It was just a friendly little argument about the fate of humanity. Demis Hassabis, a leading creator of advanced artificial intelligence, was chatting with Elon Musk, a leading doomsayer, about the perils of artificial intelligence.
They are two of the most consequential and intriguing men in Silicon Valley who don’t live there. Hassabis, a co-founder of the mysterious London laboratory DeepMind, had come to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory, outside Los Angeles, a few years ago. They were in the canteen, talking, as a massive rocket part traversed overhead. Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonization.
Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonize Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if A.I. goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that A.I. would simply follow humans to Mars.
This did nothing to soothe Musk’s anxieties (even though he says there are scenarios where A.I. wouldn’t follow).
An unassuming but competitive 40-year-old, Hassabis is regarded as the Merlin who will likely help conjure our A.I. children. The field of A.I. is rapidly developing but still far from the powerful, self-evolving software that haunts Musk. Facebook uses A.I. for targeted advertising, photo tagging, and curated news feeds. Microsoft and Apple use A.I. to power their digital assistants, Cortana and Siri. Google’s search engine from the beginning has been dependent on A.I. All of these small advances are part of the chase to eventually create flexible, self-teaching A.I. that will mirror human learning.
Some in Silicon Valley were intrigued to learn that Hassabis, a skilled chess player and former video-game designer, once came up with a game called Evil Genius, featuring a malevolent scientist who creates a doomsday device to achieve world domination. Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Donald Trump adviser who co-founded PayPal with Musk and others—and who in December helped gather skeptical Silicon Valley titans, including Musk, for a meeting with the president-elect—told me a story about an investor in DeepMind who joked as he left a meeting that he ought to shoot Hassabis on the spot, because it was the last chance to save the human race.
Elon Musk began warning about the possibility of A.I. running amok three years ago. It probably hadn’t eased his mind when one of Hassabis’s partners in DeepMind, Shane Legg, stated flatly, “I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this.”
Before DeepMind was gobbled up by Google, in 2014, as part of its A.I. shopping spree, Musk had been an investor in the company. He told me that his involvement was not about a return on his money but rather to keep a wary eye on the arc of A.I.: “It gave me more visibility into the rate at which things were improving, and I think they’re really improving at an accelerating rate, far faster than people realize. Mostly because in everyday life you don’t see robots walking around. Maybe your Roomba or something. But Roombas aren’t going to take over the world.”
In a startling public reproach to his friends and fellow techies, Musk warned that they could be creating the means of their own destruction. He told Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance, the author of the biography Elon Musk, that he was afraid that his friend Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and now the C.E.O. of its parent company, Alphabet, could have perfectly good intentions but still “produce something evil by accident”—including, possibly, “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”
the World Government Summit in Dubai, in February, Musk again cued the scary organ music, evoking the plots of classic horror stories when he noted that “sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.” He said that the way to escape human obsolescence, in the end, may be by “having some sort of merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence.” This Vulcan mind-meld could involve something called a neural lace—an injectable mesh that would literally hardwire your brain to communicate directly with computers. “We’re already cyborgs,” Musk told me in February. “Your phone and your computer are extensions of you, but the interface is through finger movements or speech, which are very slow.” With a neural lace inside your skull you would flash data from your brain, wirelessly, to your digital devices or to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. “For a meaningful partial-brain interface, I think we’re roughly four or five years away.”
Musk’s alarming views on the dangers of A.I. first went viral after he spoke at M.I.T. in 2014—speculating (pre-Trump) that A.I. was probably humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” He added that he was increasingly inclined to think there should be some national or international regulatory oversight—anathema to Silicon Valley—“to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.” He went on: “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like, yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.” Some A.I. engineers found Musk’s theatricality so absurdly amusing that they began echoing it. When they would return to the lab after a break, they’d say, “O.K., let’s get back to work summoning.”
Musk wasn’t laughing. “Elon’s crusade” (as one of his friends and fellow tech big shots calls it) against unfettered A.I. had begun.
Elon Musk smiled when I mentioned to him that he comes across as something of an Ayn Rand-ian hero. “I have heard that before,” he said in his slight South African accent. “She obviously has a fairly extreme set of views, but she has some good points in there.”
But Ayn Rand would do some re-writes on Elon Musk. She would make his eyes gray and his face more gaunt. She would refashion his public demeanor to be less droll, and she would not countenance his goofy giggle. She would certainly get rid of all his nonsense about the “collective” good. She would find great material in the 45-year-old’s complicated personal life: his first wife, the fantasy writer Justine Musk, and their five sons (one set of twins, one of triplets), and his much younger second wife, the British actress Talulah Riley, who played the boring Bennet sister in the Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice. Riley and Musk were married, divorced, and then re-married. They are now divorced again. Last fall, Musk tweeted that Talulah “does a great job playing a deadly sexbot” on HBO’s Westworld, adding a smiley-face emoticon. It’s hard for mere mortal women to maintain a relationship with someone as insanely obsessed with work as Musk.
