The vast majority of people underestimate the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and its possible effects on the future of humanity, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at a government-led conference in Shanghai on Thursday.

Why it matters: The Tesla and SpaceX CEO was debating Alibaba founder Jack Ma on the merits of AI during the opening ceremony of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC).

  • Musk has long warned of the dangers of AI and the possibility of an intelligence explosion, in which computers quickly develop intellect that far exceeds human capability.
  • Governments around the world are betting on the future of the technology in industries ranging from personal finance to public security.

“There’s just a smaller and smaller corner of intellectual pursuits that humans are better than computers and every year it gets smaller. Soon we will be far surpassed in every single way.”

—Elon Musk at WAIC

Details: While Musk took his usual pessimistic approach to issues of AI, Ma spun a more optimistic thread, saying he’s not worried about the evolution of the technology.

  • Ma said that he has confidence in artificial intelligence because it could help humans to understand themselves better. What solutions to issues brought about by artificial intelligence we don’t have today, we will have tomorrow, he said.
  • The Alibaba founder said that the rise of AI would lead to a 12-hour work week, where people focus on jobs that they enjoy. Ma earlier this year voiced his support for 996 culture—working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—saying that the hours are a “blessing.”
  • Musk advised that individuals should focus on engineering or physics, adding that the last job will be that of an AI software engineer.
  • He likened the coming relationship between people and AI to that of chimpanzees and humans, where people would be incapable of comprehending the actions of an intelligence smarter than themselves.
  • Both founders agreed that education is imperative, with Ma saying that the current education system is stuck in the industrial era.

Context: The future of human-machine interaction has garnered much attention over the past few years. Concerns over algorithmic bias, unemployment, and the future economic system have come to the fore, with experts calling for these issues to be dealt with before its too late.

  • Beijing recently released a set of principles to guide the development of AI. The guidelines detailed ways to approach the research and development, implementation, and governance of AI.
  • China currently lags behind the US in terms of its AI capabilities. The country currently lacks talent and hardware prowess to propel it into the top spot. However, China sets itself apart in AI deployment and its wealth of data.

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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