When it comes to artificial intelligence, few people have as much of a strong interest and healthy fear regarding the future as Elon Musk. The CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla recently signed a letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons and military robots alongside Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, and Steve Wozniak, among others. The goal of the letter was to divert artificial intelligence research into systems that "do what we want to do," rather than creating robots capable of thinking too much for themselves.
What this all alludes to is that eventually, in an event referred to as the technological singularity, the advancement of technology will reach a point at which the computing power of artificial intelligence surpasses that of the human brain. In theory, if a "robot" was smarter than a human, it could become self-aware and decide that it's no longer in need of the humans who created it.
This is of course rather dramatic, but not altogether impossible — Musk called artificial intelligence humanity's "biggest existential threat" at an MIT event last year, comparing it to "summoning the demon." That's why he and a few other big names in tech have committed $1 billion to a new nonprofit company called OpenAI, with the hope of developing artificial intelligence in a responsible manner.
"It's hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it's equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly," a blog post announcing the launch said.
While AI is a rather broad term, encompassing everything from smart email reply to humanoid robots that could start taking over human jobs, such initiatives are necessary because they jump ahead of a potential issue before it boils over later in the century. While it's hard to envision a world where robots rise up against us, such resources wouldn't go into preventing the scenario if it wasn't at least an outside possibility. So thank Musk and friends for looking way further ahead than most people prefer to. That forward thinking might save us one day.
Cover image: Jiuguang Wang via Flickr