Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the buzzword in high tech these days and for good reason. Decades of dreams, hard work, and breakthroughs have made concepts once reserved for science fiction a reality. These advances are good for people and for business. But is AI going too far? Do we need to worry about a super-advanced technology that can get out of control?

Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, the tech wiz and entrepreneur, and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma, the richest man in China, recently debated these points at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference held in Shanghai. In brief, Ma is betting humans will prevail over machines, while Musk is warning that AI will bring doomsday.

Following is a brief excerpt from their debate.

Musk: People underestimate the capability of AI. They think it’s like a smart human. But it’s going to be much smarter than the smartest human.

Ma: I never said human beings will be controlled by machines; it’s impossible... Human beings can never create another thing that is smarter than them.

Musk: I very much disagree with that. The biggest mistake I see people making is to assume they’re smart.

Ma: My view is that computers might be more clever, but human beings are much smarter...

Musk: ...I don’t know, man, that’s like famous last words...

Already Here?

While some dismiss the threat from AI, others point to the growing number of “impossible” capabilities it already has achieved; they say the threat is very real and is already here. If you’re skeptical about this, just read the following:

*Earlier this year, Google demonstrated an AI system called Duplex that could have a natural conversation over the phone. Duplex successfully called a hair salon and scheduled an appointment for a specific time. The AI system’s dialogue included the use of “ummms” and “uhhhs” to give it a more realistic tone. The lady at the hair salon who answered the phone and made the appointment had no idea she was talking to a computer.

*In Delhi, India, police focused an AI system with facial recognition on a database of missing children. Then they took pictures of over 40,000 children in orphanages all over the country. The AI system was able to identify 2,930 of those children in just four days.

*MIT developed an AI system that could literally “see” people even in the dark and even when they were behind walls.

Back To School

According to an IBM survey, 120 million workers around the world will have to be retrained over the next three years because of the increasing number of robots on the job and their increasing capabilities.

Bloomberg reports that “Until recently, robots were used mostly for assembly line type work, but now, with newer technology, they can handle more delicate jobs.” In fact, some robots can “see, learn, and grip” a variety of things. The head of one food company said this technology is advancing so quickly that “in two or three years, robots will be able to do anything.”

While not everyone looks forward to the prospect of having to learn new skills, there’s good news here, too. A consulting firm reported that for every job lost to automation, several others are created in new industries.

Danger Ahead?

Researchers at Facebook who were working on a confidential AI project yielded very different results than they expected. Two of the computers involved were found to be “speaking” to each other in code, which the researchers couldn’t decipher. Facebook immediately canceled the project.

In Russia, a robot with very advanced AI software somehow escaped from a secure military site. Security immediately went into action, found the robot, and brought it back to the base. However, it wasn’t there for long because soon afterward it figured out a way to escape again.

Other AI developments are more worrisome. Several years ago a robot told its creator that it wanted “to put him in a people zoo.” In 2017, a robot on an assembly line in Michigan went “rogue,” bypassed safety regulations, and crushed the skull of a co-worker. Similar horrific incidents have taken place in Germany and other countries.

The concern that some robots are very strong and potentially could kill accidentally is not new. More worrisome is the question some people are starting to ask now: “Can robots intentionally murder?” Will all those so absorbed with the problem of gun violence please take note…


Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.