in fantasy land for now -- so we can keep pace with machines.

All of this is fine and dandy but as far as Zuckerberg is concerned it doesn't do much to curb the rancor that may still lurk in him due to a prior misadventure linking the two strong personalities. Last year, a SpaceX rocket carrying a Facebook satellite that was earmarked for spreading internet connectivity blew up on its launchpad.

Zuckerberg was very candid about how he felt and who was responsible for the fiasco. "As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent." (The satellite did not belong to Facebook but was built by Israeli company Spacecom, jointly leased by Facebook along with French satellite company Eutelsat for five years and insured.)

Of course the growing ill-will between these tech billionaires contains some delicious ironies pointed out by website Arstechnica. Zuckerberg's pro-AI comments are almost exactly like those made by Musk in defense of his Tesla cars, especially in the wake of some high-profile accidents recently.

Facebook for its part has had a large number of AI-driven fake news incidents, and now moderations occur not by efficient low-cost machines but thousands of low-cost contract workers.

The moral of this story: AI is good or bad for you. Until it's not.

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