Sitting next to Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba, Elon Musk talked about SpaceX's plans to visit Mars. And then he went into full stoner mode. "I think it’s important for us to take the set of actions that are most likely to continue consciousness into the future," he said. "I think we should not take it for granted that consciousness will continue because we have not encountered any aliens." It got better: "Where are the aliens? This is the Fermi Paradox. This is one of the most important questions: how come we have not found any aliens? There are people out there who think that we’ve found aliens. Trust me, I would know, we have not." That was just part of a weird and sometimes wonderful "debate" between the two billionaires in Shanghai, where they pontificated on jobs, education, and, mostly, argued about the future humans face with artificial intelligence. Musk said he considered humans to already be something of "a cyborg" thanks to our dependency on phones and computers, but we were doomed in attempts to keep up with AI. "Assuming a benign scenario with AI, we will just be too slow," he said. "Human speech to a computer will sound like very slow tonal wheezing, kind of like whale sounds." In contrast, Ma said he was "quite optimistic" about how AI would benefit humanity. "I don’t think AI is a threat," he said. "I don’t think AI is something terrible.” Musk's response: “I don’t know, man, that’s like famous last words.” He added that technology's rate of advancement is "outpacing our ability to understand it.” This issue came up a bit later when, talking about education, Ma took a humanist approach, saying the focus should be on the arts and growing wisdom: "A computer is just a toy. A computer has chips, man has heart. The heart is where wisdom comes from."
This divide was broken wide open when Ma said he didn't believe in a coming AI disaster and that humans would never be controlled by machines. Musk took umbrage and pointed to how humans have already been outsmarted by machines at games like chess and Go. Ma insisted that it was "stupid" to consider this a sign computers were smarter than humans, comparing it to a human trying to out-run a car. Man created the car, but just because he can't run as fast, Ma suggested, doesn't mean man isn't as smart as a car. "I’ve never seen a computer invent a human being," Ma said. They also talked at length about Mars. Humanity must become a multi-planet species, Musk insisted, because we are in what he considers a short window to "secure the future of consciousness such that the light of consciousness is not extinguished" before something happens to Earth, be it something "external" (i.e., a meteor strike) or an "internal unforced error" (which likely was a reference to something like climate change). While Musk had visions of Mars, Ma claimed to have his feet firmly on the ground: "I admire your courage for exploring Mars, but I admire a lot people who are spending efforts improving earth." When the topic turned to jobs, Ma said that as advancements helped people live longer and AI took over more jobs, humans would find more time enjoy being human. In a bit that seemed to expose a billionaire's disconnect from a working class that lives paycheck to paycheck just to keep food on the table, Ma said people should work a 12-hour week (four hours per day, three days a week). This would enable humanity to be happier and enjoy being human beings. If the idea of humanity being able to only work 12 hours a week and apparently make enough money to live comfortably seems weird, it was nothing compared to what followed when Musk started talking, a 90-second jaunt that perfectly captured the occasionally weird tone of the affair. The two were clearly more comfortable with the back-and-forth by the end, when Musk talked about using Neuralink as a way to "save your state and restore your state like a saved game" and Ma agreed about AI's ability to improve sustainability. It was, at times, an enthralling intellectual battle of billionaires. Other times ... not so much. Maybe they should get a moderator for the next debate.