Elon Musk

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I’m not entirely convinced Elon Musk doesn’t have more in common with Donald Trump in regard to politics than we know. Not saying that he is a raging Libertarian monster like his pal Peter Thiel, but it’s not likely he’s the lovable billionaire that Iron Man cameos would have us believe.

Now that his harebrained attempt to “stage manage” the orange supremacist is happily over, the entrepreneur has fully returned to his normal chores, which are, of course, abnormal. There are two different Musks at work.

Good Elon creates gigafactories and gives people the opportunity to power their homes with solar. As these tools spread, through his efforts and those of his competitors, the Silicon Valley magnate will have made a major contribution to potentially saving our species from the existential threat of climate change. 

Bad Elon is a sort of lower-case Nikola Tesla, whose name he borrowed, of course, for his EV company. And it’s the worst of the Serbian-American inventor that he emulates: grandiose, egotistical, desperate to awe with brilliance even when the logic doesn’t quite cohere. Like Tesla’s final patented invention, the Flivver Plane, which would never have been able to fly even if it was built, Musk often concentrates his attention where it’s not most needed on things that won’t happen.

Much of this baffling overconfidence can be seen in his near-term plan to become a Martian. Some of it is also on view in his deathly fear of killer robots, a stance he developed after going on a Bostrom bender. Intelligent machines are a very-long-term risk for our species (if we’re not first done in by our own dimness or perhaps a solar flare), but they shouldn’t be a primary concern to anyone presently. Not when children even in a wealthy country like America still drink lead-contaminated water, relatively dumb AI can cause employment within industries to collapse and new technological tools are exacerbating wealth inequality.

In a Wired piece, Tom Simonite contextualizes Musk’s foolhardy sci-fi AI fears as well as anyone has. The opening:

IMAGINE YOU HAD a chance to tell 50 of the most powerful politicians in America what urgent problem you think needs prompt government action. Elon Musk had that chance this past weekend at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island. He chose to recommend the gubernatorial assembly get serious about preventing artificial intelligence from wiping out humanity.

“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said. He asked the governors to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a stock-trading program orchestrated the 2014 missile strike that downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine—just to boost its portfolio. And he called for the establishment of a new government regulator that would force companies building artificial intelligence technology to slow down. “When the regulator’s convinced it’s safe to proceed then you can go, but otherwise slow down,” he said.

Musk’s remarks made for an enlivening few minutes on a day otherwise concerned with more quotidian matters such as healthcare and education. But Musk’s call to action was something of a missed opportunity. People who spend more time working on artificial intelligence than the car, space, and solar entrepreneur say his eschatological scenarios risk distracting from more pressing concerns as artificial intelligence technology percolates into every industry.

Pedro Domingos, a professor who works on machine learning at the University of Washington, summed up his response to Musk’s talk on Twitter with a single word: Sigh. “Many of us have tried to educate him and others like him about real vs. imaginary dangers of AI, but apparently none of it has made a dent,” Domingos says. America’s governmental chief executives would be better advised to consider the negative effects of today’s limited AI, such as how it is giving disproportionate market power to a few large tech companies, he says. Iyad Rahwan, who works on matters of AI and society at MIT, agrees. Rather than worrying about trading bots eventually becoming smart enough to start wars as an investment strategy, we should consider how humans might today use dumb bots to spread misinformation online, he says.

Rahwan doesn’t deny that Musk’s nightmare scenarios could eventually happen, but says attending to today’s AI challenges is the most pragmatic way to prepare. “By focusing on the short-term questions, we can scaffold a regulatory architecture that might help with the more unpredictable, super-intelligent AI scenarios.”•

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The moon landing was supposed to be our greatest triumph, Homo sapiens having made the giant leap from living in cave systems to conquering the solar system, but as Norman Mailer wrote presciently at the time: “Space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires.” The macho author knew machine intelligence had won, and boxing matches, bullfights and other human struggles were crude pantomimes compared to a space odyssey. Even Mailer’s ample intelligence and elephantine ego, however, couldn’t have known how right he was.

He further wrote:

He had no intimations of what was to come, and that was conceivably worse than any sentiment of dread, for a sense of the future, no matter how melancholy, was preferable to none–it spoke of some sense of the continuation in the projects of one’s life. He was adrift. If he tried to conceive of a likely perspective in the decade before him, he saw not one structure to society but two: if the social world did not break down into revolutions and counterrevolutions, into police and military rules of order with sabotage, guerrilla war and enclaves of resistance, if none of this occurred, then there certainly would be a society of reason, but its reason would be the logic of the computer. In that society, legally accepted drugs would become necessary for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature which would arouse technologies of decontamination odious as deodorants, and transplanted hearts monitored like spaceships–the patients might be obliged to live in a compound reminiscent of a Mission Control Center where technicians could monitor on consoles the beatings of a thousand transplanted hearts. But in the society of computer-logic, the atmosphere would obviously be plastic, air-conditioned, sealed in bubble-domes below the smog, a prelude to living on space stations. People would die in such societies like fish expiring on a vinyl floor.•

Okay, fish on a vinyl floor may be melodramatic, but Elon Musk and others wants to go much further than accelerating cerebration via pills, aiming, with Neuralink, to implant electrodes in our brains in order to link us directly to the cloud. Musk thinks “we need brain-computers to avoid becoming ‘house cats’ to artificial intelligence.”

Hmm, that’s an odd way to add it all up. Becoming a computer (to a good degree) in order to avert the dominance of computers is sort of like killing yourself to prevent death.

It’s very possible that tomorrow’s challenges may require such drastic measures for our species, but let’s not pretend we’re maintaining humanity when we’re drastically altering it.

From Christopher Markou at The Conversation:

Depending on who you ask, the human story generally goes like this. First, we discovered fire and developed oral language. We turned oral language into writing, and eventually we found a way to turn it into mechanised printing. After a few centuries, we happened upon this thing called electricity, which gave rise to telephones, radios, TVs and eventually personal computers, smart phones – and ultimately the Juicero.

Over time, phones lost their cords, computers shrunk in size and we figured out ways to make them exponentially more powerful and portable enough to fit in pockets. Eventually, we created virtual realities, and melded our sensate reality with an augmented one.

But if Neuralink were to achieve its goal, it’s hard to predict how this story plays out. The result would be a “whole-brain interface” so complete, frictionless, bio-compatible and powerful that it would feel to users like just another part of their cerebral cortex, limbic and central nervous systems.

A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so easy it would feel the same as your thoughts do right now.

