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Musk vs. Zuck: Tech titans do battle over AI

Tesla's CEO slams Facebook's CEO for downplaying AI fears. Elon Musk's been lobbying for controls on the supersmart technology.

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Mark Zuckerberg's got a cheerful outlook on AI.  Elon Musk, not so much.

James Martin/CNET

A war of words is brewing between two of tech's most powerful executives. At issue: whether artificial intelligence is a danger to the future of mankind.

On one side is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose teams have been teaching AI to do everything from learning to paint to fighting terrorism to identifying photos in a news feed and describing them to blind people. On the other side is Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who is so alarmed by the dangers of this nascent technology that he helped fund OpenAI, a billion-dollar research project to make sure AI doesn't run amok. He has also been lobbying the government to look into regulating AI now, rather than later.

The kerfuffle started Sunday, when Zuckerberg livestreamed a Q&A from his backyard grill. At one point, someone asked for his thoughts on AI. "I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios, I just, I don't understand it," he said. "It's really negative, and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible."

This isn't a surprise opinion. A large swath of the tech industry has jumped headfirst into AI, dreaming up all sorts of uses for this technology. And it's already made its way into your life. Virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa, for example, rely on artificial intelligence to help manage people's schedules, respond to text messages and tell people when to start their commute to work.

Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have also begun using AI to help pick the best photos for automatically generated family photo albums. Even Musk's own Tesla and SpaceX use AI to power self-driving cars and bring rockets back to Earth.

But AI is about more than just isolated skills. The whole idea behind it is that machines should be able to learn, adapt and take initiative, just like humans, rather than follow rote instructions. A key moment in the advance of truly smart machines came last year when Google's AlphaGo software beat a human champion at the ancient game of Go, long thought to be inscrutable for machines.

In many instances, the machines are aping the mechanisms of the human brain, through an approach called deep learning and the mechanism of neural network technology. Neural networks figure out their own rules after being trained on vast quantities of real-world data like photos, videos, handwriting or speech.

Zuckerberg's comments were a clear shot at Musk, who in the past has warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence in no uncertain terms ("the biggest risk we face as a civilization"). Early Tuesday, Musk reacted to an article about the dig in the Silicon Valley Business Journal by tweeting that Zuckerberg's "understanding of the subject is limited."

This isn't the first time tech executives have battled over ideas in public view. (Apple famously lampooned Microsoft for years.) But it's one of the first public disagreements about this issue. 

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Originally published July 25 at 6:52 a.m. PT.
Updated at 10:45 a.m. PT: Added further details and background information.

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