2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference – Opening Ceremony

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma and Tesla CEO Elon Musk went head-to-head in a debate in Shanghai.VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

The organizers of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai got more than they bargained for when they arranged a debate between Alibaba’s billionaire chairman Jack Ma and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The leading tech entrepreneurs riffed on AI, chimpanzees, aliens, work cultures and Musk’s obsession with Mars during a wide-ranging and often quite bizarre discussion.

With a combined net worth of over $56 billion, the pair delved deep into the potential benefits and consequences of this burgeoning technology.

Tesla’s Musk argued that “people think of AI as a smart human; it’s going to be much more than that.” Tesla’s CEO likened the plight of ordinary humans trying to understand AI to that of chimpanzees trying to understand humans. “We must just seem like strange aliens,” he said, adding, “If the difference is only that small, that would be amazing.”



Elon Musk, cofounder and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc.© 2017 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

Musk, who also owns brain implant startup Neuralink, said that the biggest problem he’s facing right now is that the researchers “can’t imagine something smarter than themselves”. On the AI systems of the future, Musk adds, “I hope they’re nice.”

Continuing on the disparity between humans and AI, Musk describes the speed with which humans will communicate with AI as being like “very low tonal wheezing … kind of like whale sounds.”

Jack Ma, on the other hand, argued for the potential human gain from AI technology and what it can help us understand about ourselves. “I don’t think that artificial intelligence is a threat. I don’t think that it’s something terrible. [And] Human beings are smart enough to learn that.” To which Musk added, “I dunno, man. Famous last words.”

On Another Planet

In the event hosted by the state-owned China Global Television Network Ma changed the subject to Musk’s ambition of “going to the Mars”.

Looking to the future, Musk said we must “take the set of actions most likely to continue consciousness. . . . We should not take it for granted that consciousness should continue. We have not encountered any aliens. Where are the aliens? This is one of the most important questions. There’s people out there who think we’ve found aliens. Trust me. I would know.”

One viewer, Frank Peelen, commented on the YouTube livestream, “​We need a moderator so bad.”

Education Reform

Riffing across subjects from jobs to education, the Alibaba chief elevated the tone in arguing that AI has the potential to transform our working week by cutting the time spent in the office to just 12 hours. Ma urged “For the next 10, 20 years, every human being, country, government should focus on reforming the education system, making sure our kids can find a job, a job that only requires three days a week, four hours a day.”

The comments mark a shift from Ma’s endorsement in April this year for the 12-hour workday culture at China’s startups and tech giants, dubbed “996”, shorthand for working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. “996 is not a problem,” Ma said in a blog post on Chinese social media site Weibo. “If you don’t like [your work], every minute is torture,” he added.

Via Forbes