AI Taking Over the World: Jack Ma and Musk Discuss in Shanghai


It just doesn’t get any bigger when you have Jack Ma and Elon Musk on the same stage, and especially when both are pitched against one another. This seemingly incredible event took place when the organizers of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai arranged a debate between Alibaba’s billionaire chairman Jack Ma and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The leading tech entrepreneurs riffed on AI, chimpanzees, aliens, work cultures and Musk’s obsession with Mars during a wide-ranging and often quite productive, and at the same time a bizarre discussion.

The businessmen are two of the most influential tech leaders shaping the world today.

US-based Mr. Musk made his fortune at the digital payments firm PayPal before going on to run electric car-maker Tesla, space rocket company SpaceX and tunnel-transport business The Boring Company among other ventures. He also helped create OpenAI, a San Francisco-based AI research company, although he has since broken ties with it.

Mr. Ma co-founded Alibaba, which rivals Amazon for the title of the world’s largest e-tailer and is also one of the world’s largest cloud computing providers. The group is one of the world’s biggest spenders on AI, both within its own business as well as via investments in dozens of third-party companies.

Their 45-minute conversation kicked off the World AI Conference (WAIC), which ties into China’s goal of overtaking the US to become the world’s leading artificial intelligence innovator by 2030.

The hot topic in the hour-long talk was AI, which has provoked increasing concern among scientists such as late British cosmologist Stephen Hawking who warned that it will eventually turn on and “annihilate” humanity.

Tesla’s Musk argued that “people think of AI like a smart human, but it’s going to be much more than that.” Tesla’s CEO likened the plight of ordinary humans trying to understand AI to that of chimpanzees trying to understand humans. “We must just seem like strange aliens,” he said, adding, “If the difference is only that small, that would be amazing.”

Musk, who also owns brain implant startup Neuralink, said that the biggest problem he’s facing right now is that the researchers “can’t imagine something smarter than themselves”. On the AI systems of the future, Musk adds, “I hope they’re nice.” Continuing on the disparity between humans and AI, Musk describes the speed with which humans will communicate with AI as being like “very low tonal wheezing … kind of like whale sounds.”

Jack Ma, on the other hand, argued for the potential human gain from AI technology and what it can help us understand about ourselves. “I don’t think that artificial intelligence is a threat. I don’t think that it’s something terrible.  Human beings are smart enough to learn that.” To which Musk added, “I dunno, man. Famous last words.”

The debate at times turned heated, especially when Ma questioned his opponent’s belief that AI may someday prevail over the human race. “The biggest mistake I see people making is to assume they’re smart,” Musk countered. AI will be “much smarter than the smartest human you will ever know.” The two did, however, agree on one topic: that one of the biggest problems the world is facing is population explosion that is getting more and more unsustainable by the day.

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