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Tech think-tank calls Tesla’s Elon Musk a ‘luddite’ for comparing artificial intelligence to killer robots

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Washington thinktank claims SpaceX founder, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, are contributing to ‘alarmist’ concern about machine intelligence

By Emily Price, The Guardian

It has been a remarkable year for Elon Musk, the CEO of the high-end electric car company Tesla and SpaceX, which on Monday announced that it had successfully launched and then returned a rocket to Earth.

His pioneering contribution towards cheaper, and less resource-intensive transportation means he is generally considered one of technology’s most successful innovators. Yet Musk has just been labelled “a luddite” by a Washington-based policy thinktank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which shortlisted him for its annual Luddite Awards.

The Luddite Award is an annual award named after an Englishman named Ned Ludd, who was behind a movement to destroy mechanized looms in the early 19th century. The award is given to the worst offender of the year when it comes to foiling technological progress. While many might consider a “luddite” as someone who is a late adopter of technology, the group defines it as “someone who seeks to hold back the introduction of new technologies”.

Here’s the full list of this year’s nominees:

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  • Alarmists tout an artificial intelligence (AI) apocalypse
  • Advocates seek a ban on “killer robots”
  • States limit automatic license plate readers
  • Europe, China, and others choose taxi drivers over car-sharing passengers
  • The paper industry opposes e-labeling
  • California’s governor vetoes RFID in driver’s licenses
  • Wyoming outlaws citizen science
  • The Federal Communications Commission limits broadband innovation
  • The Center for Food Safety fights genetically improved food
  • Ohio and others ban red light cameras

Alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates and British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Musk is labelled an “alarmist” who is touting an existential threat if humans were to lose control of artificial intelligence.

The group acknowledges that machine paranoia has been present in pop culture for more than 200 years, and is spread through things like books, music, and movies, including recent films the Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Terminator: Genisys, which both have digital villains.

“In his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford professor Nick Bostrom reflected the general fear that ‘superintelligence’ in machines could outperform ‘the best human minds in every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills’. He argues that artificial intelligence will advance to a point where its goals are no longer compatible with that of humans and, as a result, superintelligent machines will seek to enslave or exterminate us,” states IFIT.

“Most of us are rightly amazed at AI applications like IBM’s Watson, our Nest thermostat that learns, and other learning devices. But to say that these devices and systems will be smart enough to take over the world is to misunderstand what AI is and where it stands today.

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“Whether such systems will ever develop full autonomy is a debatable question, but what should not be debatable is that this possible future is a long, long way off (more like a century than a decade), and it is therefore premature to be worrying about ‘Skynet’ becoming self-aware. Raising such sci-fi doomsday scenarios just makes it harder for the public, policymakers, and scientists to support more funding for AI research.”

Musk mentioned the Terminator movies in a CNBC interview earlier this year where he discussed some of his concerns with AI.

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t think – in the movie Terminator, they didn’t create AI to – they didn’t expect, you know some sort of Terminator-like outcome,” he said. “It is sort of like the Monty Python thing: Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition. It’s just – you know, but you have to be careful.”

When asked what AI should be used for, Musk said: “I don’t know. But there are some scary outcomes. And we should try to make sure the outcomes are good, not bad.”

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ITIF feels that the way AI is being portrayed will ultimately have a negative effect on the advancement of the technology.

Despite his cautionary statements, Musk also recently offered financial backing to OpenAI, a non-profit artificial intelligence research company. The group’s goal is to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return”, it states.

Rather than choose a winner on its own, the ITIF has put all 10 of the final contenders up for a public vote. The public can vote on who should be crowned 2015’s winner now, with the result expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
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