“How much time does a woman want a week?” he asked Ashlee Vance. “Maybe ten hours? That’s kind of the minimum?”
Mostly, Rand would savor Musk, a hyper-logical, risk-loving industrialist. He enjoys costume parties, wing-walking, and Japanese steampunk extravaganzas. Robert Downey Jr. used Musk as a model for Iron Man. Marc Mathieu, the chief marketing officer of Samsung USA, who has gone fly-fishing in Iceland with Musk, calls him “a cross between Steve Jobs and Jules Verne.”As they danced at their wedding reception, Justine later recalled, Musk informed her, “I am the alpha in this relationship.”
a tech universe full of skinny guys in hoodies—whipping up bots that will chat with you and apps that can study a photo of a dog and tell you what breed it is—Musk is a throwback to Henry Ford and Hank Rearden. In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden gives his wife a bracelet made from the first batch of his revolutionary metal, as though it were made of diamonds. Musk has a chunk of one of his rockets mounted on the wall of his Bel Air house, like a work of art.
Musk shoots for the moon—literally. He launches cost-efficient rockets into space and hopes to eventually inhabit the Red Planet. In February he announced plans to send two space tourists on a flight around the moon as early as next year. He creates sleek batteries that could lead to a world powered by cheap solar energy. He forges gleaming steel into sensuous Tesla electric cars with such elegant lines that even the nitpicking Steve Jobs would have been hard-pressed to find fault. He wants to save time as well as humanity: he dreamed up the Hyperloop, an electromagnetic bullet train in a tube, which may one day whoosh travelers between L.A. and San Francisco at 700 miles per hour. When Musk visited secretary of defense Ashton Carter last summer, he mischievously tweeted that he was at the Pentagon to talk about designing a Tony Stark-style “flying metal suit.” Sitting in traffic in L.A. in December, getting bored and frustrated, he tweeted about creating the Boring Company to dig tunnels under the city to rescue the populace from “soul-destroying traffic.” By January, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, Musk had assigned a senior SpaceX engineer to oversee the plan and had started digging his first test hole. His sometimes quixotic efforts to save the world have inspired a parody twitter account, “Bored Elon Musk,” where a faux Musk spouts off wacky ideas such as “Oxford commas as a service” and “bunches of bananas genetically engineered” so that the bananas ripen one at a time.
Musk is stoic about setbacks but all too conscious of nightmare scenarios. His views reflect a dictum from Atlas Shrugged: “Man has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.” As he told me, “we are the first species capable of self-annihilation.”
Here’s the nagging thought you can’t escape as you drive around from glass box to glass box in Silicon Valley: the Lords of the Cloud love to yammer about turning the world into a better place as they churn out new algorithms, apps, and inventions that, it is claimed, will make our lives easier, healthier, funnier, closer, cooler, longer, and kinder to the planet. And yet there’s a creepy feeling underneath it all, a sense that we’re the mice in their experiments, that they regard us humans as Betamaxes or eight-tracks, old technology that will soon be discarded so that they can get on to enjoying their sleek new world. Many people there have accepted this future: we’ll live to be 150 years old, but we’ll have machine overlords.
Maybe we already have overlords. As Musk slyly told Recode’s annual Code Conference last year in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, we could already be playthings in a simulated-reality world run by an advanced civilization. Reportedly, two Silicon Valley billionaires are working on an algorithm to break us out of the Matrix.
Among the engineers lured by the sweetness of solving the next problem, the prevailing attitude is that empires fall, societies change, and we are marching toward the inevitable phase ahead. They argue not about “whether” but rather about “how close” we are to replicating, and improving on, ourselves. Sam Altman, the 31-year-old president of Y Combinator, the Valley’s top start-up accelerator, believes humanity is on the brink of such invention.
“The hard part of standing on an exponential curve is: when you look backwards, it looks flat, and when you look forward, it looks vertical,” he told me. “And it’s very hard to calibrate how much you are moving because it always looks the same.”
You’d think that anytime Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates are all raising the same warning about A.I.—as all of them are—it would be a 10-alarm fire. But, for a long time, the fog of fatalism over the Bay Area was thick. Musk’s crusade was viewed as Sisyphean at best and Luddite at worst. The paradox is this: Many tech oligarchs see everything they are doing to help us, and all their benevolent manifestos, as streetlamps on the road to a future where, as Steve Wozniak says, humans are the family pets.
