"Luddite" is not the term you'd expect to see applied to a man who envisions self-driving cars, space tourism and hyperloop trains in the relatively near future and is actively working to make those things a reality. Yet a Washington D.C. think tank believes technologist Elon Musk has earned the label for raising the public's anxiety level around artificial intelligence.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation announced Tuesday that it was granting its 2015 Luddite Award to Musk, alongside physicist Stephen Hawking and "a loose coalition of scientists and luminaries," for supposed alarmism that "distracts attention from the enormous benefits that AI can offer society," according to a press release from ITIF.

The annual award goes to the year's "worst innovation killers." 

ITIF president Robert D. Atkinson said in a statement that the award was not intended to classify Musk and Hawking personally as luddites. "But they and others have done a disservice to the public--and have unquestionably given aid and comfort to an increasingly pervasive neo-Luddite impulse in society today--by demonizing AI in the popular imagination."

Musk has called artificial intelligence "the biggest existential threat" to humanity, but has also said he believes advances in artificial intelligence technologies are inevitable. He has urged members of the tech community to consider how society can prepare for such advances and facilitate the development of AI applications that benefit, rather than harm, humanity.

The Tesla CEO and other prominent Silicon Valley executives announced late last year that they were throwing their weight behind nonprofit research company OpenAI, aimed at advancing AI technology that will benefit humanity.

ITIF selected the group of AI "alarmists" for the award based on a public vote. Other candidates for the annual award included states opposed to automatic license plate readers, states and nations that have shown preference for taxi organizations over ridesharing companies, and Wyoming, which has apparently outlawed citizen science.

Given Musk and others' investment in so-called "good AI," the award seems to exaggerate AI skeptics' hysteria. But Atkinson asserts that fears Musk and Hawking have raised about AI could have a chilling effect on technological development and innovation.

"Raising sci-fi doomsday scenarios is unhelpful, because it spooks policymakers and the public, which is likely to erode support for more research, development, and adoption," he said.

The think tank president believes AI will improve society by increasing productivity, creating jobs and increasing wages. Researchers at consulting firm McKinsey & Company and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla predict that AI will at least initially destroy a large portion of, if not most, human jobs.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016