The idea that humans could create an artificial intelligence that might some day attempt to destroy us has long been a central theme in science fiction. Most recently, it was theme of a Johnny Depp movie last year, Transcendence, in which an AI project careens wildly out of control, with dire consequences for humanity.
But this is not just science fiction; it’s also a philosophical problem, and an area of scientific inquiry that is becoming increasingly important as we make advances in the field.
One man who clearly sees the potential dangers of artificial intelligence is the founder of Space X and chief architect of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, who has called it humanity’s “biggest existential threat,” and said, "We need to be very careful." Musk adds: “I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish."
Now, Musk is putting his money where his mouth is, in the form of a $10 million donation to the Future of Life Institute for a global research program aimed at ensuring artificial intelligence remains safe for humanity. The donation comes in response to an open letter from a number of leading AI researchers, who have voiced the need for more work to be done in this area. Typical of Musk's philanthropic tendencies, the money will be awarded to researchers worldwide through a grant competition.
A trustee of the X Prize Foundation, Musk has helped create competitions to send private citizens into space, return to the moon, accelerate genome sequencing, promote advances in clean energy, and more. Perhaps his most ambitious goal, however, is to one day create a colony on Mars—the idea being that if some catastrophic event wiped out humanity on earth, or made it uninhabitable, our species would still survive. (Try pitching that project to the Ford Foundation.)
While Musk’s style of philanthropy may not yield the immediate or direct benefits of more traditional giving, it’s the sort of high-risk, high-reward proposition to which tech entrepreneurs are often drawn. So there is perhaps the question of whether these resources are going where they’re most needed, but there’s no question that Musk is a visionary, and that his philanthropic investments could eventually have a big impact in shaping the future of our society—especially when he gets around to giving away the bulk of a fortune that now stands at $7.8 billion. That should be interesting to watch.