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Elon Musk and Jack Ma don’t see eye to eye on AI

Krystal Hu

Outspoken tech billionaires and entrepreneurs Jack Ma and Elon Musk may share some similarities. But their views on artificial intelligence (AI) and their interest in space exploration don’t seem to be one of them.

When the duo spoke on stage for the annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai on Thursday, Ma, chairman and cofounder of Alibaba (BABA), and Musk, CEO of Tesla (TSLA), avoided issues like trade and U.S.-China relations but focused on AI, just one of a series of topics presented by the organizer. It was clear that Ma doesn’t seem to share Musk’s passion for Mars and is not that concerned about AI one day outsmarting people.

“When people talk about AI and say human beings will be controlled by machines — I never think that. It’s impossible,” said Ma. “My view is that a computer may be clever. A human being is much smarter. Clever is very academic is knowledge-driven. Smarter is experience-driven.”

Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd Executive Chairman Jack Ma attend the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China, August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song

“Definitely not,” Musk immediately reacted. “Computers are much smarter than humans on so many dimensions.” Musk has warned about the potential dangers of AI, even though his diverse investments, from Tesla to Neuralink, rely heavily on nascent technology.

“The first thing you should assume is that we are very dumb, and that we can definitely make things smarter than ourselves,” said Musk.

Ma’s reason for believing in human intelligence is simple — humans invented computers and AI. “Computer is only one of the collaborative tools that humans created. And computers are clever, but there will be more tools that human beings will create much cleverer than computers,” said Ma. ”We invented the computer —I've never seen the computer invent a human being.”

Heavy reliance on AI

Tesla and Alibaba have heavily invested in AI. Tesla has been developing self-driving technology for its vehicles’ “Autopilot” function. And Musk has been visiting China more frequently at the company’s new factory in Shanghai, which is set to begin producing Model 3s by the end of this year.

Alibaba has been using AI and machine learning to optimize personal recommendations on its e-commerce sites and supply chain, as well as build smart speakers. In 2017, Alibaba also announced a $15 billion investment in the DAMO Academy (“discovery, adventure, momentum, and outlook”), a research arm dedicated to fundamental technologies including AI.

“I never worry about the things that I cannot solve. I allow other people to solve it,” Ma said.

Alibaba cofounder ‘not interested in Mars’

Ma, who is set to retire from his business empire early next month to focus on education and philanthropy, hasn’t shown much interest in outer space like other tech billionaires, including Musk, who is founder and CEO of SpaceX, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“I'm not interested in Mars. I just came back from there though. I'm more interested in the earth, the things, what's going to happen here,” Ma joked. “I admire your courage for exploring Mars, but I admire a lot of people spending efforts on improving the earth.”

Krystal Hu covers technology and China for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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