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I’ve argued before that “artificial intelligence” has become so overused that the term is almost meaningless. Like “algorithm” before it, technologists, businesspeople, and journalists wield the idea like a magic wand that turns ordinary computer software and devices into world-saving (or world-ending) marvels. And given AI’s long history of wonder and dread in science fiction, people are primed to expect it to usher in utopia or dystopia.
When a term has a wealth of possible meanings, it is easy to ascribe one’s favorite meaning to it. “Disruption” is like this, as is “fake news.” The term “climate change” is now used by the right and left alike for opposite purposes. The Republican talking-points pollster Frank Luntz advocated for it over “global warming” to the G.W. Bush administration, because it sounded less severe. Change can be good, the reasoning goes.
Artificial intelligence has left the orbit of computer science, and even science fiction, and become an abstract talking point. When people make use of it, especially powerful actors like Musk and Zuckerberg, it serves a perlocutionary function: as personal branding.
When it comes to personal brands, Musk’s is easier to characterize. He’s long been compared to Tony Stark, the fictional industrialist and alter ego of Iron Man in Marvel comics. After Musk sold his first company, an online publishing service called Zip2, to AltaVista for $307 million in 1999, he co-founded X.com, which was eventually renamed PayPal and sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Musk’s PayPal partner Peter Thiel turned to venture investing with the spoils, but Musk decided to make space rockets instead and SpaceX was born. His subsequent ventures, including electric/autonomous car maker Tesla, solar-cell manufacturer SolarCity, the Hyperloop tube-transit concept, and the new, associated tunneling-equipment firm The Boring Company—all of these ventures represent infrastructural invention of the Tony Stark variety.
As the statistician Mark Palko recently noted, Musk has a material interest in maintaining the Tony Stark alter-ego persona. When Musk waxes futuristic on self-driving cars, underground transit, brain-embedded computers, or Mars colonies, he reinforces the current and future value of his various ventures.
Portraying AI as an existential threat to humanity is consistent with this interest. If intelligent machines might strip humanity of its unmatched leverage over the natural and artificial environment, then industrial solutions must be pursued in order to stop them. Even if the threat of a robot apocalypse is unlikely, Musk has reason to advocate for aggressive contingency plans.
It’s difficult to match Zuckerberg’s business persona to a specific comic-book hero (Peter Parker? Reed Richards?). But unlike Musk, Zuck’s business and personal interests reside at the level of ideas rather than materials. Facebook is his singular venture, an enormously successful company that deals entirely in digitized text, images, video, and sound. These are representations—ideas and concepts—rather than concrete goods.