Mark Zuckerberg Is A Bad Futurist

07/26/2017 07:56 pm ET

Elon Musk’s doomsday AI predictions aren’t “irresponsible,” but Mark Zuckerberg’s techno-optimism is.

Mark Zuckerberg criticized Elon Musk on Sunday for warning a group of governors that artificial intelligence poses a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” During a Facebook Live broadcast from his backyard, Zuckerberg said Musk’s cautioning was “pretty irresponsible,” and “really negative.”

“I think that people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios. … I don’t understand it. It’s really negative, and, in some ways, I actually think it’s pretty irresponsible. ... [People] can build things and the world gets better. But people who are arguing for slowing down the process of building AI, I just find that really questionable. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. If you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents and you’re arguing against being able to better diagnose people when they’re sick.”

But at a time when some of the brightest minds on the planet are saying that AI could pose a significant existential threat, isn’t it more irresponsible to dismiss Musk’s warnings, in favor of keeping people blindly optimistic about technology? Zuckerberg’s relentless techno-optimism is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst. Here’s why:

1. A good “futurist” is capable of imagining and exploring all future scenarios, not just the positive ones.

Yes, AI may help save lives, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take lives, too. At this stage, we know so little about how AI will develop that both scenarios are equally plausible, and every possible scenario deserves careful consideration.

Zuckerberg argues that AI, like every new technology, can be used for good or for bad. But as Musk pointed out in his speech, the AI revolution is expected to be qualitatively different than other technological advancements. Once a superintelligent AI emerges, the option of steering AI to be good or bad (whatever that may mean) may no longer be in our control. And to assume that humans will stay in control, despite having a drastically inferior intelligence, is just arrogant.

2. Technology needs more “nay-sayers” like Musk.

We already live in a world that worships technology and believes almost anything could be improved if you slap an algorithm on it. Wouldn’t society be better off if we had more thinkers like Musk that were willing to ponder the disaster storylines, instead of having blind faith in black-box technology?

Zuckerberg’s optimism may be uplifting and on-brand and great for Facebook PR, but it doesn’t help motivate people to prepare for and prevent the potential negative consequences of technology. Tackling tech challenges with a build-it-and-see-what-happens approach (a la Zuckerberg’s former “move fast and break things” development mantra) just isn’t suitable for AI. As Musk put it, “By the time we are reactive in regulation, it’s too late.” We’ve already seen some of the negative effects of AI emerge, and this is likely only the beginning.

3. No one’s saying we should halt progress on AI altogether; rather, experts like Musk believe we need to be thoughtful and think critically about how we move forward with it.

Elon Musk doesn’t just have it out for AI — this is the same man who expects us to let AIs drive us around, after all — he just wants policymakers to start considering regulations for AI. Asking governors to entertain possible consequences of AI isn’t “irresponsible,” in fact, it’s the only responsible thing to do.

He wants the industry to hit pause and think before building out the most significant technology of our species’ existence. What’s unreasonable about that?

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