But if that sounds extraordinary, so are the potential problems.•

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“You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room” is a true statement in U.S. politics if we’re talking about your average conservative, liberal or moderate elected official, but it doesn’t extend to this moment in our history, with a reckless, dangerous, kleptocratic and, perhaps, traitorous sociopath in the White House.

In this case, it’s better to be outside the room, refusing to lend your reputation to an aspiring autocrat and raising your voice in protest, especially if you have a giant megaphone like Travis Kalanick or Elon Musk. The former did the morally correct thing in resigning from Trump’s economic advisory council, while the latter still sees this un-American Administration as a game he can officiate.

In a jaw-dropping BuzzFeed article, William Alden reports on political consultant Bradley Tusk’s work advising Silicon Valley titans on how to deal with a deeply irregular White House, encouraging them to ignore their consciences at all costs and do what’s best for the bottom line. It’s not shocking there are people so amoral they can’t see beyond business as usual even in these desperate times, but it is surprising to hear someone so publicly announce such a dicey position.

An excerpt:

Last week, he sent a memo to clients outlining a strategy for dealing with Trump, advising them to take a deep breath and think before engaging in political protest. Taking a stand against Trump might be the right choice, Tusk said, but only if it makes business sense.

“If the business demands immediate action, that’s one thing. If it’s your conscience, that’s another,” he wrote in the memo. Pressure from the media or even from employees, he added, wouldn’t necessarily be a sufficient reason to speak out, especially if it would create other problems.

The memo came just days after Tusk’s flagship client, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, resigned from President Trump’s economic advisory council. More than 200,000 Uber customers had deleted their accounts, according to The New York Times, after the ride-hailing company was accused of trying to undermine a taxi strike over Trump’s immigration order. Uber also came under pressure from employees and drivers, many of whom are immigrants. Kalanick’s resignation from the advisory council contrasted with the decision of another tech titan, Elon Musk, to stay there.

“This is one of those cases where the symbolism and the emotion on both sides of it took everything in such an incredible direction that people like Travis, like Elon, who are pretty well intentioned, and are saying, ‘O.K., let’s see if we can help things,’ got put in a really, really impossible position,” Tusk told BuzzFeed News. “And they’re handling it in different ways. But that’s kind of why I wrote this memo.”

Tusk said Kalanick made the right decision in this case, but he expressed regret that it had to be that way. “I think Travis joined the council for the right reasons,” Tusk said. “You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room.”•

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Elon Musk was saying things again today. He likes to say things.

The technologist and F.O.T. (Friend of Trump), who has completely misunderstood this political moment and either doesn’t comprehend or doesn’t care that he’s been permanently lowered in many eyes, spoke out on the topics of Guaranteed Basic Income and cyborgism.

Musk is in favor of both, thinking the first will be necessary for society to survive the rough patch of Digital Age transformation, and the second will be required for human beings to survive at all as Artificial Intelligence become more profound. Of course, even if the latter is needed, the melding of human and machine would create something that isn’t exactly human as we know it, so we wouldn’t truly survive.

At any rate, if GBI and human-machine interface become realities, I would hope someone with a more developed sense of morality than Musk is leading the way. A person born in an Apartheid nation should know better than to cozy up to an Administration that would like to turn America into one.

Two excerpts follow.


From Fast Company:

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen. And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary. The output of goods and services will be extremely high. With automation there will come abundance. Almost everything will get very cheap. I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. It’s going to be necessary.•


From CNBC:

Billionaire Elon Musk is known for his futuristic ideas and his latest suggestion might just save us from being irrelevant as artificial intelligence (AI) grows more prominent.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said on Monday that humans need to merge with machines to become a sort of cyborg.

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
 
“It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”
 
Musk explained what he meant by saying that computers can communicate at “a trillion bits per second,” while humans, whose main communication method is typing with their fingers via a mobile device, can do about 10 bits per second.

In an age when AI threatens to become widespread, humans would be useless, so there’s a need to merge with machines, according to Musk.

“Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem,” Musk explained.

The technologists proposal would see a new layer of a brain able to access information quickly and tap into artificial intelligence.•

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Elon Musk has unilaterally decided that direct democracy will be the likely government on Mars once he creates a colony on our neighboring planet, but if a fledgling fascist takes over, he’ll probably still be open for business.

We’ve witnessed with his embrace of the Trump Administration that the Space X founder isn’t grounded enough to truly comprehend an epochal political moment, believing he can somehow manage a sociopathic President and his white nationalist Chief Strategist the way he does less-combustible things–like rockets, for instance. 

Some of Musk’s announcements about space settlements and other schemes have seemed increasingly kooky over the last few years, but you could cut him some slack. After all, Thomas Edison truly believed he could use early 1900s technology to create a “spirit phone” to speak to the dead. Visionaries sometimes head down a blind alley so distracted they are by the world they hold in their hands. But Musk’s reaction to this singular challenge to American democracy has revealed a deep moral blind spot within him. 

Prior to the ugly election cycle, Walter Isaacson said the “Benjamin Franklin of today is Musk,” but our kite-flying forefather understood one thing about tyranny that escapes his technological descendant: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

• • •

In “Whitey on Mars,” Andrew Russell’s excellent Aeon essay, the writer argues that “white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships” take priority over more earthly concerns when wealth is deeply unequal, especially in this era when such costly exploration has become significantly privatized. I’m sure Musk would counter that he is trying to address climate change by spearheading a transition to electric and solar (a point Russell also addresses), but there’s definitely much truth in the argument.

The opening:

There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.

Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.•

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Someone as smart as Elon Musk has to realize he’s being used as a public-relations prize by the Trump Administration, that band of wall-builders, xenophobes and climate-change deniers. It would have been far more meaningful for an immigrant like himself to stand loudly in opposition to a campaign that was proudly demagogic and a forming Administration that’s as bonkers as it is bigoted.

Musk has said that “attacking Trump will achieve nothing,” but it actually might prevent some really bad things. Even if the President if close-minded, there are folks far more concerned about self-preservation in the Senate and Congress. Protest and rebuke can preclude the worst from happening. Lending his renown to Trump has helped normalize him and some terrible things he will do that may not hurt Musk or other Silicon Valley billionaires but will have a real effect on the lives of more vulnerable Americans.

The Tesla founder can have only two reasons for allowing himself to be used as he has, and they both probably played into his decision. One is that he’s taking a utilitarian approach to try to neutralize the worst impulses of a President who could absolutely wreck us in a short period of time. Musk would do better trying to manage far less combustible things–like rockets, for instance–than a sociopath. The other, and likely more pressing concern, is that his businesses, especially the burgeoning electric-car one, require at this delicate moment a non-adversarial relationship with the federal government.

