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Elon Musk discusses new company xAI, ‘superintelligence,’ and China

TechnologyElon Musk discusses new company xAI, 'superintelligence,' and China

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Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of Twitter, Elon Musk attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on June 16, 2023 in Paris, France. 

Chesnot | Getty Images

In an hour-long discussion on Twitter Spaces on Wednesday night, Twitter owner and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reflected on the motivation behind his newest artificial intelligence venture, China’s relationship with the U.S. and the likelihood of AI creating a dismal future for humanity.

Musk participated in the discussion with two key members of Congress who sit on the House Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party: Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc. The event was billed as a conversation about the future of AI and came on a day that Musk launched his own new AI company, xAI.

Goals of xAI

Toward the beginning of the conversation, Musk explained his goal of creating xAI, describing it as a sort of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em situation.

“If I could press pause on AI or really advanced AI, digital superintelligence, I would,” said Musk, who co-founded one of the leading AI companies OpenAI, but left its board in 2018 and no longer holds a stake in the firm. “It doesn’t seem like that is realistic.”

As a result, he decided to “grow an AI in a good way.” To Musk, this means training it in such a way as to be “maximally curious, maximally truth-seeking.”

“I think a maximally curious AI, one that is just trying to sort of understand the universe is, I think, going to be pro-humanity,” Musk said. “From the standpoint that humanity is just much more interesting than not humanity.”

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Musk said he prefers this method to “trying to explicitly program morality into AI.” He said that approach requires judgment calls on whose morality is being programmed into the system and also creates an “inversion problem” where the morality can be flipped on its head.

As far as regulating the technology goes, Musk suggested that policymakers spend a few years learning about the technology before moving to “oversight, with consultation with industry.” He also suggested that some kind of industry group or self-regulatory body akin to the Motion Picture Association would be useful.

China and AI

The three spent a significant part of the discussion focused on the threat of China getting ahead of the U.S. on AI and the potential for some type of military confrontation over the sovereignty of Taiwan, a self-ruled region that the Chinese government considers part of its territory.

Musk said that in his conversations with senior leadership in China on a recent trip there, he spent a good amount of time discussing AI safety. He said the idea that a “digital superintelligence” could supplant the Chinese Communist Party itself seemed to resonate.

“No government wants to find itself unseated by a digital superintelligence,” he said. “So I think they actually are taking action on the regulatory front and are concerned about this as a risk.”

Musk even said he believes the Chinese government would be open to collaborating on an international framework around AI regulation.

Gallagher, who chairs the select committee on China, pushed back on the idea that the CCP could be a constructive member of such an international framework. He warned that even if they took Musk’s warnings to heart, he fears it wouldn’t be enough to slow their AI efforts and that China’s leader Xi Jinping would use it to cement “totalitarian control.”

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After briefly changing the topic, Musk returned to Gallagher’s thoughts and called himself “pro-China.” Musk acknowledged he has “some vested interest in China” but ultimately believes “China is underrated” and that “the people of China are really awesome.” Gallagher later said he “fully supports the Chinese people,” but it’s the ruling party he takes issue with.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t some very significant disagreements and that there’s obviously going to be a significant challenge on the Taiwan question,” Musk said, referring to China’s stated desire to bring Taiwan back under its control. “I think ultimately, once the very difficult question of Taiwan is resolved, I am certainly hopeful that there will be positive relations between China and the United States and the rest of the world.”

While tensions between the U.S. and China remain high, the two powers have made some diplomatic headway by resuming in-person communications, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently making a trip there and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry set to do so later this month.

Still, Musk predicted that resolving the Taiwan question will be difficult.

“I do have this theory about prediction, which is that the most entertaining outcome — as seen by a third party, not the participants — is the most likely,” Musk said. “Which does suggest it’s probably going to get hot in the Pacific. Hopefully not too hot. But it’s going to get hot.”

The AI future

Musk predicted the world will see digital superintelligence, or a form of artificial intelligence that is “smarter than any human at anything” within five or six years.

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“That’s not necessarily smarter than the sum of all humans,” Musk said. “That’s a higher bar to be smarter than several humans. And especially given that it’s the sum of all humans that are machine-augmented, in that we will have computers and phones and software applications. We already are de facto cyborgs, it’s just that the computers are not yet integrated with us.”

While he has focused on the existential risks of AI, previously signing a letter for a pause on advanced AI development and calling it one of the “biggest risks” to civilization, Musk said he’s ultimately an optimist about the technology.

“If I were to assign probabilities, I think it is more likely to be a positive scenario than a bad scenario,” he said. “It’s just that the bad scenario is not 0% and we want to do everything we can to minimize the probability of a bad outcome with AI.”

Musk at one point described the future as if it were a TV series.

“If this was a Netflix series or something, I’d say the season finale would be a showdown between the West and China,” he said, “and that the series finale will be AGI,” or artificial general intelligence.

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