I decided that I felt some need to speak up about a recent Elon Musk interview I saw on YouTube. You probably know the one I mean since it’s been making the rounds for a few days in the media over an incident where Mr. Musk took a puff of weed on camera. This is the interview between Mr. Musk and Joe Rogan.
I won’t focus on the weed. I will instead focus on some overall impressions of the interview and on something that Musk said in the context of AI.
I admit that I watch Joe Rogan’s podcast now and then. I don’t agree with some of his outlooks regarding drug use (had it been me on camera instead of Musk, I would have politely turned down the pot) but I do feel that Rogan is often a fairly discerning thinker; he advocates pretty strongly for rational inquiry when you would expect him to just be another mook. That said, I usually only watch clips rather than entire podcasts. God help me, media content would fill my life more than it already does if I devoted the 2.5 hours necessary to consume it.
Firstly, I must say that I really wasn’t that pleased with how Joe Rogan treated Elon Musk. He might well have just reached across the table and given the poor man a hand job with how much glad handling he started with. He very significantly played up Musk’s singularity, likening him –not unfavorably– to Nikolai Tesla. Later, he said flat out that “it’s as if Musk is an alien,” he’s so singular. Rogan jumped into talking about a dream where there were “a million” Nikolai Tesla’s, or some such, and speculated how unbelievable the world would be if there were a million Elon Musks, how much innovation would be achieved. In response to that, I think he’s over-blowing what is possible with innovation and not thinking that clearly about how Elon Musk got into the position he’s in.
I do not diminish Elon Musk as an innovator, to start with. The likelihood of my hitting it the way he has is not good, so I can’t say that he isn’t as singular as one might make him out to be. He is in a rarefied air of earning potential with the money he has to throw around; just a handful of people in the same room. A part of what made Elon Musk was an innovation that is shared across a few people, namely the money made from creating Paypal, for which Musk can’t take exclusive credit. Where Musk is now depends quite strongly on this foundation: the time which bootstrapped him into the stratosphere he current occupies was the big tech boom of the Dotcom era, where the internet was quite rapidly expanding, where many people were trying many new ideas and where the entire industry was in a phase of exponential growth. Big ideas were potentially very low hanging fruit, which are not possible to retread now. For instance, it would take a lot to get somewhere with a Paypal competitor today since you would have to justify your infrastructure as preferable somehow to Paypal, which has now had twenty years to entrench and fortify. It’s unlikely social networks will ever produce another Mark Zuckerberg without there being some unoccupied space to fill, which is more difficult to find with everyone trying to create yet another network. Musk is not that different; he landed on the field at a time when the getting was very good. Perhaps someone will hit it with an AI built in a garage and make a trillion dollars, but my feeling is that such an AI will emerge from a foundation that is already deep and hard to compete with, such as Google, which is itself an example of an entity that came into being when the soil was very ripe and would be difficult to retread, or compete with, twenty years later. It is this environment that grew Elon Musk.
Elon Musk won his freedom in an innovation that he cannot take exclusive credit for. Having gained a huge amount of money, he’s no longer beholden by the same checks that hold most everyone else in place. I think that were it not for this preexisting wallet, Musk would not be in the position to make the innovations he’s getting credit for today. This isn’t a bad thing, but you must hold it in context. The environment of the Dotcom era produced one Elon Musk and a bunch of others, like Pichai and Brin and Bezos, because there were a million people competing for those goals… and the ones that hit at the right time and worked hardest won out. This is why there can’t be a million Elon Musks; there aren’t really a million independent innovations worth that much money which won’t just cannibalize each other in the market place. Musk slipped through, as did Bezos, who is wielding as much if not more power for a similar reason (Steve Jobs was another of this scope, but he’s no longer on the field and Apple is simply coasting on what Jobs did.) There are not many checks holding Elon Musk back at this point because he has the spending power to more or less do whatever he feels like. This power counts for a lot. I would suggest that there are plenty of people existent right now who are capable of roughly the same thing as Musk did, who haven’t hit a hole that lifts them quite so far.