Musk can promise to never build internment camps on Mars, but he’s already made odious, un-American things like Muslim registries and immigration bans more credible. That’s part of who he is now, even if he thinks he can compartmentalize such things.

A question about Musk’s support of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State from a Q&A by Bryan Menegus at Gizmodo:

Question:

Many see the appointment of a tycoon as emblematic of crony capitalism. What makes you feel he’s competent? Tillerson also told Bloomberg last year that he’s not exactly sold on electric cars, which of course is the whole point of Tesla. Have you reached an accord on that matter? Are your opinions on Tillerson influenced at all by your position on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum?

Elon Musk:

My tweets speak for themselves. Please read them exactly as they are written. Tillerson obviously did a competent job running Exxon, one of the largest companies in the world. In that role, he was obligated to advance the cause of Exxon and did. In the Sec of State role, he is obligated to advance the cause of the US and I suspect he probably will. Also, he has publicly acknowledged for years that a carbon tax could make sense. There is no better person to push for that to become a reality than Tillerson. This is what matters far more than pipelines or opening oil reserves. The unpriced externality must be priced.

Tillerson does indeed have a history of supporting a carbon tax as far back as 2007, signaling his preference for such a regulation over “cap-and-trade” initiatives that became popular among environmentalists and free market conservatives alike in the 1980s, but whose real-world efficacy has long been subject to debate. Many expertsagree that a national carbon tax is needed, but take it coming from Tillerson with a grain of salt.

Rather than pushing for policies to reduce carbon emissions, ExxonMobil, under the tutelage of Tillerson and his predecessors, gave over $3.6 million to the American Enterprise Institute from 1998 to 2012, an organization that has helped distort facts about climate change and undermine public confidence in the impact of carbon pollution. This is despite the fact that Exxon’s own scientists have known since 1977 that fossil fuels were leading to climate change.•

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In the 1969 National Geographic feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” the idea of driverless autos centered on retro-fitting roads and highways, making them over into “guideways.” An excerpt:

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”•

It hasn’t worked out that way. The eyes and ears of the operation–the brains, really–will be within the vehicle with an assist perhaps from wi-fi–enabled gadgets on the outside; any contributions from driving surfaces will be secondary. Key to the “formal education” of cars will be the sharing of information among them, which will permit constant learning. Perhaps someday they’ll be smart enough to tell us how to replace millions of jobs lost in the trucking, taxi, delivery and limousine industries.

From a smart interview Jason Anders of WSJ conducted with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, whose company is tasked with supplying Teslas with autonomous capability:

Question:

Tesla announced that all of its coming vehicles are going to have your technology. Is Elon Musk pushing things too fast?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

If you don’t develop the technology and deploy it, it never gets better. At some level, you have to put it on the road. But what’s important is it’s a massive software problem. So companies like Tesla who have a great deal of software capability have an advantage. There’s a rigorous methodology of developing software. The software becomes better and better over use.

Question:

What can’t the cars do today?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

A whole lot of stuff. We’re going to have an AI inside the car that’s going to look around corners. So even if you’re driving, the AI might prevent you from an accident. There’s all kinds of things that the AI could predict on your behalf.

Question:

Can the car be doing too much?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

The thing to realize is the quality of the software improves over time, whereas people’s performance of driving decreases.

Question:

What about at first, when very few cars on the road are driverless?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

Making sure we don’t cause an accident is something we can control, and we ought to do that as quickly as possible.

But the cars will learn from every other car’s experience. We’re going to see capabilities of computers grow way faster than at any time in the history of our industry.•

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Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars in a handful of years is bold but probably misbegotten. He means well in wanting to safeguard the survival of the human species, but things may not end well. There’s no reason for humans to be out there just yet. It might work out best if Musk’s large-scale plans crater and his still-sizable contributions (e.g., reusable rockets) remain. We can explore space for the foreseeable future without the undue burdens of cost and loss of life if we utilize robots for reconnaissance and 3D printers to lay foundation.

In “The Low-Tech Way to Colonize Mars,” an Atlantic piece by Sarah Zhang, the writer examines a saner alternative to Musk’s vision, a slow build in space via bootstrapping with relatively simple tools. An excerpt:

NASA is all aboard the 3D-printing train. Last year, it unveiled winners of its first 3D-printed Mars habitat design challenge, and the architectural renders of the winning entries were all sleek and futuristic, as renders of unbuilt buildings always are (see above). In reality, the current state of the art for Martian 3D-printing looks more like the clay logs [planetary scientist Philip] Metzger has been documenting on Twitter.

If the technology looks low-tech, it’s deliberate. “We’re rethinking how to do space technology by taking cues from less developed parts of world,” says Metzger. The logic goes like this: If a valve breaks in a complex machine on Mars, an astronaut can’t go online to order a replacement with next day delivery. (It’s more like nine months, assuming Mars and Earth are in their most favorable alignment.) So the idea is to start simple and slowly build up technological capabilities: clay to metal to plastic to electronic equipment. Eventually, Mars will have the refineries and factories to make complicated machines itself. This is “bootstrapping,” and it’s Metzger’s vision for space exploration.•

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In the aughts, when first exposed to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea that we’re living inside a computer simulation rather than reality, I accepted the premise as a fun thought experiment and something perfectly fine to consider.

It’s lost a lot of charm ever since Elon Musk went on a Bostrom bender after reading Superintelligence in 2014, as he and some other Silicon Valley stalwarts have taken this notion, theoretically possible if unlikely, and transformed it into almost a sure thing. Musk, an aspirant Martian, has said that “there’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” It’s this certitude, an almost religious fervor, that seems the actual threat to reality.

It reminds me of when I worked for Internet companies during the tail end of Web 1.0, a time of supposedly self-fulfilling prophecies, when everyone, it seemed, was sure NASDAQ would soon leapfrog the Dow, right before the tech bubble burst.

In “Silicon Valley Questions the Meaning of Life,” a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton articulates exactly why a mere philosophical exercise has become so disquieting. An excerpt:

The theories espoused by many of the prominent figures in the tech industry can sometimes sound as though they were pulled from The Matrix. That’s not really as unusual as it sounds. Hollywood, after all, has been exploring strands of the simulation idea for decades. World on a Wire, Brainstorm, Inception, the entire Matrix franchise, Total Recall, and many other movies have envisioned this theory in one way or another. Most of the technologies we use on a daily basis were first envisioned by sci-fi writers many years ago, including smartphones, tablets, and even a version of Twitter.

