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Mark Zuckerberg Thinks Elon Musk is Wrong on AI

By Sam Mattera - Apr 29, 2016 at 3:43PM

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The founders of Tesla and Facebook disagree when it comes to the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduces the Model X. Source: Tesla.

I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that. So we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence...With artificial intelligence, we're summoning the demon. You know those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he's like -- Yeah, he's sure he can control the demon? Doesn't work out. -- Elon Musk (via TechCrunch)

Famed entrepreneur Elon Musk has been a regular Chicken Little when it comes to artificial intelligence. The billionaire founder of both Tesla (TSLA -6.42%) and SpaceX has spoken out about the dangers of the emerging technology on several occasions in recent years, warning that it could bring disastrous consequences for all of humanity. 

Facebook's (FB 1.18%) CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn't buying it. In an interview with Germany's Axel Springer (via Business Insider), the founder of the social network characterized Musk's warnings as "hysterical." While the discussion may seem somewhat nebulous, bordering on the realm of science fiction, artificial intelligence is one of Facebook's central prerogatives, and it could become fundamental to the company's business model in the years ahead.

It's nothing to worry about
Zuckerberg touched on several subjects in his conversation with Axel Springer's CEO Mathias Döpfner, but one of the more interesting points of the discussion centered on artificial intelligence. 

Döpfner: Can you understand the concerns that business magnate Elon Musk has expressed in that context? He seriously fears that artificial intelligence could one day dominate and take over the human brain, that the machine would be stronger than men. You think that is a valid fear or do you think it's hysterical?

Zuckerberg: I think it is more hysterical. 

Döpfner: How can we make sure that computers and robots are serving people and not the other way around?

Zuckerberg: I think that the default is that all the machines that we build serve humans so unless we really mess something up I think it should stay that way.


Döpfner: So this is science fiction fantasy and is not going to happen in real life and we don't need to worry about the safety of human intelligence?

Zuckerberg: I think that along the way, we will also figure out how to make it safe. The dialogue today kind of reminds me of someone in the 1800s sitting around and saying: one day we might have planes and they may crash. Nonetheless, people developed planes first and then took care of flight safety. If people were focused on safety first, no one would ever have built a plane. This fearful thinking might be standing in the way of real progress.

Two different business models
Musk's companies are pursuing a wide variety of interesting new technologies, but none center around artificial intelligence. Tesla, for example, remains committed to changing the automotive industry, slowly shifting the market from traditional internal combustion engines to electric cars. Tesla's challenges relate to its battery technology, its distribution network, and the world's long-entrenched addiction to fossil fuels. Better batteries and more favorable laws surrounding dealer networks would benefit the company. Tesla's autopilot software does, somewhat ironically, represent a form of artificial intelligence, but outside of it's self-driving aspirations, it's not clear how artificial intelligence would help drive Tesla's core business forward.

Facebook, in contrast, is committed wholeheartedly. "Artificial intelligence is a long-term effort for us," Zuckerberg said on the company's most recent earnings call. "But we're already using it in lots of ways. Right now, our Moments app is using face recognition to help you share pictures with your friends. We're using AI to show the most relevant content in news feeds, filter spam and messaging, and even help blind people understand what's in their friends' photos by reading explanations of them aloud."

AI also factors heavily into Facebook's bet on chatbots. Earlier this month at its F8 developer conference, Facebook announced an aggressive new effort to court businesses for its messenger platform. By leaning on the power of AI, businesses can create chat bots to interact with their customers. Zuckerberg touched on how AI could factor into Messenger's long-term future on the company's most recent earnings call.

A lot of people every day in Facebook...are already messaging pages and businesses directly, and the businesses respond. But what we've actually also found is that through some of our AI research, we can look at the responses that businesses give to common questions and can confidently provide the right reply...

For now, the differing views of Musk and Zuckerberg isn't having an effect on Facebook's business, but that may not always be the case. "I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight [for artificial intelligence technology], maybe at the national and international level," Musk said. The last thing Facebook needs is government regulators clamping down on Messenger or Newsfeed.

For now, Facebook's AI efforts remain relatively pedestrian, but the company's ambitions are much broader. For long-term Facebook shareholders, the discussion surrounding AI may be just as relevant as the company's most recent quarterly earnings report.

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