As in the video, one can certainly focus on the idea mill that Elon Musk has in his head, but a distinguishing feature of Musk is not just ideas; he is definable by an incredible work ethic. Would you pull 100 hour work weeks? Somebody who is holding down more than 2 forty hour a week jobs is probably earning at least twice as much as you can earn for forty hours a week! I would point out that Elon Musk has five kids and I’ve got to wonder if he even knows their names. My little angel is at least forty hours of my week that I am totally happy to give, but it means I’ve only got like forty hours otherwise to work;-)
Is he an alien? No. He’s a smart guy who worked his ass literally off at great, huge, personal expense and managed to hit a lucky spot that facilitated his freedom. Maybe he would have made it just as well if misplaced in time say forward or backward ten years, but my feeling is that the space currently occupied by his innovations would likely be occupied by someone else of similar qualities to Musk. The environment would have produced someone by simple selection. The idea mill in his head is also of dubious provenance given that Sci Fi novelists have been writing about things he’s trying to achieve since at least forty years prior to when Musk arrived on the scene: propulsive rocket landings were written about by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and executed first by NASA in the 1960s to land on the moon… SpaceX is doing something amazing with it now, but it isn’t an original idea in and of itself. Musk’s hard work is amazing hard work to actualize the concept, even though the concept isn’t new. Others should probably get some credit for the inspiration.
Joe Rogan glad-handling Elon Musk for his singularity overlooks all of this. I do not envy Musk his position and I can’t really imagine what he must’ve been thinking being on the receiving end of that.
I feel that Musk has put himself in an unfortunate position of being a popularizer. He’s become a go-to guru culturally for what futurism should be. This has the unfortunate side effect of working two directions: Musk is in a position where he can say a lot and have people listen, at the expense of the fact that people are paying attention to him when he would probably rather they not be. Oh dear God, Elon Musk just took a puff of that marijuana! The media is grilling him for that moment. How many people are smoking it up, nailing themselves in an exposed vein with a needle and otherwise sitting on a street corner somewhere, masturbating in public right this very second that the media is not focused on?
For Musk, in particular, I think the pressure of his position is starting to chafe. He may not even be able to see it in himself. Musk has so much power that he’s subject to Trumpian exclusivism; actual reality has been veiled to him behind a mask of yes-men, personal assistants and synchophants to such a degree that Musk is beginning to buy (or has already completely bought) the glad-handling. Elon Musk can fire anyone who doesn’t completely fit within the mold he envisions that this employee should. There is a power differential that insulates him most of the time and he’s gotten used to wielding it. For instance, Elon Musk relates a story while talking about the dangers of AI to Joe Rogan where he says that “nobody listened to him.” Who was he talking to? “Nobody” is Barack Obama. “Nobody” is senators and Capital Hill. As he said it, you can pretty clearly see that Elon Musk expected that these people should have listened to him! Not to say that someone like Obama should have ignored him about the existential threat posed by AI, but that Elon Musk felt that he personally should have been the standard bearer. Think about that. The mindset there is really rather amazing. The egotism is enormous. Egotism can certainly take you a long way by installing confidence, but it has a nasty manner of insulating a person from his or her own shortcomings. As a man who works 100 hour work weeks, one has to wonder if Musk is anyone but the CEO. Can he deal with reality not bending to his will when he says “You’re fired”? Musk decided to play superhero with the Thai soccer team cave crisis when he built the personal-sized submarine to try to help out. Is it any wonder that he didn’t respond too well being told that the concept wouldn’t have worked? I have no doubt he was being magnanimous and I feel bad that he certainly feels slighted for offering the help but being rebuffed. I don’t know that he was actually seeking the spotlight in the news so much as that he felt obligated to be the superhero that glad-handlers are conditioning him to believe that he is. Elon Musk has gotten used to the notion that when he breathes, the wind is felt on the other side of the world and he draws sustenance from people telling him on Twitter that they feel the air moving somewhere over there.
Beware the dangers of social media. It will intrinsically surface the extreme responses because it is designed to do exactly that. If you can’t handle the haters, stay clear of the lovers. Some fraction of the peanut gallery that you will never meet will always have something to say that you won’t like hearing…
(Yes, I am aware of the irony of being a member of the anonymous internet peanut gallery heckling the stage. Who will listen? Who knows; I’m comfortable with my voice being small. If Barack Obama reads what I’m saying, maybe he’ll read it to completion. If so, thanks!)