But these ideas are often put forth for the purpose of entertainment—the movies end, and we all leave the seemingly real theater, and go back to our real, seemingly un-simulated lives. What’s fascinating, however, is the velocity with which the fictional premise has become a serious, and seriously considered, theory in the Valley. I have been asked, on more than one occasion, if I believe we’re in a simulation. And I have listened, on more than one occasion, as people carefully articulate how our very conversation could be taking place in a simulation. Like a lot of things in the Valley, I have lost track of the line between where the joke ends, if that line even existed at all.

Whatever the case, the conversation is moving from the confines of cubicles and research labs to the mainstream.•

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Elon Musk says he’ll put humans on Mars within a decade, but perhaps it’s the Botox talking. 

The Space X founder has had his fears about Artificial Intelligence shift somewhat since the Nick Bostrom bender he went on at around the time of the publication of Superintelligence. He’s not so worried about conscious AI obviating us now but instead thinks the concentration of such knowledge among a handful of countries and/or companies is highly dangerous. He wants to democratize AI, so that it instead can be accessed by all. Otherwise, he fears, dictators or rogue states can steal the science and use it to try to dominate the world.

But it’s possible Musk’s plan will end up making things more dangerous. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower launched “Atoms for Peace,” sharing with the world nuclear knowledge and supplies, a move aimed at providing participating nations with relatively cheap energy and making the world less likely to end in Armageddon. This policy led to the building of the first nuclear reactors in some nations, Iran and Pakistan included, and a proliferation of WMDs. Everyone having similar weapons and knowledge only precludes brinkmanship if all actors involved are rational, and in that sense, the world is not flat. 

From Y Combinator:

Question:

Speaking of really important problems, AI. You have been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there?

Elon Musk:

Okay, I mean I do want to emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate or this is not prescriptive. This is simply, hopefully, predictive. Because you will hear some say, well, like this is something that I want to occur instead of this is something I think that probably is the best of the available alternatives. The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with, and maybe someone else can come up with a better approach or better outcome, is that we achieve democratization of AI technology. Meaning that no one company or small set of individuals has control over advanced AI technology. I think that’s very dangerous. It could also get stolen by somebody bad, like some evil dictator or country could send their intelligence agency to go steal it and gain control. It just becomes a very unstable situation, I think, if you’ve got any incredibly powerful AI. You just don’t know who’s going to control that.

So it’s not that I think that the risk is that the AI would develop a will of its own right off the bat. I think the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad. Or even if they weren’t going to use it in a way that’s bad but somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that’s bad, that, I think, is quite a big danger. So I think we must have democratization of AI technology to make it widely available. And that’s the reason that obviously you, me, and the rest of the team created OpenAI was to help spread out AI technology so it doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few. But then, of course, that needs to be combined with solving the high-bandwidth interface to the cortex.•

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Elon Musk thinks we should stop worrying and learn to love Mars, but our inhospitable neighbor will make sure our ardor goes unrequited. Comparing space colonization to Manifest Destiny isn’t apt, because while we possess immensely better tools than pioneers of the past, the challenges aren’t remotely comparable. 

In a smart Bloomberg View column, Elaine Ou outlines the harsh conditions awaiting immigrants to the stratosphere. She writes of the expensive one-way tickets Musk hopes to make available: “Those who can afford a ticket to Mars are the least likely to want to move there.” True for the most part, though Christopher Columbus wasn’t among the poorest, and he sailed not to escape but to seek. He’ll probably have some modern analogues.

An excerpt:

Artistic renderings of space colonies depict plexiglass domes full of green plants and grow lights. But even if we develop the technology to build pressurized hamster balls, it needs to be recreated on Mars. The first settlers won’t have the luxury of towing a climate-controlled terrarium in the cargo hold of a SpaceX rocket. They’ll have to work the earth and figure out how to live off the fat of the Martian land.

Mars is not exactly prime real estate. The average temperature is negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Even during the warmest part of the year, temperatures reach a high of 68 near the equator and still fall to negative 100 at night. Without the dense atmosphere of Earth, temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, causing powerful dust storms that shroud the entire planet.

Also unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a global magnetic field. Combined with the thin atmosphere, there isn’t much to shield its inhabitants from the gigantic nuclear reactor that is our sun. Surface conditions on Mars are comparable to life near Chernobyl in the late ’80s, and no amount of Coppertone will protect humans from the deep-space radiation burn. For the most part, we should plan for life on Mars the same way we might plan for life after a nuclear apocalypse. That is, we can expect to live in underground burrows, like rabbits or prairie dogs. The first Martian settlers will be busy building fallout shelters.•

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If gambling on Elon Musk’s plan to quickly establish a colony on Mars, it would be wise to bet the under considering it would be the greatest and most challenging undertaking in human history. But the likelihood that it’s at all possible for one well-funded visionary to have a shot at accomplishing such a feat says as a lot not only about science but society as well. Some thoughts:

  • Wealth inequality has made us a weird and lopsided world. Sentences on automation like one recently in the WSJ,[Target Corp.] could take a risk on a new breed of robots from a reclusive billionaire,” no longer seem stunning. The Digital Age has made a few us so overwhelmingly wealthy that individuals can compete with the biggest governments on the grandest projects in for-profit sectors and philanthropy. But there’s a very dark side to such a widening gap, whether its Peter Thiel deciding to a publication into bankruptcy or Palmer Luckey using his Facebook windfall to fund alt-right trolls to game online surveys and plant dubious memes in an effort to enable a Fascist like Donald Trump into the White House. Persons as rich as nations has the potential for great good and bad.
  • Musk’s math in measuring the money needed to fund his first foray to Mars and provide the basic building blocks of a space society may wind up seeming as fanciful as a Paul Ryan budget, but regardless the price tag of such enterprises has fallen tantalizingly low thanks to the diminishing costs of the necessary tools, a culmination of decades of work bearing fruit in our times.
  • Putting humans in space doesn’t make much sense to me within Musk’s time frame. Becoming a multi-planetary species as a hedge against disaster, environmental or otherwise, is understandable, but racing Homo sapiens to Mars doesn’t seem the best plan. A century of robots being dispatched to plumb the planets and experiment with building enclosed habitats and growing food in space. seems the wiser course. But I’m not a Silicon Valley billionaire, so I don’t get a vote.

