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Musk says interplanetary colonisation vital

Read time 3min 50sec
Elon Musk
Elon Musk

South African-born serial entrepreneur Elon Musk made some ominous predictions about the future of the Earth this weekend, in a surprise appearance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference this weekend.

SXSW, a conference about tech, music and marketing, happens annually in Austin, Texas. Attendants were told late on Saturday night the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, among other ventures, would answer questions the next day in an informal chat with Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan.

The hour-long appearance covered the growing threat of artificial intelligence (AI) and how getting humanity to another destination in space will be vital to continuing life on Earth.

"AI is capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential," said Musk.

He gave the example of AlphaGo, which, in a period of six to nine months, went from being unable to beat even a reasonably good player to being able to beat the best in the world.

"The rate of improvement is really dramatic... We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity. I think that is the single biggest existential crisis that we face, and the most pressing one."

He called AI a very serious danger to the public, and said while he normally errs on the side of minimising regulation, he feels in the case of AI there needs to a public body that has insight and an oversight to see that everyone is developing AI safely.

"I think the danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads. By a lot. And nobody would suggest that we should allow people to just build nuclear warheads if they want. That would be insane," said Musk.

He guessed there would likely be another 'Dark Age', particularly if there is a Third World War, and if this period comes to pass, he said: "We want to make sure that there is enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring civilisation back."

This is where his space exploration company, SpaceX, comes in.

He said the issue right now is building a vehicle that can take people to Mars, the moon and other places in the galaxy, and bring them back.

"Once that happens, there will be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity."

He giggled and said: "I think Mars should really have a great bar. The Mars Bar."

Jokes aside, Musk said: "We are building the first ship, the first Mars - or interplanetary - ship, right now. And I think we'll be able to do short up and down flights in the first half of next year."

Last month, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket - it carried a red Tesla roadster on board, which was put into orbit around the Earth with a dummy in a space suit in the driving seat, with David Bowie's 'Starman' playing on repeat.

In a lighter cameo at the same conference, Musk appeared at the end of a panel discussion by creators of Westworld - the dystopian science-fiction television series about a theme-park where humans interact with intelligent human-like robots.

He said his work with SpaceX is beyond just commercial space flight; there is a larger mission: "There are a lot of terrible things happening all over the world, all the time; there are a lot of problems that need to get solved. But life cannot be about solving one miserable problem after another - there needs to be things that inspire, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That's why we did this."

He quoted early Russian rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "Earth is the cradle of humanity and you cannot stay in the cradle forever."

Musk said: "It is time to go forth and become a star-faring civilisation, be out there among the stars and to expand the scale of human consciousness.

"I find that incredibly exciting, that makes me glad to be alive. I hope you feel the same way."

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