But Musk is not going gently. He plans on fighting this with every fiber of his carbon-based being. Musk and Altman have founded OpenAI, a billion-dollar nonprofit company, to work for safer artificial intelligence. I sat down with the two men when their new venture had only a handful of young engineers and a makeshift office, an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District that belongs to Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s 28-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer. When I went back recently, to talk with Brockman and Ilya Sutskever, the company’s 30-year-old research director (and also a co-founder), OpenAI had moved into an airy office nearby with a robot, the usual complement of snacks, and 50 full-time employees. (Another 10 to 30 are on the way.)
At first blush, OpenAI seemed like a bantamweight vanity project, a bunch of brainy kids in a walkup apartment taking on the multi-billion-dollar efforts at Google, Facebook, and other companies which employ the world’s leading A.I. experts. But then, playing a well-heeled David to Goliath is Musk’s specialty, and he always does it with style—and some useful sensationalism.
Let others in Silicon Valley focus on their I.P.O. price and ridding San Francisco of what they regard as its unsightly homeless population. Musk has larger aims, like ending global warming and dying on Mars (just not, he says, on impact).
Musk began to see man’s fate in the galaxy as his personal obligation three decades ago, when as a teenager he had a full-blown existential crisis. Musk told me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, was a turning point for him. The book is about aliens destroying the earth to make way for a hyperspace highway and features Marvin the Paranoid Android and a supercomputer designed to answer all the mysteries of the universe. (Musk slipped at least one reference to the book into the software of the Tesla Model S.) As a teenager, Vance writes in his biography, Musk formulated a mission statement for himself: “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.”
OpenAI got under way with a vague mandate—which isn’t surprising, given that people in the field are still arguing over what form A.I. will take, what it will be able to do, and what can be done about it. So far, public policy on A.I. is strangely undetermined and software is largely unregulated. The Federal Aviation Administration oversees drones, the Securities and Exchange Commission oversees automated financial trading, and the Department of Transportation has begun to oversee self-driving cars.
Musk believes that it is better to try to get super-A.I. first and distribute the technology to the world than to allow the algorithms to be concealed and concentrated in the hands of tech or government elites—even when the tech elites happen to be his own friends, people such as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. “I’ve had many conversations with Larry about A.I. and robotics—many, many,” Musk told me. “And some of them have gotten quite heated. You know, I think it’s not just Larry, but there are many futurists who feel a certain inevitability or fatalism about robots, where we’d have some sort of peripheral role. The phrase used is ‘We are the biological boot-loader for digital super-intelligence.’ ” (A boot loader is the small program that launches the operating system when you first turn on your computer.) “Matter can’t organize itself into a chip,” Musk explained. “But it can organize itself into a biological entity that gets increasingly sophisticated and ultimately can create the chip.”
Musk has no intention of being a boot loader. Page and Brin see themselves as forces for good, but Musk says the issue goes far beyond the motivations of a handful of Silicon Valley executives.
Ater the so-called A.I. winter—the broad, commercial failure in the late 80s of an early A.I. technology that wasn’t up to snuff—artificial intelligence got a reputation as snake oil. Now it’s the hot thing again in this go-go era in the Valley. Greg Brockman, of OpenAI, believes the next decade will be all about A.I., with everyone throwing money at the small number of “wizards” who know the A.I. “incantations.” Guys who got rich writing code to solve banal problems like how to pay a stranger for stuff online now contemplate a vertiginous world where they are the creators of a new reality and perhaps a new species.
Microsoft’s Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked computer scientist known as the father of virtual reality, gave me his view as to why the digerati find the “science-fiction fantasy” of A.I. so tantalizing: “It’s saying, ‘Oh, you digital techy people, you’re like gods; you’re creating life; you’re transforming reality.’ There’s a tremendous narcissism in it that we’re the people who can do it. No one else. The Pope can’t do it. The president can’t do it. No one else can do it. We are the masters of it . . . . The software we’re building is our immortality.” This kind of God-like ambition isn’t new, he adds. “I read about it once in a story about a golden calf.” He shook his head. “Don’t get high on your own supply, you know?”
Google has gobbled up almost every interesting robotics and machine-learning company over the last few years. It bought DeepMind for $650 million, reportedly beating out Facebook, and built the Google Brain team to work on A.I. It hired Geoffrey Hinton, a British pioneer in artificial neural networks; and Ray Kurzweil, the eccentric futurist who has predicted that we are only 28 years away from the Rapture-like “Singularity”—the moment when the spiraling capabilities of self-improving artificial super-intelligence will far exceed human intelligence, and human beings will merge with A.I. to create the “god-like” hybrid beings of the future.