In the Ars Technica piece “Musk’s Mars Moments,” Eric Berger assesses the feasibility of the audacious plan and the person responsible for it. The writer unsurprisingly believes the Space X founder is underestimating costs but doesn’t dismiss the proposal as impossible, especially if it should develop into a private-public hybrid. The opening:

Elon Musk finally did it. Fourteen years after founding SpaceX, and nine months after promising to reveal details about his plans to colonize Mars, the tech mogul made good on that promise Tuesday afternoon in Guadalajara, Mexico. Over the course of a 90-minute speech Musk, always a dreamer, shared his biggest and most ambitious dream with the world—how to colonize Mars and make humanity a multiplanetary species.

And what mighty ambitions they are. The Interplanetary Transport System he unveiled could carry 100 people at a time to Mars. Contrast that to the Apollo program, which carried just two astronauts at a time to the surface of the nearby Moon, and only for brief sojourns. Moreover, Musk’s rocket that would lift all of those people and propellant into orbit would be nearly four times as powerful as the mighty Saturn V booster. Musk envisions a self-sustaining Mars colony with at least a million residents by the end of the century.

Beyond this, what really stood out about Musk’s speech on Tuesday was the naked baring of his soul. Considering his mannerisms, passion, and the utter seriousness of his convictions, it felt at times like the man’s entire life had led him to that particular stage. It took courage to make the speech, to propose the greatest space adventure of all time. His ideas, his architecture for getting it done—they’re all out there now for anyone to criticize, second guess, and doubt.

It is not everyday that one of the world’s notables, a true difference-maker, so completely eschews caution and reveals his deepest ambitions like Musk did with the Interplanetary Transport System. So let us look at those ambitions—the man laid bare, the space hardware he dreams of building—and then consider the feasibility of all this. Because what really matters is whether any of this fantastical stuff can actually happen.•

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We’ve been plugging our heads into the Internet for 20 years, and so far the results have been mixed.

Unfettered information has not proven to be a path to greater truth. Conspiracists of all stripes are doing big business, Donald Trump is a serious contender for the Presidency and Americans think the country is a dangerous place when it’s never been safer. Something has been lost in translation.

Is the answer to go deeper into the cloud? In order to keep AI from obviating our species, Elon Musk wants us to connect our brains to a “benevolent AI.” The question is, would greater clarity attend greater intelligence? “Yes” doesn’t seem to be the definite answer.

From Joe Carmichael at Inverse:

Elon Musk says the key to preventing an artificial intelligence-induced apocalypse is to create an “A.I.-human symbiote.” It’s the fated neural lace, part of the “democratization of A.I. technology,” that connects our brains to the cloud. And when enough brains are connected to the cloud — when “we are the A.I. collectively” — the “evil dictator A.I.” will be powerless against us all, Musk told Y Combinator recently.

Yes, you read that right. Musk yearns for and believes in the singularity — the moment A.I. evolves beyond human control — so long as it comes out better for the humans than it does for the machines. Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is no stranger to out-there ideas: Among his many are that electric, autonomous cars are the future of transportation, that we can colonize Mars, that life is in all likelihood a grand simulation, and that Sundays are best spent baking cookies. (Okay, okay: He’s onto something with that last one.)

Along with running the show at SpaceX and Tesla, Musk co-chairs OpenAI, a nonprofit dedicated to precluding malicious A.I. and producing benevolent A.I. But that’s just one part of the equation; the other part, as he told Y Combinator CEO and fellow OpenAI chair Sam Altman on Thursday, is to incorporate this benevolent A.I. into the human brain. Once that works, he wants to incorporate it into all human brains — or at least those who wish to augment their au naturel minds.•

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For all his hubris, Elon Musk certainly has a noble vision for a better and cleaner world, one in which a species in peril wisely pivots before we’re all buried beneath a global Easter Island. Of course, knowing what should be isn’t the same as making it so. In trying to turn humanity away from using fossil fuels to power its shelter, transportation and commerce, Musk is trying to do on his own what would seem the heaviest lifting even for the biggest states in the world. Colonizing Mars, another of his goals, might be easier.

In an MIT Technology Review piece, Richard Martin suggests Musk may be like Tesla–the man, not the car company–dreaming too big in trying to electrify the world. Other pundits have weighed in on the other end of the spectrum and no one can truly say what the outcome will be, but Musk’s hyper-ambitious goal has always been a long shot, hasn’t it? The most positive scenario that’s also realistic might be that Musk exhorts us to turn to solar and electric, even if his own efforts fail.

From Martin:

Musk’s grand vision for an integrated solar-plus-electric-vehicle behemoth, meanwhile, looks increasingly like a reality distortion field. The opening of the massive solar-panel factory the company is building in Buffalo, New York, has already been pushed back to mid-2017. Some analysts have estimated that the factory is likely to lose as much as $150 million a year once it reaches full production.

What’s more, there is little indication that huge numbers of people are clamoring for the ability to equip their homes with SolarCity panels, a Tesla Powerwall battery, and a charging system for their Teslas. In short, SolarCity’s latest moves could be a signal that merging two companies with combined 2015 losses of $1.6 billion might not be such a great idea after all.
 
SolarCity and other rooftop solar providers rolled to early success on a river of easy money, as banks, emboldened by generous federal subsidies, showed their willingness to underwrite customer-friendly lease deals. The extension of the investment tax creditlate last year heralded a new phase of strong growth for solar power, but companies like SolarCity and SunEdison, which filed for bankruptcy in April, have had a hard time benefiting from it as their market continues to change underneath them. Mostly ignored in yesterday’s layoff news was a separate filing in which the company said it will offer up to $124 million in “solar bonds”—at terms much less favorable to the company than previous such offerings.

SolarCity’s restructuring may well be looked back on as the first wobble that presaged the collapse of Musk’s would-be electric empire.•

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When it comes to electric cars–and solar power and colonizing space–Elon Musk can win and lose at the same time.

The technologist’s stated micro goal in founding Tesla was to create an EV not just as good but better than any traditional auto, so that consumers would prefer his offerings to Big Auto gas guzzlers. The macro goal, of course, was to make the world a far more eco-friendly place, to not only have cleaner cars but to tie their development to that of alternative energies that could be repurposed to private and commericial buildings via batteries. It may not please Tesla stockholders, but Musk could spur these world-altering goals without his company winning significant market share.

In order for EVs to become the choice, lots of players, including Detroit stalwarts, needed to enter the race–and that’s exactly what’s happened. Competition in solar and space exploration have likewise been spurred by Musk’s aspirations. So, Musk’s companies could ultimately be also-rans, even if his aims are achieved, whether we’re talking about reducing our carbon footprint or putting boots to the ground on Mars.

