At the end of August, two prestigious names in the technology and business world graced the stage of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. The Chinese television station that broadcast the debate between Jack Ma, (CEO of Alibaba) and hyperreal hero Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and the Boring Company) gave the title, “Sparkle in Wisdom” to their confrontation.
Reporting on the dialogue between Ma and Musk, David Dawkins, who covers “the work and wealth of Europe’s richest” for Forbes, offers the following flattering description of the event: “With a combined net worth of over $56 billion, the pair delved deep into the potential benefits and consequences of this burgeoning technology.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A verb that can be used to describe either the deep exploration of serious themes by focused thinkers or the superficial banter of unfocused billionaires
Anyone who has the patience to listen to the first five minutes, let alone the full conversation should notice a serious problem of intellectual bandwidth with this dialogue. Forbes apparently felt compelled to remind its readers of the combined net worth of the two speakers, which may have been the only way to sell a conversation that skirted awkwardly over the service of trendy issues without ever delving into anything.
The first point of conflict between the two men concerned the relative power of human and artificial intelligence (AI). Musk insisted that human intelligence will be vastly and dangerously overshadowed by AI. The superficiality of his all-too-human (and faulty) reasoning throughout the conversation was perhaps designed to bring home that point. There can be little doubt that a smart computer with good text-to-speech technology would produce utterances far more “sparkling” than either Musk’s or Ma’s.
What did we learn from their scintillating conversation? Dawkins informs us that the two men don’t agree on what’s in store for the world, but he fails to note that neither of the speakers seriously delves into why they don’t agree. We learn that “Musk argued that ‘people think of AI as a smart human; it’s going to be much more than that.’” But there’s a problem of accuracy here. Musk didn’t “argue,” he simply affirmed. Arguing might imply defining what one means by both “smart” and “human.” What we witness is simply a confrontation of personal beliefs.
For example, Ma claims that “people like us” (people made rich by technology?) want to embrace AI because they are confident they can control it. Musk, who prefers spreading fear, simply replied: “Famous last words.” He does make the argument that technological progress “is outpacing our ability to understand it,” but doesn’t explain the ways in which the failure to understand may be considered dangerous.
Musk is right, of course, but the notion of “understanding” (of what and by whom?) needs to be defined if we want to delve into the social, political and moral aspects of the question. Musk’s message appears to be that it’s going to be incredibly destructive and so we need to find an escape hatch.
The escape hatch he’s interested in, as everyone should know, is his vision of colonizing Mars. When Ma objected that we have more urgent problems to deal with on Earth, Musk claimed that “it’s important for us to take a set of actions that are most likely to continue consciousness into the future.” But what does he mean by “consciousness,” which may be the most contentiously debated notion in contemporary philosophy and science? Instead of explaining, he segues into a random thought about the fact that we have not discovered any trace of aliens anywhere in the universe.
From his discourse, Musk seems to believe that “we” (the human race, technology geeks like himself, the US, Western civilization?… none of this is clear) have a mission to defend consciousness (human intelligence?).
Here is how Musk frames his most cogent explanation: “This is the first time in the four and a half billion year history of Earth that it’s been possible to extend life beyond Earth.” This reveals something about his high-tech value system: If something is technically possible, it must be tried, which may explain Musk’s fear of AI.
Following the same logic, one could argue that for the first time in history, automatic rifles make it possible to slaughter 25 children in a school or a shopping mall, which helps to explain why mass killers are regularly proving it can be done. Musk seems to believe that evil people will use technology to evil ends, which is undoubtedly true. His conclusion appears to be that good people (like himself) must use it for noble missions, such as the need to “continue consciousness into the future.” This is very similar to the National Rifle Association’s reasoning that the answer to bad people is making sure good people have guns.
Musk has a mission that has nothing to do with Mars, but with the future of “consciousness.” He perhaps imagines that once he lands a few dozen people on Mars, he will be in a position to stand in front of a banner that proudly proclaims “Mission Accomplished.” Ma’s answer to that is to “care about how we can enjoy better” because he is “very pro-Earth,” as if it was a consumer choice or a commercial competition. Earth or Mars, take your pick.
Returning to the theme of AI and the fact that for the first time in history people can become cyborgs, Musk suggests another mission to humanity: “We’re going to have to figure out this neurolink situation, otherwise we will be left behind. We don’t have much time to solve the neurolink problem.” Ma’s mission, in contrast, focuses on finding ways for people to be happy in the future. The optimist vs. the pessimist. Ma thinks the key to future happiness will come from improving education, to focus on being “more creative, constructive” rather than learning by rote. Musk thinks people should study engineering and coding.
The level of banality and ill-formulated thoughts in the conversation never went beyond expressing such superficial opinions. The result was beyond embarrassing. Perhaps the content of this discussion represents one of the final outcomes of our techno-capitalist civilization’s recent historical evolution. It’s all about wealth (Forbes made it clear by highlighting the two men’s combined assets), celebrity (directly associated with wealth), the mastery of technology directed towards commercial (Alibaba) and politico-military ends (SpaceX, Neuralink) and of course power, the ability to dominate others commercially or militarily.
In some ways, the whole debate may reflect the cliché, proverbial in the US: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Dawkins seems to count on the reader’s belief that if these men are so rich, they must be smart. And if they’re smart, they’re worth listening to, especially when they talk about the future. Apparently, the same was true of Jeffrey Epstein, who managed to earn the respect of scientists as well as politicians for his utterly specious scientific theories, simply because of his wealth.
The truth lies elsewhere, a truth that the wise but not necessarily the smart recognize. One techie, Roger Kay, also writing for Forbes, commenting on the cliché, sums it up: “The correlation between intelligence and wealth is tenuous at best. And wisdom — as distinct from intelligence — might at some point lead you away from riches.”
Perhaps that’s the distinction we should retain. AI may reign in the future, but no one is even thinking about how to invent AW (artificial wisdom). The great moral question remains unanswered: Is there any point in having intelligence without wisdom?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.