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Elon Musk still thinks a Mars colony will save us from a future dark age

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Elon Musk’s surprise SXSW talk this morning was a heavy and grave affair, full of discussion around all the ways humanity may be doomed in the future: from carbon in the atmosphere, World War III, and above all, runaway artificial intelligence. We have, many times, listened to Musk warn the public about these threats. That’s why the SpaceX and Tesla CEO thinks there is such a strong need to colonize Mars and maybe the Moon — as a safety net for humanity.

But here at SXSW — a tech, culture, and marketing extravaganza where people are ostensibly excited about the future — Musk’s words provided a stark deviation from the overhyped prognostications about how tech will change the world for the better. In some ways, it also feels like Musk is only ratcheting up his rhetoric on these subjects.

“There’s likely to be another dark ages… particularly if there’s a third world war,” Musk stressed, arguing that a Mars colony would stay away from the battle on Earth and carry the torch of human culture forward. He believes that the best way to ensure these dark ages are “shortened” is by having humans on other planets come back and rebuild.

Musk’s ventures, electric car maker Tesla and rocket transport outfit SpaceX, are designed specifically to help stave off these dangers, and in a worst case scenario, provide humanity the tools to escape them. Yet Musk took his time in Austin to give the audience another wake-up call regarding a threat no amount of climate change measures or anti-war rhetoric can help. “Mark my words,” Musk told the crowd, “AI is far more dangerous than nukes. So why do we have no regulatory oversight?”

In some ways, Musk was revisiting his favorite talking points. Musk’s comments about AI here echo ones he’s made before as far back as 2014. He’s also reminded the public many times before that there is a very real possibility that a nuclear war could devastate the planet and that colonizing the Solar System is the only certain way to mitigate against such an extinction events.

Musk repeated comments he made last summer about government regulation of AI as well, warning today at SXSW that AI researchers are not to be as worried about the threat of machines as they should be. “The biggest issue i see with so called AI experts is they think they know more than they do. They think they’re smarter than they are,” he said. “This plagues smart people… they don’t like the idea that a machine could be smarter than them, so they discount the idea,” Musk told the crowd.

Of course, you can view Musk’s cynical comments as fear mongering that is just as shallow as your standard SXSW fluff, just on the other end of the spectrum. And Musk is known —especially in the AI research community — as someone who likes to make headlines more than get his hands dirty studying the math, philosophy, and ethics necessary to make sense of software as smart or smarter than human beings. (Musk recently stepped down from the board of AI safety nonprofit OpenAI due to avoid a conflict of interest given Tesla’s work on autonomous driving systems.)

But Musk has time and again showed that he has a firm grip on a fair number of complex subjects, from rocket science to car manufacturing to, apparently, neuroscience. “I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me,” Musk told the crowd. He reminded the audience in Austin that his new brain-computer interface company, Neuralink, is designed to help humans keep pace with AI by merging with software, a science fiction concept that feels far, if not impossibly so, from reality at the moment. “Neuralink is trying to help if that regard by creating a high bandwidth interface between AI and the human brain,” Musk added.

But it wasn’t entirely doom and gloom. Musk tossed in a few of his infamous, hard-to-gauge predictions and deadlines, saying he expects self-driving cars to be as much as 200 percent safer than a human driver by the end of next year and that in the same time frame, SpaceX would begin testing the rocket the company hopes will one day begin ferrying people to Mars. But Musk mostly seemed to be afflicted by a kind of pessimistic malaise, with his comments more negative than usual and the audience getting none of his signature blend of ironic weirdness and inspirational earnest that we’ve seen him amp up on Twitter of late.

That said, Musk was in Austin with his brother Kimball Musk seemingly to help promote Westworld and to show off a promotional video of the Falcon Heavy launch cut together by Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan. And also probably to drink and eat tacos and just generally goof off. To that end, Musk and and his brother, who showed up for the end of the talk, switched gears. The duo donned the show’s signature white and black cowboy hats — Musk wore the black one — for a song and dance routine that seemed equally cringeworthy and out of place. It was, as some attendees put it, quite the ride.

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