Elon Musk and Jack Ma met at the World AI Conference and didn’t quite see eye to eye

On Wednesday, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, two business titans came together to debate the future of AI 

Jack Ma and Elon Musk, two of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 21st century, took to the stage to speak in front of a packed auditorium at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China.

Musk began in typical fashion, his words littered with pensive pauses, often glancing to the ceiling or an empty space in the distance to collect his thoughts. 

“I think generally people underestimate the capability of AI. They sort of think like it’s a smart human, but it’s really going to be much more than that,” said the CEO and founder of SpaceX and Tesla. “It’ll be much smarter than the smartest human.”

Musing on mankind’s inability to truly understand artificial intelligence, Musk drew a parallel with a chimpanzee’s comprehension of us.

“Can a chimpanzee really understand humans? Not really…We just seem like strange aliens.” 

AI will be smarter than humans

The two men, with a combined net worth of over $55 billion, sat opposite each other trading thoughts for close to an hour. Jack Ma’s breezy optimism dovetailed with Elon Musk’s trademark doom-laden meanderings through various streams of thought, as they discussed everything from space travel to video games and AI, often with differing viewpoints.

“The biggest mistake I see artificial intelligence researchers making is assuming that they’re intelligent. They’re not compared to AI…A lot of them cannot imagine something smarter than themselves, but AI will be vastly smarter.”

Elon Musk

Musk has been both a vocal critic of artificial intelligence and one of its biggest champions. He co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit company which focuses on research for positive human impact. The South African entrepreneur, who also holds Canadian and American citizenship, has previously called artificial intelligence humanity’s “biggest existential threat.”

But Jack Ma begs to differ. The 54-year-old Chinese business magnate believes that AI will be used for good. He thinks that AI should, and will, be used for introspection, to understand our innermost self, and not for looking at the outside world.

“I don’t think artificial intelligence is a threat,” Ma said.

“I don’t know man,” Musk replied, turning to offer a wry smile to the audience, “famous last words.”

Jack Ma and Elon Musk debated for almost an hour to a packed auditorium in Shanghai
Credit: New China TV

The future of artificial intelligence is a hot topic, prompting debate the world over. Some are optimistic, yet others are deeply fearful.

Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates have both spoken of the promise of artificial intelligence. On the other hand, Alan Turing said that it will “outstrip our feeble powers” and Stephen Hawking claimed that it could “spell the end of the human race.”

Rarely does a technology provoke such differing points of view. Perhaps because it is so difficult to grasp in full, and it is laced with all kinds of implications, both positive and negative, for humankind, do we find such wide-ranging opinions.

We may not know the answer to that age-old question: what does it mean for the future of humankind? What we do know is this: artificial intelligence is now woven into the very fabric of our society, and its roots are spreading exponentially.

We are already cyborgs, we just don’t know it yet

Soon, artificial intelligence will be integral to almost all aspects of life. It will factor into the morning commute, entertainment, healthcare, our industry, the clothes we wear and the food we choose to eat. Few decisions will be made by us without it. We will become one. Elon Musk believes that we already have. 

“We are already a cyborg,” he said. “We are so well integrated with our phones and our computers, the phone is almost like an extension of yourself.” 

Recently, Musk announced his latest venture, Neuralink. The company is developing a brain-machine interface using threads a quarter of the width of a human hair. With it, they aim to weaponise the human brain, no longer confining us to a “low data rate” of speech or typing. Neuralink wants to unleash our full potential.

The time it takes for us to process our thoughts, then to type or speak them, is limiting our capacity for understanding. To us humans that time feels insignificant. Lightning fast, almost. To a computer, Musk says, a millisecond feels like a lifetime, and human speech will sound like “very slow tonal wheezing…kind of like whale sounds.”

Musk believes that keeping up with technology is integral to human advancement, and Neuralink aims to enable us to do just that.

Where do we fit in an AI-dominant future?

The two billionaires also touched upon another topic of intense debate, the future of work for humankind. 

The role of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the workplaces of tomorrow cannot be understated. Computer systems communicating and learning from one and other in a hyper-connected global network will go some way to creating a workless, and worker-less, society. This prospect leaves some feeling fearful of a future with no place for them.

“Every technological revolution people start to worry, right?” Jack Ma said. 

“Last two hundred years we worried about the new technology going to take away all the jobs, actually we made a lot of jobs…Because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time enjoying being human beings.”

Jack Ma might be right. Many studies have found that, for all the fear surrounding job loss, new jobs will be created in their stead, because of artificial intelligence.

Musk, however, is less optimistic. He believes that without devices like Neuralink, the rate of change in technology will move so fast that it will outpace our ability to understand it. 

“I think we’re going to have to figure out this Neuralink situation otherwise we’ll be left behind. We don’t have much time.” 

There are gaps in our comprehension, so we cannot know for certain what will happen when a machine surpasses human intelligence. At this stage, it is impossible to tell whether or not it will destroy us, help us, or just flat-out ignore our insignificance.

But Elon Musk said that one thing we must do is “close the loop” by equipping ourselves with the knowledge to succeed in the future, by retraining or finding purpose in work which isn’t likely to be superseded by technology. “If you’re working on something that involves people or engineering, it’s probably a good approach,” he said.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em…Can we go along for the ride with AI?”

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Luke Conrad

Technology & Marketing Enthusiast

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