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Policy & Politics Elon Musk at South By Southwest

Published on March 12th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley

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People Celebrating Musk Mars Mission News Are Missing The Point

March 12th, 2018 by  


The internet is ablaze right now with stories about Elon Musk’s surprise visit to SXSW over the weekend. People are goggle eyed about the news that Musk and SpaceX expect to begin short flights next year that use a version of the spacecraft that will transport the first colonizers to Mars in the next decade. “Giddy with joy” would be the best way to describe the reaction to the news.

Elon Musk at South By Southwest

Credit: SXSW

Unfortunately, those leading the cheers for Elon Musk are not paying attention to the message Musk is delivering. Why is it so important to establish a Martian colony? Why the urgency? Simply stated, Musk’s words come down to this: Humanity is well on its way to destroying civilization and the Earth and it’s too late to do anything about it. The best we can hope for is that a few fortunate souls will be able to use Mars as a lifeboat for 10,000 years or so until life on Earth becomes possible again.

Think about that for a moment and then look around at all the people dancing in the streets after Musk made his remarks this past weekend. What are all those people so joyous about? One of the greatest thinkers of our times has just pronounced a death sentence for our planet and people are celebrating? Jesus, no wonder Trump is in the White House. So what did Elon say, exactly? Simply this:

Elon Speaks

“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from Earth that [in the event of a war] it’s more likely to survive than a moon base. If there’s a third world war, we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages.”

Building a colony on Mars will not be for the faint hearted, he suggested. Far from being an “escape hatch for rich people, it will require “tremendous entrepreneurial resources. It will be like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers: ‘Difficult, dangerous, a good chance you’ll die, excitement for those who survive.’ That kind of thing.” Those of you not familiar with the harrowing journey to the South Pole by Ernest Shackleton and his team. It is a story of determination, grit, courage, and an outright refusal to give up in the face of overwhelming odds. In other words, not a mission for snowflakes.

The Trigger Effect

And what is the casus belli that Musk thinks will end life on Earth for a while? You might think it is a titanic struggle between the forces of evil led by Xi Jinping and the forces of good, led by Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers. After all, China is building islands in the South China Sea and fortifying them with terrifying weapons. Surely a clash between China and the US Navy is inevitable, isn’t it? Or maybe Trump will invade eastern Europe to give his buddy Vladimir Putin a reason to swoop in and reestablish the Iron Curtain.

Climate change will cause hundreds of millions to migrate from their homes in search of food and water (a process that has already begun). As more and more countries turn their backs on immigrants and refugees, clashes between various tribes of human beings — based on language, skin color, or what cloth they use to cover their heads — are inevitable.

But Musk isn’t worried about any of the normal reasons why one group of humans slaughters another group of humans. His greatest fear is a virulent form of artificial intelligence. “I’m close to AI and it scares the hell out of me,” Musk told the audience. “It’s capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the improvement is exponential.”

To illustrate his point, Elon offered Google’s AlphaGo artificial intelligence program, which has been designed to take on the Chinese warfare simulation game Go that has been around for at least 2,000 years. In 2016, AlphaGo defeated world champion Lee Sodol 4 out of 5 times in a competition live streamed on YouTube. “Those experts who think AI is not progressing — look at things like Go,” Musk said. “Their batting average is quite weak.” Already, Tesla’s Autopilot system is two to three times better at reducing traffic accidents than it was just a few years ago, he added.

The threat from artificial intelligence is so real that there must be public oversight of the technology, Musk claimed. “The danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads — by a lot,” Musk said. “Mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes.”

That may be true, Elon. Let’s assume, arguendo, you are correct. What proof do  you have that public oversight works? The United Nations? The Federal Reserve? Glass-Steagle? The drug wars? I challenge you to cite one example of a time when regulations and public oversight staved off the forces of greed, corruption, and vanity, or blunted the unquenchable human thirst for power.

So let’s spend a moment thinking about that colony on Mars that you intend to create. Who will provide public oversight of it? Will people be allowed to procreate without limitation there as they do here on Earth? Will money be used and if so, how will it be apportioned among the members of the colony? Will there be competition between different colonies and who will be the referees?

Will corporations have greater rights than citizens? Will elections be utilized and how will they be monitored to keep them fair and honest? Will there be a “ruler for like” like Xi Jinping (an idea Donald Trump likes a lot). Will only people with the last name Musk be allowed to govern? Will you become the Robert Mugabe of Mars? Will the anthem for the Mars colony be Elton John’s Rocket Man — “Burning out a fuse up here alone?”

Those are just a few of the questions I have, though I doubt I will get any answers from the great man himself. The burden of Musk’s words over the weekend has left me feeling enervated and depressed. The future isn’t bright, it is a gray, murky, scary place. Looking at the totality of human experience and knowing the tendency people have to make poor decisions on a never ending quest for money and power, it is hard to feel optimistic.

We are doomed, our children are doomed, our planet is doomed, and all we can talk about is ratcheting up the competition among nations, incarcerating more people who don’t look like us, and organizing enormous military parades to satisfy the feelings of sexual impotency that afflict the leader of the United States.

The headline of Deadline Hollywood today reads, “Elon Musk’s Views Of Artificial Intelligence Make Stanley Kubrick Look Like An Optimist.” Exactly.


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His muse is Charles Kuralt -- "I see the road ahead is turning. I wonder what's around the bend?" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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