Tech titans' war of words on killer robots

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Elon Musk
Elon Musk

WASHINGTON • It is rare to hear someone question the comprehension skills of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. The billionaire, who revolutionised social media and won two billion monthly active users, is frequently lauded for his critical thinking and global vision.

Yet on Tuesday, Tesla chief executive and fellow billionaire Elon Musk said in a tweet that Zuckerberg's understanding of the threat posed by artificial intelligence "is limited". In Silicon Valley, at least, they are tech titan fighting words.

Musk's tweet was a response to a Facebook live broadcast that Zuckerberg did on Sunday, in which he was asked about Musk's strident warnings about robots becoming smart enough to kill their human creators. While grilling brisket in his backyard, he fielded viewers' questions, including on economic opportunity and the future of AI.

Without mentioning Musk by name, he said "people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios" are "negative and, in some ways, I think it's irresponsible".

He also argued that people "can build things and the world gets better".

He pointed out some of the ways in which he believes AI can save human lives, such as helping to enhance the safety of self-driving cars and to diagnose medical conditions. He argued that technology can be used for good or bad and that it is incumbent upon inventors to innovate with caution.

"Musk has been warning for years about the risk posed by AI, most recently telling a group of governors this month that they need to start regulating artificial intelligence, which he called a "fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation".

When pressed for concrete guidance, he said the government must get a better understanding of AI before it is too late. "Once there is awareness, people will be extremely afraid, as they should be," he said. "AI is a fundamental risk to the future of human civilisation in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not. They were harmful to a set of individuals in society, but they were not harmful to individuals as a whole."

After he dropped his dig at Zuckerberg on Twitter, thousands of retweets and "likes" followed.

He followed up his statement by noting that a "movie on the subject" is "coming soon", but did not provide details.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2017, with the headline 'Tech titans' war of words on killer robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe