Elon Musk has established himself as a leading voice among the tech elite in raising concern about how artificial intelligence might threaten humanity. Now, he and his peers are proving their seriousness with their wallets.
Musk is at the head of a group of tech elites pooling together $1 billion to back a new nonprofit research company, OpenAI, aimed at advancing AI technology that will benefit humanity. The company will have a lab that will initially operate from a space provided by Y Combinator in San Francisco, and its findings and developments will be available on an open source basis.
Among the founders and backers of the new initiative are numerous individuals who have been vocal about their concerns that artificial intelligence software might, in attempting to solve problems, end up threatening humanity. As Musk once suggested, an AI spam filter might determine that the best way to get rid of spam is to destroy the human race. Here are some of the thoughts behind why OpenAI is necessary--and how those thoughts vary.
Musk has called artificial intelligence the "biggest existential threat" to humanity, but also thinks the technology's development is inevitable. "It's definitely going to happen. So if it's going to happen, what's the best way for it to happen?" he once asked as part of a panel on super intelligence taking place on the Google headquarters campus.
Altman wrote a blog post in February about why people should fear artificial intelligence technology, followed by one about what to do about that fear. "Development of superhuman machine intelligence (SMI) is probably the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity," he wrote. "At some point, someone will probably try to give a program the fitness function of 'survive and reproduce'.... Unfortunately for us, one thing I learned when I was a student in the Stanford AI lab is that programs often achieve their fitness function in unpredicted ways."
Thiel has called Altman and Musk's fears "a little bit overdone at this point," but for years has admitted that the outcome of artificial intelligence research could be a mixed bag. An artificially intelligent computer "could be very good, it could be very bad, it could be somewhere in between," he told Business Insider in 2009. "Certainly we would hope that it would be friendly to human beings." Regardless of how friendly AI might be, Thiel says that with the technology developing, it might be best not to come off as an anti-computer human being, lest future synthetic entities turn out to be the type to hold a grudge.
Others individuals involved in backing the new organization include Y Combinator's Jessica Livingston, venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, and former Stripe CTO Greg Brockman, who will be serving as CTO of OpenAI.