PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Tesla CEO Elon Musk elicited a bit of wonder when he described a world 20 years from now where electric autonomous cars are the norm and owning a fuel-powered self-driving car is like owning a horse.
But his on-stage interview with Gov. Brian Sandoval at the National Governors Association meeting on Friday took a foreboding turn when Sandoval asked whether people should fear robots taking their jobs. What Musk worries about more is robots taking their lives.
“Until people see robots going down the street and killing people, they don’t know how to react. It seems really ethereal,” he said. “I think we should be really concerned about AI [artificial intelligence] … AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”
Musk appeared at the governors’ semiannual meeting in Providence, RI at the invitation of Sandoval, who was voted in as chairman of the association on Friday. Sandoval’s focus for the year will be “Ahead of the Curve” — an initiative encouraging state leaders to become “innovation governors” and lead on renewable energy and transportation issues.
To cement the theme, former chair and Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe passed the gavel to Sandoval via drone delivery. Sandoval, in turn, introduced his colleagues to Musk, a co-founder of PayPal and SpaceX in addition to Tesla, who he called the “personification of technological innovation.”
Musk’s company received a $1.3 billion incentive package in 2014 to build a battery-producing gigafactory in Northern Nevada. Nevada’s economic development office has been focused on diversifying the state’s economy beyond gambling and tourism and into fields such as aerospace, advanced manufacturing and energy.
Tesla also owns SolarCity, a rooftop solar company founded by Musk’s cousin, that’s also been active in debate over energy policy in Nevada.
The first products out of the gigafactory were batteries for homes that help store energy from rooftop solar panels for use at night, although the factory is also meant to supply batteries for Tesla’s new Model 3 car.
Musk said production just began last week and Tesla plans to be rolling 5,000 Model 3 cars off assembly lines each week by the end of the year. But asked by one of the governors whether he feels the weight of the world’s high expectations, he conceded that Tesla’s stock price is higher than it deserves to be and said he doesn’t like to disappoint people.
“I really wouldn’t recommend anyone start a car company. It’s not a recipe for happiness and freedom,” he said ruefully.
Musk, who made a case earlier in his talk for cleaning up regulations and ensuring they don’t choke out innovation, pushed later for policymakers to take a more proactive approach toward governing artificial intelligence. Robots are already able to beat humans at video games, he said, and can learn to walk in matter of hours.
Companies are already feeling the pressure to advance AI technology to keep up with their competitors.
“That’s where regulators come in and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s pause and make sure this is safe,’” he said, drawing parallels to the need for the Federal Aviation Administration. “We need regulators to do that for all teams in the game.”
While some AI companies might “squawk” and threaten to move out of the country, Musk seemed unconvinced that they’d actually pulled the trigger in light of reasonable regulations. He pointed to Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer that remains based in the U.S.
Asked by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey how governors should respond to the potential threat of rogue robots, Musk advised that the first order of business is to get a bearing on what’s happening in the artificial intelligence field.
“Once there is awareness, you will be extremely scared. As you should be,” he said.
Musk fielded a range of other questions from the governors, including how he feels about NASA (he said he once used the password “ILoveNASA”) and whether he’d considered putting solar panels on the roof of Tesla vehicles (he’d considered it, but there’s not enough surface area and the cars are often indoors). In response to an audience question, he also explained his rationale for dropping off of the Trump Administration’s business advisory council.
Musk, who co-founded PayPal and space exploration company SpaceX, had defended his decision to sit on the council because it gave him a seat at the table. It was a controversial decision that drew angry billboards and full-page denunciation ads in the New York Times, and Musk finally dropped off when the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord.
“In every meeting I was trying to make arguments in favor of sustainability and other issues, like we need to make sure our immigration not unkind or unreasonable. I did my best,” he said. “But … if I stayed on the councils, I would be saying (the accord) wasn’t important. But it’s super important.”