Elon Musk And Stephen Hawking Are Wrong About Artificial Intelligence

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Answers by Ramez Naam, author of the Nexus novels, climate & energy wonk, on Quora.

A: Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and others have stated that they think AI is an existential risk.

I disagree. I don't see a risk to humanity of a "Terminator" scenario or anything of the sort.

Part of the confusion, I think, comes from how we use the term "AI" in reality and in fiction. In fiction, especially movies, "AI" means a self-aware, super-intelligent entity, with its own goals, a very broad sort of intelligence (similar to humans), and the ability to change its goals over time.

This is nothing like the sort of AI being developed. The real use of "AI" in industry is generally for very narrow pattern-matchers - a better search algorithm, an object-detection algorithm, etc..

These things are tools which we can use, for good or evil. But they're nothing like self-aware beings. Nor is there any plausible chance that they will suddenly and spontaneously become self-aware. Software just doesn't work that way. Our own brains didn't work that way. We became self-aware over an evolutionary process of hundreds of millions of years, because there was a continuous evolutionary pressure to understand the environment around us better, to be more flexible in our ability to learn and act, and to be able to predict the behavior of predators, prey, and other humans. It took millions of generations and billions of individuals living and dying for this to happen.

While it's possible for that sort of evolutionary process to occur in software, we're simply not doing that today, nor are we likely to.

Indeed, for the most part, AIs that are self-aware and have their own opinions would seem to be less valuable for companies to develop. Do you want a self-driving car that does what you want? Or do you want one that has an opinion about what neighborhoods you should go to, or that pouts if you haven't washed it enough?

And if a company started developing the latter, how long would it be until they'd be pressured to have ethics committees, or to give rights to those cars, or so on?

In the end, I expect we'll have AI that is better than we are at nearly every narrow task, but which are still our tools, not our masters. That shouldn't be surprising. Our cars, our phones, our airplanes, our calculators, and so on all radically improve on our abilities. But they're all just tools for us.

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A: There are two main directions we want to go in energy storage:

1. Higher density storage, meaning batteries that can store more energy in the same weight or volume. Those would be useful for anything that moves, from your phone and tablet to electric vehicles.

2. Lower cost storage, meaning a whole variety of technologies that can store energy for less money, allowing us to use solar and wind on the grid at all hours, not just when they're shining.

Higher Density Storage

In the short to medium term, we're improving the amount of energy that lithium-ion batteries can store by slightly tweaking the chemistry, and through the use of different electrode materials. That's why we've seen lithium ion batteries nearly triple in the amount of energy they can store in the same weight over the last 25 years. This sort of work will continue and will be most of what actually makes it to consumers over the next few years.

More radical technologies include metal-air batteries. You may hear of zinc-air or lithium-air batteries, for instance. These technologies, especially lithium-air, could store as much as 10x as much energy in the same weight and volume as current batteries. That would enable electric vehicles that are lighter than today's and can still have ranges of hundreds of miles. Metal-air batteries work in the lab, but they're not reliable or stable enough to deploy to customers. When we get there is anyone's guess.

Lower Cost Storage for the Grid

For grid-scale storage, the number of battery technologies in development is much larger. For grid storage, weight and size don't matter. You can have a giant battery, since you don't need to move it. What really matters is cost over the battery's lifetime. People are using lithium-ion batteries for some grid-scale storage now, but lithium-ion batteries don't last for very many cycles, especially if you discharge them all the way. 1,000 full cycles is a great result for lithium-ion.

So people are working on new technologies. Those range from flow batteries (of which there are many many types), which may be able to run for 5,000-10,000 cycles, to technologies like using compressed air for energy storage, where again 10,000 cycles or more is possible. Two companies I've invested in include Energy Storage Systems (an all-iron flow battery) and LightSail energy (advanced compressed air energy storage).

The next 2-3 years are going to be very big for grid-scale energy storage, as many of the companies trying new technologies will be deploying them to customers in 2016 and 2017. It's going to be a very interesting time.

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A: People choose the cheapest energy. So the key for solar, wind, nuclear, and other sorts of carbon-free energy is to drive them to a lower and lower price.

Fortunately, that's happening. In the last 5 years, the price of solar power has dropped by a factor of 4. And we've had the first cases of solar power beating coal and natural gas in energy bids, without any subsidies at all.

What we need now are:

- To continue the enormous price decline of solar, and wind.

- To bring down the price of energy storage (which has fallen by about a factor of 10 in the last 20 years) so that solar and wind can provide energy 24/7/365.

- To make sure our policies take the external cost of fossil fuels (the cost of damage to our health and our planet from air pollution and climate change) and charge that cost back to coal and natural gas.

We'll get there. It's only a question of when, and whether that will be fast enough.

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