The potential for AI to augment human behavior, or possibly even supplant humans entirely, is something that both fascinates and terrifies Elon Musk. In interviews over the years, Musk hasn't been shy about sharing his dystopian vision of a Terminator-like scenario where machines hunt down and destroy their creators.
He has insisted that AI is a much greater risk to the US than North Korea. He even founded a company called Neuralink with the aim of linking human brains and computers - the only way for the human race to keep up with the onward march of AI, he insists.
And given Musk's similarly well-documented hostility toward anybody who doubts or disagrees with him, it's hardly a surprise that the Tesla founder squared off with Alibaba founder Jack Ma at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Thursday.
The two met on stage to debate the power of AI.
Unlike Musk, Ma believes that the potential for AI to upend human society has been vastly overhyped, and that AI technology doesn't pose a serious threat to humanity. Compared to humans, Ma said, computers are just a toy, adding that "it's impossible that humans could be controlled by machines. They're machines that are invented by humans," RT reports.
That anybody - let alone one of the world's wealthiest, most successful, individuals could embrace such a naive view is anathema to Musk, who didn't respond well to Ma challenging one of Musk's favorite orthodoxies.
Watch a clip from the debate below:
Elon Musk: Computers are much smarter than humans on so many dimensions.— Bloomberg Technology (@technology) August 29, 2019
Jack Ma: Computers may be clever, but human beings are much smarter. We invented the computer—I've never seen a computer invent a human being. https://t.co/FN2yeQk8o2 🤖 pic.twitter.com/O1hi06hOwV
To illustrate his point, Musk offered a clear-cut example. Computers are getting smarter every year, a trend that Musk insists will continue until they become the dominant species on the planet. He pointed to the advances made by artificial intelligence in games like Chess and the Chinese board game Go. It wasn't that long ago that IBM's Deep Blue first defeated Garry Kasparov in chess.
Now, every person carries a computer that could beat the world champion in their pockets, Musk added.
"We will be far, far surpassed in every single way. I guarantee it," Musk said to Ma."Your cell phone could crush the world champion of chess, literally."
Thinking that we are smarter than computers isn't just wrong, Musk said. It's dangerous.
"The most important mistake smart people make is that they think they’re smart. Computers are already smarter than people. We just keep moving the goalposts," he said.
Ma, who at times looked bored or slightly peeved by Musk's rudeness, disagreed. He tried to explain his view, that there's a difference between the intelligence displayed by computers and that displayed by humans.
"Computers may be clever, but human beings are much smarter," Ma repeated. "We invented the computer - I've never seen a computer invent a human being."
If anything, Ma said, AI will be a good thing for humanity, by helping humans "know themselves better".
"Most of the projections about AI are wrong...people who are street smart about AI are not scared by it."
"I think AI can help us understand humans better. I don't think it's a threat."
Undeterred, Ma said that some day, AI could help people reach a point where the average workweek is only 3 days long, with an average work day of four hours, creating more opportunities for people to enjoy life at a time when the average human lifespan will soon expand.
"We need to be ready to enter the era where everyone will get to live [to] 120 years," Ma said.
To this, Musk haughtily replied: "I don't know man, that's like, famous last words."