Elon Musk urges governments to protect public from AI

By on 19/11/2019
Elon Musk: “There should be, in my view, a government agency that oversees anything related to AI to confirm that it does not represent a public safety risk.” (Image courtesy: JD Lasica/flickr).

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) is a potential danger to the public, arguing that governments should step in quickly to manage the risks.

Musk, the investor and engineer behind companies such as Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink, was speaking on the Lex Fridman Artificial Intelligence podcast last week.

Asked by Fridman to identify the most promising or interesting investment opportunity, Musk responded: “I think there’s a tremendous amount of investment going on in AI. Where there is a lack of investment is in AI safety, and there should be, in my view, a government agency that oversees anything related to AI to confirm that it does not represent a public safety risk.”

He referred to US agencies responsible for public safety such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’ve generally come to the conclusion that it is important to have a government referee, or a referee that is serving the public interest, in ensuring that things are safe when there’s a potential danger to the public,” he said.  

“I would argue that AI is unequivocally something that has potential to be dangerous to the public and therefore should have a regulatory agency just as other things that are dangerous to the public have a regulatory agency. But let me tell you, the problem with this is that the government moves very slowly: usually, the way a regulatory agency comes into being is that something terrible happens, there’s a huge public outcry and years after that there’s a regulatory agency or a rule put in place.”

“Regulatory capture of government”

Musk gave the example of seatbelts, which became mandatory in the US in 1968, and the tobacco industry’s fight against smoking regulation. “It was known for a decade or more that seatbelts would have a massive impact on safety and save so many lives and serious injuries. And the car industry fought the requirements to put seatbelts in tooth and nail. Hundreds of thousands of people probably died because of that,” Musk said. “And look at the tobacco industry and how long they fought anything about smoking… you can see just how pernicious it can be when you have these companies [which] effectively achieve regulatory capture of government.”

He said that people in the AI community refer to the advent of “digital superintelligence as a singularity”. AI itself isn’t necessarily good or bad, he suggested, but those involved in developing AI admit “it is very difficult to predict what will happen after that point”.

“There’s some probability it will be bad, some probability it will be good. We want to affect that probability and have it be more good than bad,” Musk said.

AI “biggest existential threat” to humanity

In 2014, Musk dubbed AI the “biggest existential threat” faced by humanity. He has long been a vocal supporter of regulating the emerging technology.

Discussing the dangers of AI at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China, in August this year, he said, as reported by the Daily Express, that the trajectory of AI development will result in machines that will surpass humans in virtually “every single way”.

He said: “I think generally people underestimate the capability of AI. They sort of think it’s like a smart human, but it’s really going to be much more than that. It’ll be much smarter than the average human.”

Many countries have recently moved to put measures in place that aim to protect the public from the potential dangers of AI, including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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