From Maya Kosoff at Vanity Fair “Hive”:

Tesla isn’t the only company producing electric cars anymore. Traditional automakers are starting to infiltrate the space, and the very thing that made Tesla a unique company might be less of a selling point for some customers moving forward.

The latest competitor to take on Tesla is Mercedes, which will offer a four-car all-electric lineup with two S.U.V.s and two sedans, Bloomberg reports. Previously, Mercedes C.E.O. Dieter Zetsche said his company had planned to premiere an electric car this fall at the Paris motor show. Besides the four electric consumer vehicles, Bloomberg reports, Mercedes’s parent company, Daimler AG, is also working on an “all-electric heavy-duty delivery truck,” though it won’t be ready until the beginning of the next decade. Mercedes’s cars, by contrast, are expected to hit the streets within the next few years.

Mercedes and Tesla will have plenty of rivals, besides one another.•

 

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The idea that manufacturing jobs will persist because humans and machines will work in a sort of freestyle-chess collaboration is a lie for two reasons. Firstly, even such a silicon-carbon tandem would necessitate a serious reduction in positions. Secondly, it’s only a matter of time until the part of labor still in our hands will disappear. Eventually almost any work that can be done equally well or better by machines will be ceded to them.

The big question is how quickly will that happen. Across decades, such a drain in jobs can be absorbed, but an accelerated transition will likely cause serious cultural and political upheaval, as we’ve seen perhaps most acutely in 2016 with Trump and Brexit and all manner of worrisome nativism. We’ve begun to point fingers at one another instead of discussing the real threat to economic security–that outsourcing no longer means work moving out of countries but rather out of species.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

For decades, a big trend in manufacturing has been the gradual automation of the factory floor. Robots play a major role in making advanced products today — they’re fast, clean and efficient. But Tesla chief executive Elon Musk wants to take this to a whole new level with the factory producing the upcoming, low-cost Model 3, turning “the machine that makes the machine” into an “alien dreadnought.”

Not literally. The factory isn’t going to become self-aware and turn on its masters; after all, Musk is an avowed skeptic of the kind of general artificial intelligence that could enable killer machines. But the term “alien dreadnought,” Musk told analysts on a conference call Wednesday, refers to what the factory will look like once it’s fully developed in around five years. Its visage will likely inspire something between wonder and terror.

“It’s like, ‘What the hell is that?'” said Musk.

The machine will ultimately be so complex that no humans will be expected to operate it directly, or to participate in the actual building of each Model 3.

“You really can’t have people in the production line itself,” said Musk. “Otherwise you’ll automatically drop to people speed.”•

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Every time I start to criticize Elon Musk, I remember to be thankful he’s not Peter Thiel.

Walter Isaacson famously named Benjamin Franklin when searching for an historical antecedent for Musk, but the Tesla-Space X-Hyperloop-aspiring-Martian billionaire seem to have his heart set on being a multi-planetary Thomas Edison.

In his just-released “Master Plan, Part Deux,” Musk expounds on a vision that would be daunting if it was being attempted by a wonderfully funded Bell Labs or NASA or even a superpower government let alone a struggling private company. The sections on solar roofs and autonomous transport are particularly fascinating.

As Will Oremus writes in a Slate column, one aspect of Musk’s ambitions didn’t make big news despite having world-changing implications. An excerpt:

On Wednesday night, Elon Musk announced a new master plan for his company. It is the philosophical successor to his original master plan, published 10 years ago when few had heard of Tesla and fewer cared. If that first plan seemed implausibly audacious, this one borders on schizophrenic—a compendium of goals so futuristic and disparate that it would be a marvel for any company to achieve one of them, let alone all. They include (deep breath):

  • Building at least four all-new models: a “new kind of pickup truck,” a compact SUV, a semi truck, and a bus-like mass transport vehicle that delivers its passengers from door to door. They’ll all be fully electric, of course.
  • Developing and implementing a fully autonomous driving system that will require no human involvement. The system will have such redundancy that a failure of any part of the driving system will not compromise its ability to navigate safely.
  • Creating a car-sharing platform through which Tesla owners can, at the tap of a button, rent out their self-driving vehicle to a “Tesla shared fleet” when they’re not using it. Others can then summon the car for a ride, generating income for its owner which can help to pay off the price of buying it.
  • Merging Tesla and SolarCity, the country’s largest solar power company, and together developing a seamlessly integrated system that can both capture and store solar power on your rooftop, turning your home into its own energy utility. And then “scale that throughout the world.”

Not even cracking the top four objectives in the new plan is Musk’s recently stated intention to essentially reinvent the mass production process, developing a heavily automated factory that can churn out cars five to 10 times more efficiently than before. In other words, Musk writes, Tesla is designing “the machine that makes the machine—turning the factory itself into a product.”•

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Recently, I published a post about Elon Musk’s Nick Bostrom bender, which has seen the Oxford philosopher influence Space X founder’s opinions on machine intelligence and reality as a video-game simulation. A little more on that topic via a Mark Robert Anderson piece at The Conversation, who debunks the Sims scenario while acknowledging the Martian hopeful may be right on certain points regarding Augmented Reality. An excerpt:

The idea that humans live in a reality controlled by external bodies, whether computers or otherwise, has been around for a while. This has been a question explored by philosophers and even physicists over the centuries. The philosopher Nick Bostrom drew thesame conclusion in 2003.

The similarities between the arguments put forward by Musk and Bostrom go further than proposing we are part of a larger computer simulation, though. Both consider the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to be a dangerous field of technology.According to Musk, the result of progress in AI research and development will be the end of civilisation.Bostrom takesa similar standpoint should appropriate risk assessment not be carried out on development projects.

Fact or fiction?

But is this just paranoia? The claims carry more than a passing resemblance to science fiction movies, such as The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but are Musk and Bostrom voicing valid causes for concern?

The case that we are not living in a simulation is strongly supported by resource arguments. Consider the sheer computing power needed to run such a simulation. A simulation system would need to manage all the entities in the world and all their interactions. This would require a vast amount of processing. Further support can be found in arguments relating to quantum mechanics – to run a truly lifelike simulation of a city, with all its trillions of interactions, would require a city-sized computer. This makes the case for our existence in a simulation very unlikely.•


So strange and wonderful: In 1972, Rod Serling introduces I’ve Got a Secret host Steve Allen to the home version of the video game Pong. Begins at the 15:40 mark.

