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Elon Musk, the inventor and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, told "Axios on HBO" that humans must merge with machines to overcome the “existential threat” of artificial intelligence. 

The big picture: Musk said artificial intelligence is "just digital intelligence. And as the algorithms and the hardware improve, that digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a substantial margin. It's obvious." And he said we're way behind: "We're like children in a playground. ... We're not paying attention. We worry more about ... what name somebody called someone else ... than whether AI will destroy humanity. That's insane."

  • Musk's bottom line: "My faith in humanity has been a little shaken this year. But I’m still pro-humanity."

Why it matters: Musk warned humans could go the way of monkeys, dismissed to small pockets of the Earth. That could happen, he said, if we don’t respond more urgently to the dire and increasingly real threat of machines holding exponentially more knowledge than mankind. 

  • "When a species of primate, homo sapiens, became much smarter than other primates, it pushed all the other ones into a very small habitat," Musk continued.
  • "So there are very few mountain gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees — monkeys in general."
  • "They occupy small corners of the world — cages. ... Zoos. Even the jungles that they're in are narrowly defined so they were sort of like big cages ... So, you know, that's one possible outcome for us."

Musk said his neuroscience company, Neuralink, has about 85 of "the highest per capita intelligence" group of engineers he has ever assembled — with the mission of building a hard drive for your brain. 

  • "The long-term aspiration with Neuralink would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence."
  • Wait. What? "To achieve a sort of democratization of intelligence, such that it is not monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and large corporations."
  • Musk said he'll do that with an "electrode-to-neuron interface at a micro level" — "a chip and a bunch of tiny wires" that will be "implanted in your skull."
  • "I believe this can be done. ... It's probably on the order of a decade."
  • "And by the way, you kind of have this already in a weird way: You have a digital tertiary layer in the form of your phone, your computers, your watch. You basically have these computing devices that form a tertiary layer on your cognition already."

Musk said an immediate application could be spinal cord injuries:

  • "We already know how to do this: Implant electrodes into the motor cortex of the brain, then bypass the severed section of the spine and have effectively local micro controllers near the muscle groups. It could restore full limb functionality."
  • "As people get older, they lose their memory — incredibly sad to have a mother forget her children, and that can be solved too."

And Musk said people don't appreciate the damage off-the-shelf AI presents today:

  • "You could make a swarm of assassin drones for very little money. By just taking the face ID chip that's used in cellphones, and having a small explosive charge and a standard drone, and just have it do a grid sweep of the building until they find the person they're looking for, ram into them and explode. You could do that right now. ... No new technology is needed."

But perhaps an even bigger threat, he said, is "incredibly effective propaganda ... influence the direction of society. Influence elections."

  • AI can hone a message by watching online feedback and reacting to news, then making the message "slightly better within milliseconds."
  • Musk said Washington is losing the war to control AI: "The way in which regulation is put in place is slow and linear. And we are facing an exponential threat. If you, if you have a linear response to an exponential threat, it's quite likely the exponential threat will win. That, in a nutshell, is the issue."

After a string of mind-stretchers, Musk added: "Maybe we're in a simulation.”

  • "Are you joking?" we asked. "You're joking, right?"
  • Musk replied: "I'm not joking."
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Go deeper

8 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.