It’s in Larry Page’s blood and Google’s DNA to believe that A.I. is the company’s inevitable destiny—think of that destiny as you will. (“If evil A.I. lights up,” Ashlee Vance told me, “it will light up first at Google.”) If Google could get computers to master search when search was the most important problem in the world, then presumably it can get computers to do everything else. In March of last year, Silicon Valley gulped when a fabled South Korean player of the world’s most complex board game, Go, was beaten in Seoul by DeepMind’s AlphaGo. Hassabis, who has said he is running an Apollo program for A.I., called it a “historic moment” and admitted that even he was surprised it happened so quickly. “I’ve always hoped that A.I. could help us discover completely new ideas in complex scientific domains,” Hassabis told me in February. “This might be one of the first glimpses of that kind of creativity.” More recently, AlphaGo played 60 games online against top Go players in China, Japan, and Korea—and emerged with a record of 60–0. In January, in another shock to the system, an A.I. program showed that it could bluff. Libratus, built by two Carnegie Mellon researchers, was able to crush top poker players at Texas Hold ‘Em.
Peter Thiel told me about a friend of his who says that the only reason people tolerate Silicon Valley is that no one there seems to be having any sex or any fun. But there are reports of sex robots on the way that come with apps that can control their moods and even have a pulse. The Valley is skittish when it comes to female sex robots—an obsession in Japan—because of its notoriously male-dominated culture and its much-publicized issues with sexual harassment and discrimination. But when I asked Musk about this, he replied matter-of-factly, “Sex robots? I think those are quite likely.”
Wether sincere or a shrewd P.R. move, Hassabis made it a condition of the Google acquisition that Google and DeepMind establish a joint A.I. ethics board. At the time, three years ago, forming an ethics board was seen as a precocious move, as if to imply that Hassabis was on the verge of achieving true A.I. Now, not so much. Last June, a researcher at DeepMind co-authored a paper outlining a way to design a “big red button” that could be used as a kill switch to stop A.I. from inflicting harm.
Google executives say Larry Page’s view on A.I. is shaped by his frustration about how many systems are sub-optimal—from systems that book trips to systems that price crops. He believes that A.I. will improve people’s lives and has said that, when human needs are more easily met, people will “have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.” Especially when a robot throws them out of work.
Musk is a friend of Page’s. He attended Page’s wedding and sometimes stays at his house when he’s in the San Francisco area. “It’s not worth having a house for one or two nights a week,” the 99th-richest man in the world explained to me. At times, Musk has expressed concern that Page may be naïve about how A.I. could play out. If Page is inclined toward the philosophy that machines are only as good or bad as the people creating them, Musk firmly disagrees. Some at Google—perhaps annoyed that Musk is, in essence, pointing a finger at them for rushing ahead willy-nilly—dismiss his dystopic take as a cinematic cliché. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, put it this way: “Robots are invented. Countries arm them. An evil dictator turns the robots on humans, and all humans will be killed. Sounds like a movie to me.”
Some in Silicon Valley argue that Musk is interested less in saving the world than in buffing his brand, and that he is exploiting a deeply rooted conflict: the one between man and machine, and our fear that the creation will turn against us. They gripe that his epic good-versus-evil story line is about luring talent at discount rates and incubating his own A.I. software for cars and rockets. It’s certainly true that the Bay Area has always had a healthy respect for making a buck. As Sam Spade said in The Maltese Falcon, “Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken.”
Musk is without doubt a dazzling salesman. Who better than a guardian of human welfare to sell you your new, self-driving Tesla? Andrew Ng—the chief scientist at Baidu, known as China’s Google—based in Sunnyvale, California, writes off Musk’s Manichaean throwdown as “marketing genius.” “At the height of the recession, he persuaded the U.S. government to help him build an electric sports car,” Ng recalled, incredulous. The Stanford professor is married to a robotics expert, issued a robot-themed engagement announcement, and keeps a “Trust the Robot” black jacket hanging on the back of his chair. He thinks people who worry about A.I. going rogue are distracted by “phantoms,” and regards getting alarmed now as akin to worrying about overpopulation on Mars before we populate it. “And I think it’s fascinating,” he said about Musk in particular, “that in a rather short period of time he’s inserted himself into the conversation on A.I. I think he sees accurately that A.I. is going to create tremendous amounts of value.”
So ‘lawyers’ look safe for the moment.