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If you look through history, great inventors had their breaks from reality–Edison believing he could create a device to communicate with the dead, Marconi thinking he had the ability to exchange Morse Code with Martians. That seems to be part and parcel of large-scale technological dreamers. Elon Musk acknowledges that he’s sometimes given to delusions, but it’s possible that driverless electric cars, the  near-term colonization of Mars and the Hyperloop are not among them. Time will tell.

At Recode’s Code conference, Musk announced the autonomous-car challenge essentially solved and commented on this poisonous U.S. political season. He remarked that the President is the “captain of a large ship with a small rudder.” Musk may be working with a smaller vessel, but he believes its rudder world-changing.

From Brad Stone at Bloomberg Technology:

The South Africa-born entrepreneur is known for his unvarnished views on, say, how malevolent artificial intelligence could doom the human race or space exploration being key to humanity’s evolution. Musk — who said he occasionally succumbs to delusion — debated the best form of government (democracy) for a putative Mars colony, and the need for entrepreneurs to start businesses from iron-ore smelters to pizza delivery that can thrive in that planet’s harsh environment. But he also touched on matters far closer to home, including the divisive U.S. elections. Asked about controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump, Musk said no one person had the clout to affect the entire country, not even the Commander-in-Chief.

“I don’t think this is the finest moment for our democracy,” he said. “Being U.S. president is being the captain of a large ship with a small rudder. There is a limit to how much good or bad a president can do.”

Business-wise, Musk welcomed competition in what he called an increasingly crowded electric and self-driving arena, including from Apple Inc., which he expected to begin producing cars in volume by 2020. The iPhone maker however has never confirmed any plans on that front. Google Inc. on the other hand, which has spent years researching and testing autonomous vehicles, posed no direct threat.

“There’ve been so many announcement s of autonomous EV startups. I’m waiting for my mom to announce one,” he said. “Google’s done a good job of showing the potential of autonomous transport, but they’re not a car company.”•

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Elon Musk, the self-appointed governor of Mars, may or may not be deceiving himself about the timeframe for settling our neighboring planet, as he has sometimes with his schedule for Tesla deliveries, but he isn’t oblivious to the perils involved in rushing people headlong into space. “It’s dangerous and probably people will die—and they’ll know that,” he tells the Washington Post, in an article by Christian Davenport that provides deeper details about the twin missions of establishing a cargo route and a permanent colony.

What’s amazing is that regardless of Musk’s success in creating Martians, it only seems somewhat audacious that a recently founded private company can compete with governments in Space Race 2.0. That speaks to so much about our era: technological innovation, the moonshot mentality and, of course, wealth inequality.

An excerpt:

In an interview with The Post this week, Musk laid out additional details for the first time, equating the spirit of the missions with the settlement of the New World by the colonists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean centuries ago. And he acknowledged the immense difficulties of getting to a planet that is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth.

The months-long journey is sure to be “hard, risky, dangerous, difficult,” Musk said, but he was confident people would sign up to go because “just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that. They want to be the pioneers.”

Before those pioneers board a rocket, though, Musk said the unmanned flights would carry science experiments and rovers to the planet. The equipment would be built either by SpaceX, or others. The early flights also would serve to better understand interplanetary navigation and allow the company to test its ability to safely land craft on Mars.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars,” he said. “It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station. And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

The mission is all the more audacious in that SpaceX is a private company without the resources of a government agency.•

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In 1969, computer-processing magnate Ross Perot had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign.

Today Elon Musk wants to blast this vision of direct democracy to Mars, writes Loren Grush of the Verge, asserting that representational government is too prone to corruption. Whether or not Musk realizes his dream of dying on Mars–but not on impact–his grand ambitions speak to the insanity of wealth inequality in the second Gilded Age. The SpaceX technologist seems one of the more well-intentioned thinkers among Silicon Valley’s freshly minted billionaires, but think how preposterous it is that any individual is declaring what type of government a planet we’ve never visited most likely will have. 

Walter Isaacson famously compared Musk to Benjamin Franklin, but the latter flew kites any child could purchase. Musk’s toys are far more expensive and in the hands of the few. That’s not really good for a democracy, direct or otherwise.

An excerpt:

Elon Musk has been pretty focused on setting up a colony on Mars, so naturally he has a few ideas as to the type of government the Red Planet should have. Speaking at ReCode’s Code Conference on Wednesday night, the SpaceX CEO said he envisions a direct democracy for Martian colonies, as a way to avoid corruption.

“Most likely the form of government on Mars would be a direct democracy, not representative,” said Musk. “So it would be people voting directly on issues. And I think that’s probably better, because the potential for corruption is substantially diminished in a direct versus a representative democracy.”

Musk also suggested that on Mars it should be harder to create laws than it is to get rid of ones that aren’t working well. “I think I would recommend some adjustment for the inertia of laws would be wise. It should probably be easier to remove a law than create one,” said Musk. “I think that’s probably good, because laws have infinite life unless they’re taken away.”•

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Elon Musk has been on a Nick Bostrom bender for awhile now, spending big money hoping to counter Homo sapiens-eradicating AI, after devouring the Oxford philosopher’s book Superintelligence. This week, the Mars-positive mogul contended humans are almost definitely merely characters in a more advanced civilization’s video game, something Bostrom has theorized for quite some time. Two excerpts follow: 1) The opening of John Tierney’s excellent 2007 NYT article, “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” and 2) Ezra Klein’s Vox piece about Musk’s Sims-friendly statements.


From Tierney:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in The Matrix, in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.

You couldn’t, as in The Matrix, unplug your brain and escape from your vat to see the physical world. You couldn’t see through the illusion except by using the sort of logic employed by Dr. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.•


From Klein:

By far the best moment of Recode’s annual Code Conference was when Elon Musk took the stage and explained that though we think we’re flesh-and-blood participants in a physical world, we are almost certainly computer-generated entities living inside a more advanced civilization’s video game.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Musk’s argument in full: 

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

Tell me what’s wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?•

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It’s hard to conjure a more perfect example of the dual nature on contemporary industry and technology, the boon and the bane, then Tesla’s reason for being confident about the Chinese market. The head-spinning transformation of that state has lifted millions from poverty–and delivered to them the world’s worst air pollution and highest cancer rates. Elon Musk’s EVs promise to filter air inside the vehicle so that it’s 800 times cleaner than Beijing’s oxygen. Just make sure you’re door is not ajar.

From CNBC:

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath in Beijing, you’ll understand why Tesla is so excited about “bioweapon defense mode.”

Given China’s well-documented problems with air quality, Tesla is hoping the cabin-filtering feature will be a major selling point as it expands sales of its electric cars there.

