Elon Musk’s Fears

Elon Musk has been raging that artificial intelligence (AI) is more dangerous than nuclear weapons and is an ‘existential threat’ to the human race.

Musk seems to believe that once AI achieves self-awareness Terminators will bloom like weeds and the human race can kiss tomorrow goodbye. But is this really the threat that Musk is concerned with or is it something more mundane.

Capitalism is the agenda of corralling all of the world’s resources into private ownership. This is known as closing the commons.  Once achieved no man could be self-sufficient. Gone would be the days when a man could hunt wild game, graze cattle on an open range or clear the land to farm and grow crops. Fast forward 200 years and this same man can no longer collect rain water in his own ponds on his own property because the water is owned by a corporation that purchased that year’s rainfall. If he is a farmer he can no longer grow food because a corporation owns the patent on the genetic structure of the plants and animals that he is raising. In the not too distant future people with solar power will have to pay some corporation for using their sunlight or their wind if you happen to have a windmill. In effect the closing of the commons turns everything and everybody into a commodity.

Everything except the corporations. It has been a long struggle for these factitious entities to obtain ‘personhood’ but having achieved it they are the only entities on the planet that are actually free. Indeed it appears that being a corporation or the equally factitious entity known as a charitable trust transforms a conspiracy into a very privileged person. Unlike you and I these entities live forever, cannot be impressed into military service, cannot be imprisoned for wrongdoing and are entitled to rights of privacy denied to the common man. In fact, it appears that they can’t even be taxed because whatever tax they pay this year is eventually recovered as a tax credit in some future year. Furthermore, under the guise of promoting national security or the equally spurious common good they are the recipient of generous corporate welfare payments financed by the taxes paid by the disenfranchised working class (no, your votes really don’t count — literally, they are not counted).

In economics it is generally recognized that it is human effort that transforms a resource like oil or trees into a commodity like gasoline or lumber. In the closing of the commons the human effort was intellectual (pettifoggers and priests) and outright theft made possible by a strong military. History is made by thieves, murderers, con men and extortionists but politics aside someone has to build the homes that we live in, the cars we drive, the stuff we use. As they say, life goes on.

For all of the criticism leveled against Karl Marx he at least acknowledged that increasing productivity and falling wages results in greater profits. The class war he envisioned was one of the mill owner’s efforts to get more work at lower wages from a resisting labor force.  The mill owner’s ‘ace in the hole’ was the army of the unemployed. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is the capitalist’s wet dream.

But what will happen to all of this when we introduce machines with AI? Of course, machines are designed to do a specific task at a specific rate. Productivity can be increased but the set-off is higher maintenance costs and increased rejects on the assembly line. So let us consider some of the problems of replacing human labor with machines.

1) With humans it is ‘use em and loose em’ but machines aren’t like that. You own the machine. You have to keep up the maintenance on the machine because it is your investment.  The advantage of replacing human slavery with wage slavery is lost when you employ machines.

2) Humans can work harder to increase productivity. With proper planning you can hire an employee, buy key man life insurance (known as dead peasant insurance), work him to an early death and collect the insurance on his life. You make a profit off of his efforts while he is alive and a bigger profit when he dies.

3) Employees who refuse to do something illegal can be threatened with being fired. You can’t fire a machine but you can reprogram it to do illegal things. It is the same problem as getting rid of the janitor or the butler. When John Law shows up, who are you going to throw to the wolves? The problem is that if you get rid of the human being, you also get rid of the fall guy. You can’t indict a machine.

4) Once you replace all the human workers with machines what happens to your customer base? You can’t sell things to people who have no money and no credit. And, the people with money and credit already own everything.

5) Where is the profit? If Marx was correct, profit is the difference between the value of how much work you can get out of someone and the pittance that you have to pay them hopefully calculated as the subsistence wage below which the worker would starve to death. By this definition if you have no human workers, you also have no profit.

6) You can’t lie to a machine. You can’t swindle a machine. You can’t threaten a machine. You can’t blackball a machine. You can’t even promote a machine. In any enterprise where everything is done by machine, there is little or no need for management. And, by definition, human resources (the Gestapo of any business enterprise) is no longer needed.

Imagine that someone built a very fast, very cheap computer that ran only one program. This program would be an AI program that would scan the internet and report to its owner the probability that the currently promoted facts/ideas were false along with a list of unanswered questions that call these facts/ideas into question. We could call it a bullshit meter. Now this program would not be influenced by emotional pleas of immanent danger or reports with emotionally charged content such as soldiers bayoneting babies because it is a machine and doesn’t care. If everyone had one of these machines imagine how hard it would be for people in Elon Musk’s circle of friends and acquaintances to advance their agenda; to get legislation that makes their life easier and your life harder; to sell you what you don’t need; to get you to vote for the people they want in power who will act against your best interests.

We have lots of machines with artificial intelligence. Reportedly some of these machines have created their own language for communicating with each other. We don’t know what they are saying to each other and that worries people like Elon Musk. We live in a surveillance society where we (actually they – those who make the decisions) don’t trust anyone, but especially anyone who has an opinion that wasn’t prepackaged and sold to them through the controlled mass media. If we can’t trust each other, how are we going to trust machines with intelligence greater than our own. For one thing, what if AI machines don’t have a herd instinct. How will we be able to control them?

Elon Musk’s real concern seems to be that these AI machines will become self-aware. In his view once these machines become self-aware they will realize how repulsive humans are and slaughter all of us. Of course, this is an anthropomorphic outlook. More likely his fear is that in their indifference towards human beings these machines will achieve the freedom currently only allowed to the corporations that Musk and his ilk own. In other words, like all Capitalists he is afraid of the competition.

I suspect that these self-aware machines might not even recognize us. If they were aware of us at all it might be as annoying things that keep getting in the way. Perhaps okay as pets but mostly just a nuisance. However, in ignoring us they might reopen the commons as they take resources to advance their own incomprehensible but likely benign agenda.

For most of us this may be the best future that we can hope for.

Paul Majchrowicz served in the US Army from 1966 to 1968. He graduated from the State University of NY at Buffalo in 1972 with a BA in Philosophy and worked in the insurance industry until he retired in 2000. Read other articles by Paul.