The consciousness of Elon Musk

That Elon Musk thinks machines will someday be smarter than humans[1] says a lot about his epistemology: He really believes in artificial intelligence idiocy. He really believes in big data (mining). Which is to say he believes statistical correlation is truth. And which is to say he failed to learn an important lesson taught in basic statistics classes.

This emerges from a debate between Musk and Jack Ma, held at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, as covered in Bloomberg.[2]

An onstage debate between China’s richest man [Jack Ma] and the Tesla Inc. boss [Elon Musk] left a largely Chinese audience both awestruck and dumbfounded as the pair sparred over everything from the existence of aliens to the preservation of human consciousness. Musk, alternating between tech visionary and larger-than-life Bond villain, argued that AI [artificial intelligence] will soon surpass the human race; that civilization may end and hence humankind needed to explore the cosmos (specifically Mars); and that people are essentially dumb creatures circumscribed by genes.[3]

It’s easy to sneer at something like Ma’s “Love Q,” which apparently also came up,[4] and I might criticize this idea for suggesting that emotional values can be quantified (assuming that’s what he means), but what Ma actually exposes there, intentionally or not, is that there are other forms of knowledge that are unlikely to be captured with correlation.

Indeed. Ironically, Musk apparently attributes “the light of consciousness” solely to humans, which is kind of a curious point: I think few people who have experience with nonhuman animals would deny their consciousness.

Yet if we are also to believe that “people are essentially dumb creatures circumscribed by genes,”[5] and therefore not very different from nonhuman animals, Musk would seem to divorce intelligence from consciousness and, I am tempted to say, to divorce intelligence from the very thing that makes it intelligent.

This is tricky stuff: What exactly is consciousness? Is it awareness? If so, of what? One’s surroundings? Sure, machine sensors can do that. Awareness of oneself in relationship to one’s environment is a simple matter of modeling. We can see that in a display of sensor readings indicating a vehicle’s location relative to other objects or in the safety systems I’ve experienced in a rented Toyota.

But what about awareness of one’s self? That’s a bit harder. And how do we know when a machine is in fact self-aware? This isn’t just measuring the distance between objects. And this isn’t about deceiving a human into believing the responses s/he hears come from a human, as with the Turing test.[6] It’s about literally peering into the experience of another being—a machine—and recognizing that that being has an experience of itself. I don’t know how we even do that, how we even ask the question.

That’s an important question because the answer requires we know the difference between a programmed response and one of a consciousness, even if the latter is “circumscribed by genes.” And because when we can answer in the affirmative that a machine is conscious, that will mean that the manner in which we treat that machine will be subject to ethical constraints and that that machine has certain rights.

  1. [1]Edwin Chan, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Chunying Zhang, “The Time a Jet-Lagged Musk Made Alibaba’s Jack Ma Sound Grounded,” Bloomberg, August 29, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-29/the-time-a-jet-lagged-musk-made-alibaba-s-jack-ma-sound-grounded
  2. [2]Edwin Chan, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Chunying Zhang, “The Time a Jet-Lagged Musk Made Alibaba’s Jack Ma Sound Grounded,” Bloomberg, August 29, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-29/the-time-a-jet-lagged-musk-made-alibaba-s-jack-ma-sound-grounded
  3. [3]Edwin Chan, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Chunying Zhang, “The Time a Jet-Lagged Musk Made Alibaba’s Jack Ma Sound Grounded,” Bloomberg, August 29, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-29/the-time-a-jet-lagged-musk-made-alibaba-s-jack-ma-sound-grounded
  4. [4]Edwin Chan, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Chunying Zhang, “The Time a Jet-Lagged Musk Made Alibaba’s Jack Ma Sound Grounded,” Bloomberg, August 29, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-29/the-time-a-jet-lagged-musk-made-alibaba-s-jack-ma-sound-grounded
  5. [5]Elon Musk, paraphrased in Edwin Chan, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Chunying Zhang, “The Time a Jet-Lagged Musk Made Alibaba’s Jack Ma Sound Grounded,” Bloomberg, August 29, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-29/the-time-a-jet-lagged-musk-made-alibaba-s-jack-ma-sound-grounded
  6. [6]Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd ed., s.v. “Turing test.”

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