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A month after leading calls to halt research on AI chatbots, it appears Elon Musk may be preparing to launch a product in the category himself. But while the divisive chief executive of Tesla has plenty of experience with AI from previous endeavours, the recent detonation of Twitter under his watch (which is not a good learnable explosion, like the destruction of his most recent SpaceX rocket is) makes it hard to predict what a new chatbot-focused company under his guidance might do.
Though he left in 2018, Musk was an initial board member of OpenAI – the company which has revived the hype around AI-powered chatbots with its GPT-4 technology, which powers its own ChatGPT and Microsoft’s new Bing.
Elon Musk says his version of AI will be less likely to annihilate mankind.Credit: AP
Musk has been dismissive of the product and highly critical of OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft. Through an open letter from the Future of Life Institute, of which he is an advisor, Musk last month called for a pause in AI chatbot development until sufficient safety regulations could be developed.
However, as The Wall Street Journal reported (also last month), Musk also made a filing in Nevada to create a new company called X.AI Corp. And speaking to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson this week, he outlined plans for a less problematic chatbot that would be more beneficial to human beings.
He even gave his hypothetical chatbot product a name — TruthGPT — which invites a direct comparison with ChatGPT while, intentionally or not, bringing to mind Donald Trump’s conservative Twitter alternative Truth Social.
Some level of AI technology is of course already implemented at both SpaceX and Tesla — and especially at Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink, which he also co-founded.
So if this was 2019, we might have viewed Musk’s interest in building an AI company from scratch as a logical move from an extremely successful, if eccentric, serial entrepreneur. But in 2023, Musk’s reputation has undergone a radical transformation. Musk the mercurial genius has given way to Musk the hubristic billionaire, who bought and broke Twitter out of spite, and who is utterly convinced of his own infallibility despite his aquisition of the social media platform being widely considered a failure.
Now that we can look back at what Musk said he planned to do with Twitter, and what actually happened, we should view his supposed ambitions for AI with a hefty dose of scepticism. Since acquiring Twitter, he has increasingly shown himself to be inconsistent in his messaging on features, petty and thin-skinned in his dealings with the press, advertisers and the public, and above all obsessed with using his influence to combat what he sees as progressive extremism taking over tech and the media.
One thing that has happened exactly as Musk stated is that Twitter, which he dubbed the public square of the internet, has become less moderated; with reductions in safety staff, reduced ability to report issues, an increase in hate speech and most recently the explicit removal of protections for transgender users from its conduct policy.
Twitter has also sabotaged its verification system so it merely promotes the tweets of those paying monthly for a Twitter Blue subscription, rather than indicating a user’s identity or authority. New badges have also been invented to label news sources, which in some cases appear designed to discredit them, such as the “government-funded media” badge painted on the accounts of the non-government ABC News and NPR among others. The New York Times, often singled out by Musk, lost its verification marks entirely, opening it up to impersonation.
Speaking on Fox News, Musk said his TruthGPT would be a “maximum truth-seeking AI that tries to understand the nature of the universe,” and that he was a big fan of regulating the development of AI to stop it from ruining society. But given his concerns about Twitter pre-aquisition, could his idea of a truth-seeking AI merely be one that’s more politically conservative? One that aligns more closely with his idea of truth?
When OpenAI launched ChatGPT, Musk praised its performance and complained that the news media was not covering it because it was “not a far-left cause”. However, he has since pivoted to claiming the technology is being trained to be politically correct, is silencing conservative views and will become a tool of progressive censors. Making a chatbot politically correct is “simply another way of saying untruthful things,” Musk told Fox. He has also previously accused OpenAI of teaching its chatbots to lie.
Developers of chatbots such as ChatGPT — and vendors that use the technology for services like Microsoft’s Bing — do need to put in a lot of work to correct biases and problematic behaviour that results from the training data. These range from gender and racial biases, such as assuming “a doctor” will be male and white, to repeating or applying hate speech given the correct prompt. It’s possible that when he’s talking about the dangers of politically correct AI, Musk is referring to these efforts that keep chatbots from reflecting the worst aspects of internet (and human) discourse on which it’s trained.
But accounting for biases is not the same as lying. And a chatbot which believes everything in its training data, without being taught to account for biases, would not represent a “truth-seeking” agent, any more than a wholly unmoderated and anonymous public chatroom represents an equitable free speech platform.
Musk has said that unchecked AI development would lead to the singularity, a hypothetical scenario where accelerated machine intelligence makes humans insignificant. But he’s also said Neuralink will provide a solution to this scenario, with chips people can have implanted in their brains, so we can gain our own superintelligence.
He has made casual reference to Roko’s Basilisk — a thought experiment which became a meme, predicated on the fact that a malevolent machine god could create simulation universes in which people who stood in the way of AI development were tortured for eternity — but speaking to Fox News, he claimed that his own vision for a machine that thinks would be “unlikely to annihilate humans”.
Musk may be sincere in his concerns that continued development of conversational AI is dangerous for humankind. Or, given his previous actions and statements, he may just naturally think he is the one best placed to decide its appropriate direction.
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