When a Picture May Depict Both a Rabbit And a Duck... And Is That What Ma and Musk’s Differing Visions of AI Mean For You?
In this newsletter a German magazine publishes a duck-rabbit illusion picture in 1892. And Jack Ma and Elon Musk debate AI on 29th August in Shanghai.
The magazine Fliegende Blätter (Flying Leaves) first published the duck/rabbit picture shown in our header in 1892. The illusion was later used by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as an example of two ways of seeing the same thing. Much later American psychologist Joseph Jastrow used it in 1899 to illustrate his study on perception.
Much much later (in 2015) the gold and white vs. blue and black dress perception battle went viral...
Turns out, we humans can perceive the same reality differently. And we’re passionate about our differing positions. Who could have guessed?
We now know that the culprit is our brain, which uses its own interpretation of things to affect perception and even psychology (e.g. a Conservative’s brain is more active in certain areas than a Liberal’s). And occasionally it uses short-cuts (e.g. in the case of reading the blue vs. gold dress) to affect perception.
Now, what if Jack Ma and Elon Musk’s respective beliefs in what AI means to humanity were both correct? What would that mean for us?
Jack Ma and Elon Musk spar on AI in Shanghai
Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, had a 45-minute discussion on AI and human life at the recent World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. It was a highly entertaining debate. The two agreed very little on most questions, which ranged from the effect of AI on jobs, whether AI would eventually become smarter than humans and what type of education might best suit future professions. The debate more than met its goals of showcasing a spectrum of perspectives, and it also left me wondering whether future reality might not include both mens’ vision of the future. Here’s what I mean.
1. The effect of AI on jobs: Ma isn’t concerned about the effect of AI on jobs. He summarized his views as, “Don't worry about it, we will have jobs." He predicted AI would help create new kinds of jobs, which would require less of our time and be centred on creative tasks. In contrast, Musk was consistent in his previous concerns that mass unemployment was a real possibility. He said, "AI will make jobs kind of pointless.” And further, "Probably the last job that will remain will be writing AI, and then eventually, the AI will just write its own software."
What if both are correct? It’s been predicted that 40-50% of all the new jobs in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. We currently have jobs like Data Scientists, Uber Drivers, Information Security Ethical Hackers that didn’t exist a decade ago.
What does this mean to those of us trying to prepare for future careers? Don’t base your education plans on what jobs exist today. Start with what you know and love, and then plan on becoming a lifelong learner.
2. Will AI would eventually become smarter than humans: Musk’s point of view is that we underestimate the capabilities of AI. We assume it’s like a smart human. He believes it’s much more than that. In fact, in his view humans are just a step in the bigger journey to digital super-intelligence. Humans are a biological boot loader ... sort of like the minimal bit of code necessary for a computer to start. They are needed to get silicon circuits going because you couldn't evolve silicon circuits.
Ma is much more positive. He believes that pretty much all predictions about the future end up being wrong. He says, “I don't think AI is a threat or something terrible. Human beings are smart enough to learn that.”
I do think that while AI will become cognitively and perhaps even emotionally superior over time, it doesn’t mean that humans become less powerful. AI is ultimately a tool. Although industrial machines became faster and superior to humans in all respects, they continue to be a complementary tool to humans.
So, what does this mean for you? Embrace the tool. History isn’t kind to individuals that pretend they can manage without new tools.
3. What type of education best suits future professions: According to Ma, our current education system is designed to teach us how to memorize and process things, which is a system that worked for the industrial era. Computers will do those better, which is why we need to focus on teaching kids the arts. Musk disagrees. He believes that humans will create a higher intelligence, and therefore no particular stream of education is better than the others in the long term.
Again, what if the truth ends up being somewhere in between? After all, fields of education evolve with time. Alchemy isn’t a subject taught in schools today. What has stayed consistent is that real innovation and progress often comes from cross-functional disciplines (e.g. mixing biology and digital technology). Also, during turbulent times, the combination of deep expertise in a topic and creativity serves people well. So, stay flexible in functional areas and don’t forget to exercise those creative muscles.
It’s impossible to know where AI will lead humanity, but history always provides good indications for the future. There have always been tool inventors and tool users. For the former, history tells us that it’s important to set up guidelines and principles to govern the best use of technology - whether nuclear power or automobile safety. We need the Musks and the Mas to keep that debate going. Having said that, most of us fall in the latter category of tool users where change acceptance and curiosity is always helpful. So as the “most interesting man” would say in the beer ads, “Stay thirsty my friend!”
Go forth and transform.