Tomorrow’s world is rapidly becoming a present-day reality and technology is set to play a leading role.
That’s the view from two of the world’s most prominent industrialist tech entrepreneurs, Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma and Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk, who kicked off the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai yesterday.
Mr Musk gained prominence after launching digital payments giant PayPal before settling into his primary role of developing electric car-maker Tesla.
He is also an avid supporter of space exploration and travelling to Mars as part of SpaceX. In addition, he also helped establish OpenAI, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence (AI) research company.
Meanwhile, Mr Ma co-founded China’s leading internet company that rivals the likes of Google and Amazon.
Alibaba has spent billions on becoming an established cloud-computing provider, a large e-retailer and spends big on AI development including investments in dozens of third-party companies.
During a candid 45-minute discussion panel, the two figureheads rifled through a range of topics including AI, the utility of labour, working hours, education, life expectancy, colonising Mars and the future of society.
If their predictions become reality, billions of people’s lives will be greatly affected – for better and/or worse depending on perspective and the socio-economic class people occupy.
The underlying theme of futurism and how technology will shape tomorrow’s world was the primary focus although the pair disagreed on several fronts including how technology can be best applied.
Some of the biggest points of contention were whether humanity should focus more on space exploration and becoming an “interplanetary species” including Mars colonisation, or, whether humanity should focus more on developing the home we already have.
Mr Musk was particularly excited about the prospect of venturing deeper into space and finding an alternative place for humanity to dwell, whereas Mr Ma was keen to discover what lies deep within human beings and the Earth.
Dawn of artificial intelligence
With technological development moving at a breakneck pace, Mr Ma and Mr Musk both see a brave new world made possible by artificial intelligence.
According to Mr Musk, “computers are much smarter than humans on so many dimensions,” but Mr Ma had a contrary view and explained that although computers may be clever, human beings always remain superior to machines.
“We invented the computer, but I’ve never seen a computer invent a human being,” he pointed out.
Mr Musk is adamant that computers are rapidly outsmarting humans with the trend not only likely to continue, but accelerate in parallel with technology in line with Moore’s Law – named after Gordon Moore, a former Intel chief executive officer, whose 1965 paper described a doubling every year in the number of components per integrated circuit.
“We will be far, far surpassed in every single way. I guarantee it,” said Mr Musk.
To demonstrate the extent of future AI dominance, Mr Musk offered an analogy to illustrate the future chasm between humans and AI.
He explained that humans will see AI-powered machines of the future, “as chimpanzees see humans today: strange aliens that cannot be fully understood”.
Collapse of population growth
Possibly the most controversial topic discussed by the tech wizards was population growth.
Whereas most figures and population censuses are forecasting consistent expansion (from around 7 billion today to around 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100), both Mr Musk and Mr Ma agreed that they foresee a “population collapse”.
In part due to growing wealth and standards of living (which typically cap growing populations), but also due to other socio-economic factors.
The tech duo sees population change as a huge risk factor, but also an opportunity in disguise.
“Now in China today, we have 18 million new babies born every year, which is not enough. We need to have much more than that,” said Mr Ma.
“I think the best resources of the human beings, or the best resources on the earth are not the coal, not the oil, not the electricity, it’s the human brains,” he said.
Mr Musk echoed this sentiment and said: “I am worried about the birth rate. Most people think we have too many people on the planet. But, actually, this is an outdated view. I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse. Collapse, I want to emphasize this. The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse – not explosion, collapse.”
Mr Ma focused many of his comments on how machine learning could act as a force for good, saying that it was something “to embrace” and that it would deliver fresh insights into how people think.
“When human beings understand ourselves better, then we can improve the world,” he explained.
Furthermore, Mr Ma predicts that AI will be leveraged to create new industries and forever change the role of work in society. Communities could be built so that manufacturing would require labour time and be centred on creative tasks.
“I think people should work three days a week, four hours a day. At that time, we are going to have a lot of jobs which nobody will want to do. So, we need artificial intelligence for the robots to take care of the old guys.”
In contrast, Mr Musk believes that mass unemployment is a major risk factor.
“AI will make jobs kind of pointless. Probably the last job that will remain will be writing AI, and then eventually, the AI will just write its own software.”
The writing on the wall is clear.
We are moving towards self-aware, self-learning and self-coding machines that would not require human intervention of any kind. Just as the sci-fi writers once predicted – a race of machines that can function independently and become a de-facto new species.
Mr Musk predicted that human civilisation is at risk of coming to an end and could succumb to being remembered as a staging post for a superior type of life.
“You could sort of think of humanity as a biological boot loader for digital super-intelligence,” Mr Musk said.
In other words (and a tad worrying for society as a whole), Mr Musk believes that humanity was a mere launch pad for AI, and that the true colonisers of Earth and the natural world are artificial robots and machines, given their superior intellectual capacity, bandwidth and calculation ability in comparison to people.
In Mr Musk’s eyes, if natural evolution brought us to this point, now is the time for artificial machines to take over macro development.
This view has been criticised by many religious groups, philosophers, humanitarians and environmentalists alike for seeing life as a mechanical construct without considering metaphysical aspects such as the soul, spirituality, higher consciousness, divinity and God.
On the road to somewhere or nowhere
The future isn’t just coming, it’s already here.
The dawn of AI computing, electronics, automation and mechanisation is terraforming the very foundations of civilisation to the point of incredulity and sheer disbelief, given the rate of progress in recent years.
Society is undergoing a shift towards an increasing reliance on technology including the invention of neural links with computers, cyborgs, sentient robots, self-coding computers and cybernetically merging human minds with machines.
The so-called ‘Skynet’ first postulated by sci-fi script writers is now on the cusp of becoming a reality – but is this reality worth it?
Volunteering to become an inferior species may not work out as well as we’d hope, and could well be a detriment of humanity and the natural world.
Despite the reservations, a futuristic sci-fi world as seen in Hollywood movies is careering into view, while the tech pioneers who design the technology that is re-shaping the world are, in effect, assuming the role of social engineers and emperors.
The bottom line is that technological progress is creating as much division as it does unification.
AI may well deliver a host of material benefits and creature comforts for billions of people, but for billions more, natural intelligence will always be preferable.
A brave new world indeed.