All that said, I think that Elon Musk is in a very difficult position psychologically. He spends nights sleeping on the floor of his office at Tesla (supposedly) working very very hard at managing people and projects, expecting that the things he says to do and is busy implementing go exactly as he says they should. For a 100 hour work week, this is tremendous isolation. He’s at the top locked in a box where his outlet, social media, always tells him that he is the man sitting on the top of the mountain, and then heckling him when he takes a second out to… do X, help rescue some children, take a puff on a joint, look away from the job at hand. Would you break? I’m happy I spend forty hours a week with my little angel. I’m happy my wife tells me when I’m full of shit. I couldn’t handle Elon Musk’s position. Can you imagine the fear of having the whole world looking over your shoulder, just waiting for one of your ideas to completely implode? Social isolation is profoundly dangerous in all its forms.
In answer to Joe Rogan, Elon Musk is not an alien and he isn’t singular. Maybe you don’t believe me, but I actually say this as a kindness to Elon Musk, in some hope that he finds a way around his isolation. He should find a better outlet than what he currently uses, or the pressure is going to break him. There are other people in this world whose minds are absolutely always exploding, who lay awake at night and struggle to keep it under control. I have no doubt that this takes different shapes for different people who feel it, but I definitely understand it as a guy who lies awake at night struggling to turn off the music, turn off the equations, turn off the visions. Some people do see things that lie just beyond where everyone else does and you don’t hear from them. They may work much smaller jobs and may not have a big presence on social media, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have clear vision. Poor old Joe Rogan, toking up on his joint, turns off the parts of himself that might work that way… he more or less admits that he can’t face himself and smokes the pot to shed the things he doesn’t like! Mr. Rogan went cold turkey on pot for a month and related a story during that time about having vivid dreams. What is your chance at vision? Is it like mine? Do you shuffle it under the rug?
Anyway, that’s a part of my response to how the interview was carried out. I want also to respond a little bit to some of the content that was said. For reference, here’s the relevant clip that has them talking about AI.
There is a section of that clip that has Elon Musk talking about some of the rationale for the startup Neuralink. He speaks about what he calls the “human bandwidth problem.” The idea here, as he relates it, is that one of the reasons humans can’t complete with AI is because we don’t acquire the breadth of information that a computer based AI can as quickly. In this, a picture is worth more than a thousand words because a picture can deliver more information to the human brain in a much shorter space of time than other possible means by which a human can import information. The point of Neuralink then is to increase human bandwidth. An example that Musk gives is that smartphones imbue their users with superhuman abilities and information access; the ability to navigate traffic or find hotels or restaurants without previously knowing of these things. He asserts that possession of a smartphone already makes people cyborgs. He then reasons that by making a link that circumvents the five senses and places remote information access and control straight into the human mind, humans gain some parity on AI, since AI will be able to gain access to information without having the delay associated with seeing or hearing an input.
I think Elon Musk is being somewhat naive about this. Bandwidth is not the only problem we face here in light of what AI might potentially be capable of. Yes, AI in a computer has a tremendous advantage in being able to parse information with speed; this is fundamentally what computers are good for, taking huge amounts of information and quickly executing a simple, repetitious and very fast methodology in order to sort the depths. A smart computer program starts with the advantage of being faster than people. Elon Musk sort of asserts in what he says that humans can become better than we are by breaking the plane and putting essentially a smartphone interface straight into our heads, that speeding up our ability to get hold of the information would put us at an advantage.
I don’t really agree with him.
Having access to a smartphone has revealed a number of serious problems with the capacity for humans to deal with greater bandwidth. Texting and driving together has become a way for people to die since the advent of cellphones. Filter silos occur because people simply don’t have enough time to absorb (and I mean “absorb” in the sense of “to Grok” rather than in the sense of Read or Watch, and the subtlety means the universe in this case) the amount of information that the internet places at our disposal. Musk has voiced the assessment that if only we could get past our meagre rate of information uptake that we might somehow be at a better advantage. Having access to all the information in the world has not stopped fake news from becoming a problem; it has made people confident that they can get answers quickly without installing in them an awareness that maybe they don’t understand the answer they got. Getting to answers ever more quickly won’t change this problem.
Humans are saddled with a fundamental set of limits in our ability to process the information that we uptake. Getting to information faster does not guarantee that anyone makes better decisions with that information once they have it. Would people spend all day stuck in social media, doing nothing of use but literally contemplating their own navel lint in the next big time waster app-game, if they could get to that app more quickly? I don’t think they would. Getting to garbage information faster does not assure anything but reaching the outcomes of bad decisions more quickly.
