Multibillionaire and hyperreal hero Elon Musk shocked the world last week when he dramatically tweeted that he is “selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house.” One of his fans tweeted back with this question: “Are you doing it because you need the cash or is this to protest the world burning down?” Musk dutifully clarified: “Don’t need the cash. Devoting myself to Mars and Earth. Possession [sic] just weigh you down.”
Although some claim that he does need the cash to exercise a stock option “worth more than $1 billion” that would require him to produce $592 million in cash, Musk reiterated his purest intentions when he appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast. The podcast went on to explore numerous other themes, including the activity of Neuralink, the company Musk created to produce implantable brain-machine interfaces.
Do You Need Intelligence to Get Through University?
In an article with the title, “Elon Musk predicts people won’t have to talk in 10 years because they’ll be able to use an alien-like mind language to communicate without words,” Business Insider highlighted Musk’s claims that artificial intelligence (AI) could eventually replace human language. Unfortunately, Musk’s uncertain mastery of the English language (or of coherent thought) prevented him from explaining how that might work.
Rogan tried to reformulate Musk’s confusing explanation: “One day in the future there’s going to come a time where you can read each other’s minds and you’ll be able to interface with each other in some sort of a nonverbal, non-physical way where you will transfer data back and forth to each other without having to actually use your mouth?” Musk replied: “Yeah. Exactly.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1) The capacity to understand immediately and spontaneously unexpressed intentions originating in another person’s brain
2) The illusion that thoughts reduced to data can be transmitted efficiently from one mind to another, a persistent object of belief typically held by people who have no idea of what thinking consists of and who, at the same time, are convinced that reality is nothing more than the discrete data (bits) they believe their technology can extract from it
Rogan began his career as a standup comedian and only later became famous as a commentator for extreme sports. Successful comedians tend to develop a sense of irony as a professional skill. This is true even in US culture, which, broadly speaking, has never managed to integrate irony into its range of standard social skills.
Rogan puts his skill on display in subtle ways throughout the interview. At different moments, he seeks to deepen the conversation by politely reformulating Musk’s most outlandish ideas to make them appear credible, while at the same time consciously highlighting their absurdity. It’s an excellent interviewing technique that aims at clarification and the resolution of logical inconsistency. The question cited above provides an example of this approach.
Throughout the interview, Musk fails to acknowledge Rogan’s challenge to his ideas. At best, he agrees with the reformulations. This has the eerie effect of revealing Musk’s fundamental inability to process multiple levels of thought. He fails to perceive the meaning of Rogan’s questions or the fact that Rogan’s polite and respectful interviewing techniques are designed to sympathetically challenge Musk’s craziest ideas.
The conversation leaves the listener with the uncomfortable impression that, outside of mechanical subjects like electric vehicles and rockets, Elon Musk doesn’t have a clear thought in his head about any of the complex human issues that surround the technically innovative work his enterprises are engaged in.
At one point, Rogan politely provides Musk with an excuse for this failure to understand when he marvels at Musk’s capacity to manage so many businesses. How could someone so busy transforming the world and preparing to send the Earth’s population to Mars have time to reflect on anything other than the production issues associated with the myriad devices he produces?
Rogan plays the Candide throughout the interview — he is authentically curious and naive. He frequently appears to have a deeper understanding of the issues Musk claims to be pioneering. And on every occasion, Musk fails to provide any insight to answer Rogan’s concerns. For example, early in the interview, Rogan asks an interesting question in response to Musk’s claims that AI will surpass human intelligence: “Do you try to achieve the same results as a human brain through different methods, or do you try to copy the way a human brain achieves results?” A decent and honest answer would clarify the true ambitions of AI and its potential impact on society.
Attempting to answer the question, Musk hesitates, dithers and finally delivers some confusing techno-babble: “The essential elements of an AI neural net are really very similar to a human brain neural net, having the multiple layers of neurons and, you know, backpropagation. All these things are what your brain dis [sic].” Musk isn’t sure whether to say “does” or “is” and so intriguingly (but unwittingly) creates a portmanteau word, “dis.” Apart from the problem of conjugating it, this neologism could be a real contribution to English vocabulary. Physicists, for example, might be grateful to discover a verb that will allow them to designate an aspect of quantum reality: the simultaneous superposed state of doing (wave) and being (particle), as in the sentence: This is what Schrodinger’s cat dis inside the box.
Rogan’s question was as precise as it was important. Musk never answered it. He appeared not to understand it. Rogan sometimes manages to add useful clarity to Musk’s ideas, but for the most part they remain either banal, confused, utterly absurd, antisocial or tautological.
As a public personality, Elon Musk embodies a worrying historical trend: the increasing domination of technoculture largely due to the media’s unqualified admiration for both technological innovation and personal wealth. Musk brings both together on an explosive scale.
The Rogan interview demonstrates the most significant risk: the destruction of language. Joe Rogan himself senses that the undermining of language means the destruction of social culture and its replacement by data culture. His attempts to push Musk to admit as much falter, as Musk demonstrates his continued incapacity to understand. Here is Musk’s attempt to explain the advantage of cyborg mind-reading: “You would be able to communicate — very quickly and with far more precision — ideas … I’m not sure what would happen to language.”
Does Musk have any idea of what “ideas” are? From his discourse, his notion of ideas appears to be strictly behaviorist and modeled on the lowest common denominator of value in the consumer society. Thoughts are reduced to expressions of need or desire. Ideas, such as Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity or Medicare for All, require language and the ability to produce layers of meaning. For example, the idea that technoculture is destroying social culture cannot be reduced to data bits and communicated through electrical impulses. And yet it is an idea and one worth exploring. Musk appears to believe that ideas correspond to little more than the impulses felt by Pavlovian dogs.
Rogan himself may lack the philosophical culture to raise such issues in a discussion, but he offers Musk opportunities to demonstrate his ability to “think” rather than simply repeat techno memes. Musk consistently fails to take the bait. Instead, we get dialogue along these lines:
Musk: I hope that the future is more fun and interesting and we should try to make it that way.
Rogan I hope it’s more fun and interesting too. I just hope we don’t lose anything along the way.
Musk: A little, but hopefully we’ll gain more than we’ll lose.
At one point, Rogan raises a serious sociopolitical issue. Musk declares: “If you want to be along for the ride, then you need to do some kind of symbiosis.” This will give the person who does so a competitive advantage. Rogan points out that the cost of access to artificial intelligence will further exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Musk’s response is worthy of a modern-day Marie Antoinette: “You could take out a loan and earn the money back superfast.”
And with your future profits, you could book a place on one of Musk’s rockets to Mars.
*[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.]
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