TECHNOLOGY

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk Have Vastly Different Views on Artificial Intelligence

The Amazon CEO doesn’t share the views of some of his more fearful fellow tech leaders.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 11 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

While artificial intelligence continues to become a part of everyday life for consumers, the technology has gathered a pretty impressive collection of critics and fear mongers.

Don't count Jeff Bezos among them. The Amazon founder and CEO paints a fairly rosy picture when it comes to A.I.--and he thinks there should be much more of it.

The comments came at a gala Friday put on by the Internet Association, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist group. During a fireside chat with the group's CEO, Michael Beckerman, Bezos said we are currently in the "golden age" of machine learning.

"We are solving problems with machine learning and artificial intelligence that were in the realm of science fiction for the last several decades," he said. "Natural language understanding, machine vision problems--it really is an amazing renaissance."

Bezos spoke of a future in which A.I. has application far beyond technology products. "Machine learning and A.I. is a horizontal enabling layer," he said. "It will empower and improve every business, every government organization, every philanthropy. Basically, there's no institution in the world that cannot be improved with machine learning."

That's in stark contrast to some tech leaders, most notably Elon Musk, who have warned about the dangers of the technology. Musk recently presented a futuristic scenario in which even the most benign forms of A.I. could have catastrophic effects on humanity.

"Let's say you create a self-improving A.I. to pick strawberries," Musk told Vanity Fair, "and it gets better and better at picking strawberries and picks more and more and it is self-improving, so all it really wants to do is pick strawberries. So then it would have all the world be strawberry fields. Strawberry fields forever."

While some organizations, like Google, have proposed developing a kill switch to shut down overly aggressive A.I., Musk doesn't believe this is plausible.

"I'm not sure I'd want to be the one holding the kill switch for some super-powered A.I.," he said, "because you'd be the first thing it kills."

Musk's school of thought is shared by Y Combinator president Sam Altman and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, with whom he co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit meant to ensure A.I. is used for good. The three are part of a group of tech elites that have pledged $1 billion dollars toward the company.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, recently laid out a scenario in which A.I. that's used in business settings eventually becomes so smart, it runs entire companies and financial institutions on its own--and thus controls entire economies. "You have survival of the fittest going on between these A.I. companies," he said, "until you reach the point where you wonder if it becomes possible to understand how to ensure they are being fair--and how do you describe to a computer what that means, anyway?"

Stephen Hawking has spoken out against A.I. too, saying that he fears it "could spell the end of the human race." Last year, Hawking opened a research center at Cambridge University, meant to nurture ideas for using A.I. to solve world problems--and for regulating its use.

Amazon has leaned more heavily into artificial intelligence in recent years. As Bezos pointed out during his talk, the company is continually improving its website's search feature and product recommendations using machine learning. More visibly, the Echo home assistant relies on A.I. and uses machine learning to improve its capabilities.

The company is also developing drones for delivering goods, which the company hopes will someday fly autonomously. "Those things use a tremendous amount of machine learning, machine vision systems," Bezos said.