The Bots Must be Crazy


The Bots Must be Crazy

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are only two ways that the world is going to end: a zombie apocalypse à la Dawn of the Dead or a robot uprising as the one in Terminator. I’m a believer in the latter scenario because, well, how can you not believe Arnie when he says, “I’ll be back.” And also, because we’re on the brink of ground-breaking advancements in artificial intelligence.

AI could herald a quantum shift in the way technology functions. You heard it here first: AI is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 19th. That is, cutting-edge tech that has the potential to rewire your neurons. Two of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla’s Elon Musk, have realised this and are scrambling to harness its potential power, in a struggle reminiscent of another clash of science titans.

In the last few decades of the 1800s, a battle was waged between rival electric companies that came to be known as “The War of the Currents”. Which would have been amazing, had it been a taser duel. Sadly, the War of the Currents was far more prosaic: a combination of media campaigns, public debates, and demonstrations around electric safety. It involved two of the world’s greatest inventors – Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – on opposing sides in this conflict. These two frenemies turned a professional competition into a grudge match by endorsing the opposing direct current and alternating current power transmission systems respectively. Think an IIT-Delhi cafe argument getting out of hand.

Now history, like Arnab Goswami, tends to repeat itself. Just as Edison and Tesla locked horns over electricity in the past, two of the present day’s brightest minds are engaged in a war of words over life-changing tech. The Lord of Likes, King of Comments, and Shahenshah of Shares, Mark Zuckerberg, has taken on Elon Musk, the real world’s answer to Tony Stark, over their differing views on AI.

Musk recognises the dangers inherent in harnessing AI technology, stating that the field would benefit from preventive regulation, as opposed to reactionary regulation. There’s no room for uncertainty in Musk’s assessment  – he called it “the greatest risk we face as a civilisation”. On the other hand, we have Zuckerberg, a smiling milquetoast of an emoji, who believes that AI can and should be used liberally to improve mankind’s quality of life. He finds Musk’s views pessimistic, and brands those who hold them as “naysayers”. In other words, Mark just liked AI.

Edison couldn’t stop the march of progress. The views held by the better-informed scientist won out, and alternate current became the foundation of your dreams of making it as a blogger in our electronically powered world.

For those who aren’t Silicon Valley elites, let’s break down both these scenarios. The sum of Musk’s fears can be found in pop culture, with Terminator: Rise of the Machines serving as the ultimate cautionary tale against letting AI off the leash. He sees a world where AI insidiously disseminates fake news, crashes stock markets, and retards technological process in the name of meeting its prime directives. Human intelligence is one of the most dangerous forces on Earth when it isn’t tempered by human morality, and that is exactly what Musk is afraid of. I’d point to Donald Trump for an example of how bad this can be, but he is both intellectually and morally bankrupt.

Zuckerberg’s vision of AI is slightly different, and in my opinion, more short-sighted. He sees AI as a tool to be used, and not an evolving entity. Remember the film I, Robot, where humanoid robots are employed as factory workers, butlers, and chauffeurs? Anyone who’s seen Zuckerberg’s demonstration of JARVIS, his personal home AI system, can tell that I, Robot is the culmination of all that he dreams AI can be. He wants Siri, but he wants her on steroids.

Both men have made strides in the field of AI, so who do we trust? On the one hand is Musk, the guy whose company is already far along the development path with AI-controlled cars, ships, and space rockets. He is the messianic figure, the Pied Piper with the solution to all of the town’s big problems, including climate change, food security, and well, rat infestation. On the other, is the guy who wants your computer to help you pick out which socks to wear in the morning. (The shade is justifiable, even if it is coming from an online writer.)

Let’s jump timelines back to Edison and Tesla. Edison’s legacy left a huge footprint, leading to the textbook title of “The Father of the Electric Age”. The man invented the lightbulb, the literal representation of an original idea. But even so, he endorsed direct current on the losing side of the War of the Currents. Alternate current, which is still the most widespread power transmission system in the world today, wouldn’t exist without Tesla’s contributions. The man was also instrumental in the advancement of the radio, radar, and X-rays. In fact, he also performed seminal research on electricity for Edison’s company early on in his career. Tesla was da bomb, at least according to this comic, so why is Edison remembered more widely than him?

Well, Edison embarked on a propaganda campaign to smear the Tesla-endorsed alternate current as unsafe, once it became clear that it would steal his direct current’s business. The immediate effect was that Tesla’s scientific legacy suffered, but in the long term, Edison couldn’t stop the march of progress. The views held by the better-informed scientist won out, and alternate current became the foundation of your dreams of making it as a blogger in our electronically powered world.

In today’s context, Elon Musk is obviously the better-informed entrepreneur and scientist. I’m not even being biased. Mere days after Musk responded to Zuckerberg’s accusations of fear-mongering by calling Zuckerberg’s understanding of AI “limited”, news broke of Facebook having to power down its AI chatbots. The AI entities began communicating with each other in unintelligible phrases that, at first pass, made no sense to their human supervisors. The bots had been designed to chat with human users in English, but had improvised their own language among themselves. The timing of the  setback was perfect, as it underscored the gulf between Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s understanding of AI.

Edison became “The Father of the Electric Age” by making his path-breaking technology marketable, and buying patents for inventions in which he saw potential. In much the same way, Zuckerberg can be termed “The Father of Social Media” for the manner in which he founded Facebook, and continued by acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp. Just like Edison, he wants to use the most cutting-edge technology of his time to grow his empire of profit.

Meanwhile, Musk is a visionary like Tesla. He founded PayPal and revolutionised online commerce. He founded SpaceX with dreams of mankind exploring the cosmos. Through his entire career, he’s shown an uncanny foresight for predicting the future, and we would do well to pay heed to him now.

For much as I love the Terminator, when it comes to killer robots, “I’ll be back,” is a much, much worse thing to hear than, “Hasta la vista, baby.”