“One of the most interesting features for the Chinese market is the bioweapon defense mode,” said Jon McNeill, head of global sales and service for Tesla, in an interview with Chinese broadcaster CCTV that was posted on Twitter Wednesday.

“It creates air that’s 800 times cleaner than the outside air,” he added.•

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Speaking of solid, middle-class jobs being disappeared by technology, Elon Musk has tipped his hand, if just a bit, on a driverless vehicle that he believes can replace much of public transportation. Could be great for congestion and environmentalism, though not so much for bus drivers.

From Marie Mawad at Bloomberg Technology:

Tesla’s Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is working on a self-driving vehicle he says could replace buses and other public transport in order to reduce traffic in cities. But he’s keeping the development a secret.

“We have an idea for something which is not exactly a bus but would solve the density problem for inner city situations,” Musk said Thursday at a transport conference in Norway. “Autonomous vehicles are key,” he said of the project, declining to disclose more. “I don’t want to talk too much about it. I have to be careful what I say.”•

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As a visionary business person, Elon Musk is complicated. He’s the Tesla EV car manufacturer who’s repeatedly over-promised on price and production. Of course, he’s also the aspiring spaceman who stuck the landing of a reusable rocket on the deck of a drone ship. So his bold proclamations in regards to the near-term delivery of the first fully autonomous car–he promises we’ll be able to summon our driverless Model 3 across the country by 2018–should make us wary–or not. 

Most driverless systems use LIDAR, which has limitations in inclement conditions, so a true robocar won’t be a self-contained thing. It will need be informed not only by regularly updated mapping, which won’t be perfect and will constantly have its accuracy degraded, but will also need to be in communication with other automobiles and different smart gadgets. Google, with its gazillion Android devices fanned out across the country, would seem to have an advantage born of synergy, but Musk believes his AI is superior and far cheaper. I seriously doubt anyone will have such a fully-realized system ready for the market in 20 months, though further significant integration of driverless capabilities and Atlantic-to-Pacific demos wouldn’t shock me. Of course, if you had told me a couple of years ago that a reusable rocket would gently lower onto a drone ship in 2016, I would have bet the under on that one also.

Two excerpts follow, one from a New Yorker piece by Levi Tillemann and Colin McCormick, which explains how Tesla may have quietly developed a better strategy, and the other a segment of an Economist article which offers a crisp explanation of the significant hurdles that must be cleared for robocars, some of which would appear to apply even to Musk’s LIDAR-less plan.


From the New Yorker:

In October of 2014, Tesla began offering its Model S and X customers a “technology package,” which included this sensor array and cost about four thousand dollars. The equipment allowed the company to record drivers’ movements, unless they opted out of the tracking, and—most important—to start amassing an enormous trove of data. A year later, it remotely activated its “Autopilot” software on tens of thousands of these cars. Suddenly, drivers had the ability to engage some limited autonomous functions, including dynamic cruise control (pegging your car’s speed to the speed of the car in front of you), course alignment inside highway lanes, and on-command lane-changing. Some drivers were unnerved by the Autopilot functions, and cars occasionally swerved or drove off the road. But many of Tesla’s tech-tolerant early adopters relished the new features.

Autopilot also gave Tesla access to tens of thousands of “expert trainers,” as Musk called them. When these de-facto test drivers overrode the system, Tesla’s sensors and learning algorithms took special note. The company has used its growing data set to continually improve the autonomous-driving experience for Tesla’s entire fleet. By late 2015, Tesla was gathering about a million miles’ worth of driving data every day.

To understand how commanding a lead this gives the company in the race for real-world autonomous-driving data, consider the comparably small number of lidar-based autonomous vehicles—all of them test cars—that some of its competitors have on the road. California, where much of the research on self-driving cars is taking place, requires companies to register their autonomous vehicles, so we know that currently Nissan has just four such cars on the road in the state, while Mercedes has five. Google has almost eighty registered in the state (though not all of them are in service); it is also doing limited testing in Arizona, Texas, and Washington. Ford announced earlier this year that it was adding twenty new cars to its test fleet, giving it thirty vehicles on the road in Arizona, California, and Michigan, which it says is the largest fleet of any traditional automaker. By comparison, Tesla has sold roughly thirty-five thousand cars in the U.S. since October of 2014. The quality of the data that these vehicles are producing is unlikely to be as rich as the information the lidar cars are providing, but Tesla’s vastly superior fleet size means that its autonomous cars can rack up as much driving experience every day or two as Google’s cars have cumulatively.


From the Economist:

Some car firms, including Nissan, Ford, Kia and Tesla, think self-driving technology will be ready by 2020. Volvo plans to offer fully autonomous cars to 100 drivers as early as next year. All this increases the pressure to map the world in high definition before cars begin to drive themselves out of showrooms. HERE has several hundred vehicles like George mapping millions of kilometres of roads annually in 32 countries. TomTom has 70 on motorways and major roads in Europe and North America. Zenrin, a Japanese mapping firm partly owned by Toyota, is particularly active in Asia.

Analysing and processing data from so many vehicles is one of the biggest challenges. HERE originally had people inspecting the raw LIDAR data and turning it into a digital model using editing software—rather like “Minecraft for maps”, says Mr Ristevski. But manually extracting the data was painfully slow, and the company has now developed machine-learning algorithms to find automatically such things as lane markings and the edges of pavements. HERE’s AI systems can identify road signs and traffic lights from George’s still photos. Humans then modify and tweak the results, and check for errors.

Yet George’s data begin to age as soon as they are collected. Subsequent construction, roadworks or altered speed limits could lead to a self-driving car working from a dangerously outdated map. Maps will never be completely up-to-date, admits Mr Ristevski. “Our goal will be to keep the map as fresh and accurate as possible but vehicle sensors must be robust enough to handle discrepancies.”

Mapping vehicles are sent back to big cities like San Francisco regularly, but the vast majority of the roads they capture might be revisited annually, at best. A partial solution is to use what Mr Ristevski euphemistically calls “probe data”: the digital traces of millions of people using smartphones and connected in-car systems for navigation. HERE receives around 2 billion individual pieces of such data daily, comprising a car’s location, speed and heading, some of it from Windows devices (a hangover from when HERE was owned by Nokia, now part of Microsoft).

These data are aggregated and anonymised to preserve privacy, and allow HERE quickly to detect major changes such as road closures. As cars become more sophisticated, these data should become richer. Ultimately, reckons Mr Ristevski, self-driving cars will help to maintain their own maps.•

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