AI has the fundamental potential to simply circumvent this entire cognitive problem by getting rid of everything that is human from the outset. In fact, the weight of what we currently judge as “valuable AI” is a machine that fundamentally makes good decisions based on the data it acquires in a computer’s time frame. By definition, the AI we’re trying to construct doesn’t make bad decisions that a human would otherwise make and would self-optimize to make better decisions than it initially started out making.
What Elon Musk is essentially suggesting with Neuralink is that a computer could be made to regulate the bandwidth of what is going into someone’s skull without there being a tangible intermediary, but that says nothing about the agent that is necessary on the outside to pick and choose what information is sent down the pipe into someone’s head by the hypothetical link. Even if you replaced the soft matter in someone’s head with a monolithic computer chip that does exactly the same thing as a wet brain, you are saddled with the fact that the brain you duplicated is only sometimes making good decisions. The AI we might create, from inception, is going to be built to make more good decisions than the equivalent human brain. Why include a brain at all?
This reveals part of the problem with Neuralink. The requirement that we make better decisions than we do suggests that by placing links into our brains from the outside, we need to include some artificial agent that ultimately has to judge for us whether our brain will make the best decision based upon whatever information the agent might pipe to that brain –time is money and following a wrong path is wasted time. This is required in order for us to remain competitive. That is fundamentally a super intelligence that circumvents our ability to decide what is in our own best interest since people are verifiably not always capable of deciding that: would people be ODing on pain meds so frequently if they made better decisions? Moreover, our brain doesn’t even necessarily need to know what decisions the super intelligence governing our rate of information uptake is making on our behalf. The company that employs the stripped down super-intelligence is more efficient than the one which might make bad decisions based upon the brain that super-intelligence is plugged into. The logical extent of this reasoning is that the computer-person interface is reduced to a person’s brain more or less just being kept occupied and happy while an overarching machine makes all the decisions.
I don’t really like what I see there. It’s a very happy pleasurable little prison which more or less just ultimately says that we’re done. If this kind of super intelligence is created, very likely, we won’t be in a position to stop it, even if we plug our brains into it and pretend we’re catching a ride on the rocket.
I don’t believe that Elon Musk hasn’t thought of it this way. If we are just a boot drive for something better at our niche than us, I don’t see that as different from how things have been throughout the advent of life. If humans as we are go extinct, maybe the world our successor inhabits will be a green, clean heaven. Surely, it will make better decisions than us.
I do understand why Musk is making the effort with Neuralink. Maybe something can be done to place us in a position where, if we create this thing, we will be able to benefit at some level. I suppose that would be the next form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation…
As I am wont to do, I’ve been thinking about this post a bit for several days since I posted it. I feel now that I have a relevant extension.
When I responded to what Elon Musk had said about neuralink, I interpreted his implication is such a way that would definitely not place a living brain on the same page as AI. It seemed to me, and still seems on looking back, that there is a distinct architectural division between the entity of the brain and the link being placed into it.
I think there is perhaps one way to blur the line a bit more. The internal machine link must be flexible and broadly parallel enough at interacting with the brain in such a way that the external component can become interleaved at the level of a neural network. It cannot be a separate neural network; there can be no apparent division for it to work. In such, the training of the brain itself would have to be in parallel to an external neural network in such a way that the network map smoothly spans between the two. In this case, “thinking together,” would have no duality. What it means is that you could probably only do it at this level with an infant whose brain is still rapidly growing and who doesn’t actually have a cohesive enough neural network to really have a full self.
I’m not sure this hybrid has a big advantage over a pure machine. The one possibility that could be open here is that the external part of the amalgamated neural network is open-ended; even though there is finite flexibility in the adult flesh-and-blood brain, awareness would have to be decentralized across the whole network, where the machine part continues to be flexible later in that person’s life. In this way, awareness could smoothly transition to additions into the machine neural network later.
Problem here is that I don’t know of any technology currently available that could build this sort of physical network. The interlinking of neurons in the brain are so casually parallel and flexible that they do not resemble the means by which neural networks are achieved in computers. I don’t believe it can happen by monolithic silicon; there would need to be something new. Given maturity of the technology, could such a thing be expanded to adults? I don’t know.
Science fiction is all well and good, but I think we’re probably not there yet. Maybe at the end of the century of biology using a combination of genetically tamed bacteria and organic semiconductors.